On April 23, 2021, two Venezuelan military helicopters landed near the town of La Victoria in the border state of Apure filled with soldiers dispatched to hunt dissident Colombian guerrillas. The hunters quickly became prey.

Two days later, the guerrillas of the 10th Front of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) called on a local priest to come and collect the bodies of the soldiers they had slain in their ambush. They recorded the priest and his assistants retching from the stench as they loaded corpses into a truck. The video was then published on the internet.

*This investigation exposes how Colombian rebel groups that set up shop in Venezuela have become unwelcome, and extremely dangerous, guests. Read the other chapters in this investigation here or download the full report here.

Human rights observers talked of 12 bodies recovered, but the final death toll may have been higher. Two days later the guerrillas again contacted the priest to ask him to look for yet more bodies. Another priest from a nearby town, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, told InSight Crime: “He called me to ask what to do and I told him ‘don’t get involved because you are going to get ill from this.”

There was no official report on the number of dead. The Venezuelan authorities did not even acknowledge the ambush had taken place.

“This was completely silenced, a lot more died,” said the priest.

But there was one thing they could not deny: The guerrillas had also captured eight soldiers. Two weeks after the attack, the ex-FARC first sent out a letter to the Red Cross naming the soldiers and calling on international agencies to facilitate their release. Then they began publishing proof of life videos.

“We have been captured by the FARC, we have been treated well, we have received food, medicine and at this time we are fine,” Lieutenant Colonel Jhancarlo Bemón says in the first of the messages. “I believe this situation can be resolved with dialogue.”

It would prove a turning point in the fighting between the Venezuelan military and the 10th Front, which by that point had been ongoing for three months. In the wake of the attack, reports of dissension and desertion in the ranks of the armed forces grew. And the guerrillas, after withstanding the biggest military campaign in Venezuela’s recent history, now held hostages they could use as bargaining chips.

Venezuela Tastes Guerrilla Warfare

The first military mission against the 10th Front in Apure was launched in September 2020, with the objective of capturing or killing Fabián Guevara Carrascal, alias “Ferley,” the 10th Front’s finance chief. Although the military claimed to have killed 15 guerrillas and destroyed three ex-FARC camps, four soldiers were killed and Ferley escaped.

Hostilities resumed in late January 2021, and throughout February there were sporadic clashes between the security forces and the ex-FARC, while the authorities staged raids targeting the guerrillas’ drug trafficking networks. But it wasn’t until late March that the conflict intensified.

On March 21, the military launched “Operation Bolivarian Shield 2021” with a major offensive in the municipality of Páez. According to the Ministry of Defense, the military confronted the guerrillas, capturing 32 people, destroying six camps, and killing an ex-FARC commander, while losing two soldiers in the fighting.

While it was presented as a victory by the military, residents, community leaders and journalists in Páez told InSight Crime that the operation was a failure. By the time the military arrived, the guerrillas had already slipped away. Even the arrests were not what they appeared, with human rights organizations immediately denouncing the military for arbitrarily detaining farmers and agricultural workers.

SEE ALSO: Colombia’s Guerrillas Bring Landmines to Venezuela

The 10th Front began to fight back. On the night of March 23, a guerrilla cell attacked a customs base in the town of La Victoria with explosives. In the days that followed, there were firefights, aerial bombardments by the military, and guerrilla attacks against security forces positions.

The number of security agencies deployed to the region multiplied. Residents of the town of Guasdualito, where the security forces set up their operating base for the campaign, told InSight Crime that in addition to the army, the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional – SEBIN), the police Criminal Investigations Unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC), the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), and the police Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES) all had operatives in the camp. In mid-April, the military even announced the deployment of 1,000 members of the civilian volunteer force, the Bolivarian militias, to the region.

The deployment of soldiers, police, special forces, intelligence agencies and militias gave the security forces a huge numerical advantage. With their jets, helicopters, and armored vehicles, they also enjoyed a huge advantage in firepower. Yet the 10th Front, with its estimated 300 fighters did not present conventional targets: hidden amid the civilian population and moving freely across the border.

“They thought they were going to destroy [the 10th Front quickly], but it was the opposite. When the government attacked them, it made them furious,” said a religious leader in Guasdualito, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Decades of armed struggle in Colombia had left the ex-FARC fighters skilled in asymmetrical warfare, while their years operating out of Apure meant they knew the local terrain and had close ties to the communities. This gave them the intelligence that kept them a step ahead of the security forces. 

“These people have spent years working [in Apure], and they are friends of all the local farmers,” said a rancher in Apure, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “The guerrillas know every last thing that happens here.”

It was not only the communities, though. The military stationed in the region was accustomed to cooperating with, not combatting the 10th Front. Locals even describe the two sides patrolling together.

“In trucks, on foot, they did the rounds together, because they worked together. They didn’t fight,” said the religious leader.

After it became evident the 10th Front had received advanced warnings of coming military operations, military intelligence launched an investigation into information leaks and connections between military officials and the ex-FARC, according to a report in El Nacional.  So far, two colonels have been arrested and accused of colluding with the 10th Front, while the brigadier general in charge of the military base of Guasdualito was also removed from his position under mysterious circumstances.

The Military Retreats

Although the 10th Front was embarrassing the military, they were also seeking a way out of the conflict. Publicly, they called for negotiations, while privately they began reaching out to the many political connections they had made over the years, calling on them to help broker a solution.

According to journalist and military expert Sebastiana Barráez, in early April, meetings were staged between the 10th Front, members of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV), the Venezuelan Communist Party, (Partido Comunista de Venezuela – PCV), and representatives of various other political movements that have been part of the Chavista “Bolivarian Revolution.”

