Reheated reports that Colombia's biggest guerrilla group the FARC trained pro-Chavez militia groups in Venezuela, while not new, are a reminder of the proliferation of irregular forces in the socialist country.
A British think tank's analysis of computer disks seized from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) has reignited discussion over the revelations from the files, many of which were made public in 2008, as this timeline by InSight shows. Most headlines have focused on the rebel group’s links with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, including indications that the FARC gave training to pro-Chavez armed groups.
As Colombian media reported in 2008, the computers contained evidence that the FARC had been in contact since 2002 with various urban Chavista groups from the Caracas neighborhood Enero 23, including the Carapaica Revolutionary Movement and the Tupamaro Popular Resistance Front, as well as with rural guerrilla group the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberacion - FBL). The FARC apparently gave military training to hundreds of members of these pro-government organizations.
The FBL is one of a number of armed groups that operate in the sometimes chaotic hinterland between Venezuela and neighboring Colombia, particularly in the states of Apure, Tachira, and Zulia. Little is known about its forces, although one report from 2005 said that it had 4,000 members in one district of Apure alone. Other sources put the total membership at less than 1,000. The group is known to be led by Geronimo Paz, alias “Gabino.” A 2008 report by NGO Coalition to Stop Child Soldiers said that the FBL, along with the FARC and ELN, were in effect carrying out functions of the state in some border areas, including imposing social control on local people.
The FBL came into existence as a leftist anti-government guerrilla group in 1992, seeming independently from Chavez, who was then working to overthrow the president. The group claimed responsibility for a number of attacks against government officials. Recently declassified State Department documents from the time note the group’s emergence, and say that although the FBL was sympathetic to Chavez’s failed coup attempt, it was more interested in terrorism and political vigilantism against allegedly corrupt officials. The FBL came back into the public eye in 2002, and there are reports that it was revived with support from elements in Chavez’s government.
It’s not clear how far this is the case. Although the FBL have consistently declared their support for the president and his Bolivarian project, they deny direct links with Chavez -- a 2003 communique claiming to be from the group decried “enemies” who “attempt to link our birth to the coming to power of President Chavez.”
The socialist leader also denies direct ties, but, as analysts have pointed out, his government and military have done little to disarm the group. It may well be useful to Chavez to have another armed group on the border to stop Colombian groups like the FARC, the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional - ELN), and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC) encroaching too far into his territory.
Rather than the FBL being directly controlled by Chavez, as some have alleged, it is most likely that the president's relationship with the armed groups follows a similar erratic pattern as his dealings with the FARC. The ups and downs of this relationship are detailed in the dossier recently released by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
The report highlights how frustrated the FARC were by Chavez’s capricious handling of them. The Venezuelan leader would promise money that never arrived, and sometimes arrest rebel operatives in order to win political capital with Colombia. Likewise, in February 2009 he ordered a crackdown against the FBL and organizations from the Enero 23. Seemingly wanting to cut down on the number of unofficial militias in the country, the president declared that, “The weapons of this revolution are in the barracks of Venezuela, they can be nowhere else,” and criticized the groups, saying, “They call themselves Chavistas, but they are not.”
This is likely a response to the FBL overreaching what Chavez saw as its remit. There have been reports that the FBL is responsible for violence and extortion of civilians in the border zone, alongside the FARC and the ELN. Some locals in areas of FBL activity reportedly say that the organization is in fact the ELN’s arm in Venezuela, while some say it is a branch of the FARC.
The late Lina Ron, one of the president’s most harcore supporters, who has sometimes been too radical even for Chavez, has argued in favor of having pro-government guerrilla forces that operate outside of the state structure. She had close contacts with the FBL, and made public statements backing the group, saying that it would never oppose the Venezuelan armed forces. According to Ron, the FBL "respect the FARC," and their function is to “fight the paramilitaries,” presumably referring to Colombian armed groups.
Chavez is apparently also happy for armed groups like the FBL to exist, so long as they do not get too powerful and challenge his authority. In 2001, he developed the Bolivarian Circles (Circulos Bolivarianos), which were small-scale militia groups, accused by some of firing on anti-government protestors. They were quickly disposed of once Chavez considered that they were getting out of control.
In July 2009 the FBL released a statement declaring their dissolution. They announced that they would not be disarming, however, but would stop being an irregular military force in the border region. The statement said that the FBL would continue the Bolivarian struggle from within Chavez’s (more legal) institutions, such as the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela - PSUV), the Communal Councils, and the Bolivarian National Militia (MNB). The guerrilla group declared that their aims could better be fought for from within the bodies created by Chavez's "forces of change."
Some commentators said that this marked a split in the organization, and that while the group would cease guerrilla activity in the central parts of the country, operatives would remain active in the western states of Apure and Barinas, but no longer under the name of the FBL.
It appears that Chavez wants to have a more regular civilian militia, which will be securely under his control instead of operating independently, like the FBL and Enero 23 groups. In October 2009 he founded a civilian militia, which officials claim has 125,000 members. The force, armed with Russian Kalashnikov AK-103 rifles, has been set up as an extra branch of the armed forces that will be firmly under the president’s direct command.