Pro-government guerrillas in Venezuela have begun training civilians in armed combat, showing the symbiotic relationship between embattled President Nicolás Maduro and the irregular armed groups that rely on him to protect their criminal interests.

The news website Infobae recently published photos showing members of the Patriotic Forces for National Liberation (Fuerzas Patrióticas de Liberación Nacional — FPLN) leading civilians in military training exercises in the Venezuelan state of Apure along the border with Colombia. InSight Crime was also provided similar photos.

The training is ostensibly to prepare residents for an invasion by US forces. The images also reveal the participation of local officials, including National Constituent Assembly delegate Orlando Zambrano and Mayor Ofelia Padrón.

SEE ALSO:  Bolivarian Liberation Forces Profile

The FPLN is the most recent incarnation of the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación — FBL), a guerrilla group that gained notoriety in 1992 for attacks on allegedly corrupt politicians. The organization enjoyed state support under the presidency of Hugo Chávez, allowing it to scale back military operations and attain legitimacy through its political front, the Bolívar and Zamora Revolutionary Current (Corriente Revolucionaria Bolívar y Zamora — CRBZ).

Following division within the group, leader Jerónimo Paz renamed his faction the FPLN in an effort to distance it from the group’s criminal past. But as pressure increases on the Maduro government, the organization has reverted to using guerrilla tactics and criminal financing to defend the regime.

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The FPLN’s activities in Apure demonstrate how criminal and political interests intertwine within the armed groups rallying to Maduro’s defense.

Farmers in Apure told InSight Crime that the FPLN effectively controls the cattle business in several municipalities of the state, extorting local ranchers. The group is also involved in the smuggling of cattle and gasoline from Venezuela to Colombia.

Community leaders in Páez municipality confirmed that this criminal network transports contraband fuel across the border by river, paying tolls to the military. Until the closure of the Colombia-Venezuela border, the group also charged large sums of money to guarantee safe passage to those crossing the José Antonio Páez International Bridge.

SEE ALSO: The Armed Groups Propping up Venezuela’s Government

The FPLN’s control of these border economies is facilitated by its close cooperation with security forces and penetration of state institutions. In an interview with InSight Crime, local journalist Sebastiana Barráez affirmed that through the CRBZ, the FPLN commands the region’s communal platforms and directly controls mayors’ offices around the state.

The organization’s presence in Apure has strengthened since former Vice President Ramón Carrizales assumed the state governorship in 2011. Carrizales faces US sanctions for repressing protesters, corruption and blocking humanitarian aid to Venezuela. He also has close ties to the FPLN, according to Barráez.

The FPLN’s training of civilians provides further evidence of how the embattled Maduro government relies on irregular armed groups willing to defend an administration that protects their criminal economies.

This landscape, however, is fractured and volatile. The FPLN has long contested the Apure territory with Colombian guerrilla groups, notably the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), which has gained strength in Venezuela.

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