The Venezuelan government has placed control of a volatile border state in the hands of a controversial figure known for relationships with armed groups, in a move with strategic implications at a moment when US authorities are ramping up pressure against the Maduro administration.
On January 31, the government announced that Freddy Bernal, a key figure in the administration of President Nicolás Maduro, will assume the role of “Protector” of the opposition-controlled state of Táchira, which borders the Colombian department of Norte de Santander, reported Runrunes.
The new role will see Bernal assume responsibility for one of the most strategically sensitive zones in Venezuela, as the border is a hub of contraband smuggling and drug trafficking. The area is home to both Colombian armed groups and Venezuelan militias, and has become the epicenter of a refugee crisis as huge numbers of Venezuelans pour across the Táchira border in search of refuge from political and economic turmoil.
The arrival of Bernal will be accompanied by a transfer of responsibility for border controls to the national police, along with plans to bring in the Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales - FAES), a controversial police unit linked to violent repression and deadly use of force.
Nos encontramos inspeccionando el próximo Centro Nacional Fronterizo, donde comenzaremos a trabajar de la mano de la Policía Migratoria y las Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales en el estado Táchira#TodosQueremosDialogoYPaz pic.twitter.com/EPfFgmYEWz
— Freddy Bernal (@FreddyBernal) 31 de enero de 2018
(A tweet from Bernal reading, "We are inspecting the next National Border Center, where we will begin to work with the Immigration Police and the Special Actions Forces in Táchira state. #WeAllWantDialogueAndPeace")
Bernal is one of the most powerful actors in the Maduro government, and already serves as the minister for urban and peri-urban agriculture, national head of the Local Supply and Production Committee (Comité Local de Abastecimiento y Producción - CLAP) and commissioner of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional - SEBIN). He is also one of several government officials to appear on US Treasury Department's “Kingpin List” for allegedly supplying arms to the now demobilized guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
The choice of a controversial figure subject to US sanctions will likely exacerbate tensions with the US government at the very moment that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is finishing his first tour of Latin America as head of the US diplomatic corps where ramping up pressure on the Maduro regime was on the top of his agenda.
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On the eve of his tour, Tillerson stoked tensions by publicly discussing the possibility of military-managed regime change in Venezuela.
Labeling the Venezuelan government a “corrupt and hostile regime,” Tillerson praised international actors for taking action to increase pressure on the administration.
Responding to a question on the potential US role in regime change in Venezuela, Tillerson said the US government has not advocated for the removal of Maduro, but simply a return to the constitution. However, he then raised the issue of a military-managed regime change.
“In the history of Venezuela and in fact the history in other Latin American and South American countries, oftentimes it’s the military that handles that, that when things are so bad that the military leadership realizes they just -- they can’t serve the citizens anymore, they will manage a peaceful transition. Whether that will be the case here or not, I do not know,” he said.
InSight Crime Analysis
Although Bernal’s appointment has seen him dubbed the “alternative governor” of Táchira, his new role is likely not only about taking political power away from opposition leaders but also about social control over a volatile but strategically critical region.
Bernal is infamous for his connections to the armed actors that have used their control over criminal economies to become key players along the Táchira-Norte de Santander border.
Not only has he been an alleged go-between for the Venezuelan government and Colombian guerrillas, he is also reportedly one of the principal coordinators of relations between the government and the leftist militias known as "colectivos."
Although the FARC have now demobilized, the border region is still home to the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrillas and a largely criminalized remnant of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), both of which have recently recruited dissident FARC members into their ranks in Norte de Santander, according to InSight Crime’s investigations. The colectivos meanwhile, have spread from Caracas to Táchira, where they have allegedly colluded with state forces to violently put down anti-government protests and have engaged in criminal activities such as extortion.
Bernal’s influence with armed actors does not end with illegal groups. He is also a powerful figure within the national police, which will see its role in the border region increase significantly under the new plans.
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While the government’s exact aims in Táchira remain unknown, the deployment of Bernal for this role suggests the Maduro administration wants an operator who can mediate between or control these actors, perhaps managing their criminal activities and territorial influence, likely with the intended end of imposing social control over what has been a troublesome region.
However, there may be a further element to Bernal’s presence in the border region -- one linked to the United States and the international political situation in a way that was hinted at by Tillerson’s comments.
Tillerson’s remarks on the military and regime change came on the eve of a tour where four out of the five destinations are countries notable for being among the most vocal critics of the Venezuelan government and loudest voices calling for an end to the Maduro administration.
Furthermore, they follow on the heels of negotiations between the government that have been as marked by the acrimonious withdrawal of international partners as the tentative advances touted by the government.
While the remarks may have been little more than an off-the-cuff response to a spontaneous question, it is also possible that they were indicative of thinking that is shifting away from what Tillerson stated was the preferred US option of a “return to the constitution” and “peaceful change.”
Whether or not military intervention or backing for a coup by the US government and its regional allies is seen as a feasible option, the prospect is almost certainly something the Maduro administration takes very seriously and will use to its advantage politically, as was already evident.