HomeInvestigationsRise and Fall of a Hybrid Guerrilla Group: The Bolivarian Liberation Forces

Rise and Fall of a Hybrid Guerrilla Group: The Bolivarian Liberation Forces


In June 2022, according to local press reports, a heavily armed unit from Venezuela's General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence stormed several farms in the western state of Barinas.

To the neighbors' surprise, this was not an effort to dislodge a member of the Venezuelan political opposition or an armed group, as is customary in such operations.

In this case, the military's objective was to apprehend William Alexander Rodríguez, alias "Román Pedraza," the commander of the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación - FBL), a Venezuelan guerrilla group whose close connections with the government make it a hybrid actor -- a combination of a criminal group and an armed force in the service of the state.

*This article is part of a five-part series that describes the creation of the hybrid state in Venezuela. Read the other chapters of the investigation, the full report, and related coverage on Venezuela.

Being a hybrid entity was a significant advantage for the FBL for many years, but their high dependence on the state eventually began working against them. Once the government decided that this relationship was no longer in its interest, the FBL's governmental privileges disappeared, and its inability to survive without state patronage was exposed.

The Start of a Bolivarian Guerrilla

While many guerrilla groups in Latin America have posed security threats to governments in the region, the FBL was an atypical example.

Instead of trying to gain power by taking up arms, the guerrilla group allied with the Venezuelan state and used its government connections to propel its political-military project.

The FBL -- known locally as the boliches -- entered the Venezuelan criminal landscape in the mid-1980s as a leftist armed group composed of intellectuals and political activists fighting against corruption in the country.

With the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power in 1998 and the subsequent rise of the Bolivarian Revolution -- the name given to the Venezuelan political and ideological project better known as chavismo -- many peasant and popular organizations became extensions of the state, serving as shields for the government's plans in different territories.

Although the direct links between Chávez and the FBL were never made public, statements released by the Venezuelan guerrilla group, along with testimonies collected by InSight Crime from agricultural producers, political leaders, religious authorities, journalists, and residents of the states of Barinas and Apure, provide evidence of a relationship that went beyond mere ideological camaraderie.


From the outset, the FBL openly described itself as "the first trench that the enemy will have to cross if they attempt to destroy the dreams of most of the people of Bolívar."

In 2004, Chávez invited FBL commanders to lay down their arms and join the civilian branch of the Venezuelan army, also known as the Bolivarian militias.

However, this invitation was a front to conceal his support for an illegal armed force, according to a left-wing political activist from Apure who witnessed the territorial consolidation of the FBL and requested anonymity for his safety.

"A group of ministers determined that not everyone should surrender their weapons because someone had to keep guarding the border, namely the FBL," he told InSight Crime.

For Chávez's regime, collaborating with an illegal armed branch meant that the Venezuelan armed forces did not have to dirty their hands with extrajudicial killings. And although the FBL's calling card presented the group as a defender against external threats, its military capabilities were mostly employed internally.

In states that were strongholds for the group, like Barinas, Táchira, and Apure, the FBL used its strength to intimidate, restrain, and displace the Venezuelan political opposition. From repressing political demonstrations to threatening electoral candidates, the hybrid organization aided the government by operating illegally in the name of the state.

In exchange for playing the hybrid role of extralegal political oppressor, social regulator, and territorial protector, the Venezuelan government gave the Boliches commanders carte blanche, allowing them to operate without limitations and with total impunity.

"The FBL was trained, equipped, and government personnel even financed the FBL," said a former member of the Communist Party of Venezuela (Partido Comunista de Venezuela – PCV) who asked to withhold their name for security reasons. "That allowed them to gain strength and position pieces within various institutions to finance the project."

This opened the door for some group members to engage in illicit activities such as kidnapping, extortion, and smuggling. Although this led to internal divisions, the organization continued to operate as the guardian of the Bolivarian Revolution's leftwing ideals.

Thanks to the government's tacit approval of their armed and criminal activities, the armed branch of the FBL operated without significant opposition and gradually infiltrated the Venezuelan political system.

The Art of Armed Politics: The State's Imitation of the FBL

Over the years -- and with the election of President Nicolás Maduro in 2013 -- the FBL's relationship with the state deepened. Politics, they found, was a more powerful weapon than rifles.

Through the Bolívar and Zamora Revolutionary Current (Corriente Revolucionaria Bolívar y Zamora - CRBZ), the name for the FBL's political and civil platform, founded in 2009 -- an opportunity arose for the armed organization to camouflage its actions through the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela - PSUV).

"When they approach, you don't realize the danger because you believe they are people from your environment. You see the CRBZ initials, and you associate them with neighborhoods and not with an armed guerrilla group, only to find out that they are indeed a guerrilla cell operating under the government's shadow," a cattle rancher from Barinas, who was intimidated by CRBZ spokespersons, explained to InSight Crime.

The CRBZ used the PSUV platform to secure significant political positions in this context. Héctor Orlando Zambrano, alias "Lapo," has been a national lawmaker for Apure since 2011. José María Romero, known as "Chema," is the current mayor of the Páez municipality in the same state.

Additionally, during Ramón Carrizalez's tenure as governor of Apure between 2011 and 2021, several CRBZ members held positions within this office. Luis Tolosa, the leader of the CRBZ, held important positions during Carrizalez's term and is currently in charge of the tax and customs office on the Apure border with Colombia.

The same strategy of social control through force was applied in the political arena: Those who opposed the government's plans or denounced irregularities at the border faced the heavy-handedness of a hybrid armed actor that now had the state's legal power in their hands.