A former member of the PCV, who asked not to be identified for political reasons, confirmed the meeting between the rebels and the political movements, saying his personal contacts in the PCV had been involved. The PCV were brought in due to their long-standing ties to the guerrillas, especially in Apure, he added.

“The PCV has historically maintained relations with the FARC,” he said. “There are farms in Apure that were expropriated [by the government] that are managed by members of the PCV, they look after them, administer them and they settle accounts with the FARC, with whom they have economic relations.”

But it was only after the 10th Front captured the eight soldiers that the panorama began to shift.

At first, the government remained silent, with Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López only publicly acknowledging that the soldiers had been taken on May 15, more than three weeks after the ambush. The following day, the 10th Front released another proof of life video featuring all eight hostages, who pleaded with the government to negotiate their release.

Then, on May 28, the military forces began to withdraw from the region, with soldiers and armament shipped out and control points shut down. Three days later Padrino López announced the hostages were free. The military had rescued them, he claimed, in “Operation Centennial Eagle.” But no details were provided of the operation then or since, and there were no reports of any operations or confrontations in the area.

Reports of the 10th Front celebrating in the streets of La Victoria and nearby towns as the security forces withdrew added to the humiliation for the Venezuelan military.

The Price of Defeat

Official reports recognize 12 deaths between the initial operation in September and the military withdrawal in late May, while media reports talk about at least 20 dead. However, the true death toll remains a mystery.

In some cases, not even the families of the soldiers sent to fight in Apure know if their sons are dead or alive. For some, the first time they became aware their family members had gone missing was when they did not come home with the rest of their unit after the conflict died down.

InSight Crime spoke to family members of two soldiers who disappeared in the conflict, First Sergeant Abraham Belisario and Sergeant Major Danny Vásquez, both of whom were sent to Apure from the Turiamo naval base in the state of Aragua.

“I found out what had happened by social media. No one told me anything,” said a family member of Belisario. Afterwards she went to the naval headquarters in Caracas looking for information where she was received by a general. 

“He told me to have a lot of faith. That is what everyone has said: that I need to have faith,” she said.

The family of Vásquez last heard from him on April 21, when he contacted them to tell them they were taking away their phones. Two days later he sent a message to his wife, but when his family tried to call his phone, it was switched off.

A month later and Vásquez’s commanding officer visited the family house to return his phone and other possessions. But he gave no information on Vásquez’s whereabouts.

“When I wrote [to the officer] he did not give me an answer, he simply told me he had no information,” said the family member. “I asked him if they were still looking and he told me yes, that there was lieutenant commander on the case, but that was the only thing he told me.”

The military in Apure had neither the training nor the equipment for the fight. Some of the soldiers sent to the region, including the disappeared Danny Vásquez, had no more than 15 days of special training in Caracas to prepare them for what was awaiting them in Apure.

The 10th Front had effectively exposed how the capacity of the Venezuelan military has been degraded, not only through neglect but also through the government turning it into a political tool whose primary purpose is not to defend the country but to maintain the Chavista regime, said a retired military general, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.

“The armed forces are morally depressed because they have been used, ideologized, politicized,” he said. “They have lost their objective, their reason for existing.” 

As it became ever more apparent that the military was becoming bogged down in a deadly conflict, soldiers began to desert their posts. In mid-April, El Nacional reported the military had issued 21 arrest warrants for deserters.

Following the April 23 ambush, desertion rates leaped further, according to press reports, and discontent in the ranks began to bubble over, evidenced by audio recordings of anonymous soldiers that began to circulate among the media.

“I am pissed! I don’t even know what to think,” said one.

However, it was not only the conditions and the risks that were demoralizing the rank and file military, say former military members. Tensions also mounted as it became clear that the government’s claim to be defending the country from “terrorists” was little more than a cover.

“They sent them [to Apure] with the argument that they were going to combat an enemy that was penetrating the national territory,” said the general. “But when [the soliders] realized that they were going to fight a faction of the FARC to benefit another faction of the FARC, then the conviction was always going to build that they don’t want to go and fight.”

SEE ALSO: The Criminal Ties of Maduro’s New Military Chiefs in Venezuela

For President Maduro, who is reliant on the loyalty of the military to cling to power, the conflict has left him in a precarious position, especially as soldiers begin to ask the question he cannot afford them to ask, a question one former soldier living in Apure posed: “When they see it is a fraud, that it is not clear why you are fighting, and there are people personally benefiting from this conflict, a solider is going to ask himself ‘why my life?’”

Despite the rumblings of discontent in the ranks following the military’s chastening experience on the battlefield, the government’s campaign against the 10th Front has continued.

For the moment, the tactics have changed, with the military not directly confronting the guerrillas but targeting the communities that gave the rebels an advantage in the conflict. Allegations of arbitrary detentions have continued, with local media reporting around 130 arrests of alleged FARC collaborators in July and August alone. Video footage obtained by InSight Crime also shows soldiers forcing residents from their homes saying they were used by “friends of the terrorists.”

Despite the price he has already paid, Maduro seems intent on reestablishing order and the balance of power that made the FARC-Chavista alliance so profitable to both sides for so many years. Communities in the border region, meanwhile, are bracing for another wave of Colombia’s war to hit Venezuela.

“[The 10th Front] don’t want to fight, but they say if the state gets crazy then they are going to respond. These people are ready and things could get even more ugly than last time,” one resident in La Victoria, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, told InSight Crime.

What are your thoughts?

Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.