A Santa Barbara de Barinas resident who suffered threats and persecution by the CRBZ told InSight Crime that the former mayor of the Ezequiel Zamora municipality, Maigualida Santana, used her position to advance FBL interests.

"If the mayor had a political problem with you, she would call the guerrilla, and the guerrilla would come and invade your house," said the resident, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The Decline and Replacement of a Hybrid Armed Group

As the political power of some FBL members grew, their actions became more difficult to control, and wide cracks began to form between the guerrilla group and the government.

A resident of Barinas and two agricultural producers from the same region explained to InSight Crime that the relationship between the FBL and the government fractured after some gang members kidnapped Franyeli Guerrero in December 2021. Guerrero is the daughter of an ally of Diosdado Cabello, one of the most powerful men in Venezuela. In response to Guerrero's kidnapping, the government launched the operation against "Román" in Barinas in June 2022.

However, a guerrilla conflict in the state of Apure sparked the event that marked the point of no return.

SEE ALSO: The Battle for Apure: Chavismo and the ex-FARC

In this border subregion, the FBL coexisted for several decades with their Colombian counterparts, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). Although both Colombian guerrilla groups surpassed the FBL in numbers, experience, and military prowess, the Venezuelan organization's political connections made them untouchable.

However, this power balance shifted when the FARC and the Colombian government signed a peace deal in 2016. As the FARC entered the demobilization process, some members of the former 10th Front in the Colombian department of Arauca, which borders the state of Apure, declared themselves dissidents and continued secretly operating on both sides of the border.

By 2021, the 10th Front had broken agreements with the Venezuelan army and its allies, leading to a joint military campaign between the Bolivarian National Armed Forces and the ELN to expel them from Venezuelan territory.

Violence intensified, and on January 14, 2022, an armed commando from the ELN forcefully entered the Simón Bolívar rural commune, a territory of nearly 100,000 hectares located in the La Gabarra sector of the Páez municipality in Apure. According to sources in the states of Apure and Barinas who spoke with InSight Crime, the ELN occupied La Gabarra in search of the 10th Front. However, invading the commune had significant symbolic weight for the FBL.

The FBL had established a "self-government" there in 2008, composed of different community councils directly financed and sponsored by the Venezuelan government.

"More than 50 armed men have taken control of the town of La Gabarra, in the purest style of a foreign occupying army, disregarding the Bolivarian State, popular power, and causing distress and terror among the population," stated CRBZ spokespersons in a press release.

A few months later, CRBZ spokespersons published several photos showing a new invasion of the commune by around 80 men belonging to the ELN.

Unlike in the past, the government did not intervene in either case to support the FBL, indicating the state's tacit support for the ELN's actions.

Once the Venezuelan army and the ELN expelled the FARC dissidents from Venezuelan soil, they turned their attention to the Venezuelan guerrilla group FBL, whom they blamed for supporting the 10th Front.

InSight Crime spoke with two residents of the Simón Bolívar commune involved in FBL's work in the region. They detailed the support provided by the Venezuelan guerrilla group to the 10th Front during armed confrontations.

"Supposedly, [the FBL] provided support, not directly in combat, but in creating corridors … for the FARC to exit the conflict and leave through Táchira, Barinas, or wherever they had a presence," one of them recounted.

With state forces against them and the ELN harassing them, the FBL found themselves trapped.

The government also targeted the political arm of the organization. On June 18, 2022, a commission from the military counterintelligence agency captured eight CRBZ members while participating in a Bolivarian Militia political event in Guasdualito, Apure.

As a result, the CRBZ has been adapting to this new period. The platform changed its name, with leaders like Héctor Zambrano now presenting themselves as part of the VAMOS Citizens' Movement (Movimiento Ciudadano VAMOS).

As for their armed branch, different sources on the Colombia-Venezuela border, including journalists, residents, local political leaders, and victims of the FBL, are unaware of the whereabouts of the group's main commanders, like "Román" or Jerónimo Paz, who are likely in hiding after the state's crackdown.

The whereabouts of FBL combatants on the ground are also unclear. During InSight Crime's last visit to Apure in early 2023, several residents confirmed that the only remaining illegal armed force in the territory was the ELN.

However, the Maduro regime was not going to sacrifice a useful tool like the FBL without a backup plan.

The clashes with the 10th Front in Apure solidified the ELN's position as a pro-state paramilitary group with which the government could coordinate complex military and criminal operations.

As the guerrilla group has expanded across Venezuelan soil, the ELN has demonstrated discipline and military capability, showcasing its potential as a hybrid armed actor that would guarantee governance in strategic territories, populations, and illicit economies for the state.

But the ELN is a different creature from the FBL. While the FBL represented a hybrid of a state-embedded criminal actor, the ELN is a cooperative armed group whose hybrid relationship with the government is primarily conditioned by the volume of profits it generates from various criminal economies.

"The ELN will operate differently. They won't operate as these guys did," stated a border resident who experienced violence at the hands of both armed groups.

Placing trust in a group that is militarily superior and does not depend on its relationship with the Venezuelan state to survive is a sign that the government is engaging in dangerous dealings. If the government decides that its alliance with the ELN is no longer in its interests, severing ties with the group will not be as straightforward as it was with the FBL, an organization with limited territorial reach and questionable armed power.

Antagonizing a binational guerrilla group with decades of military and criminal expertise as an insurgent group in Colombia could lead to a new armed conflict that affects the entire border region and questions the capabilities of the Venezuelan armed forces.

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