Controversial photos showing Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó posing with the heads of a Colombian paramilitary group, who allegedly helped Guaidó cross from Venezuela into Colombia, confirm the extreme level of control that criminal gangs have along sections of the two countries' border.
On September 12, two photos were published of Los Rastrojos leaders standing with Guaidó, who is recognized as Venezuela's interim president by a number of foreign countries.
Guaidó is shown with Albeiro Lobo Quintero, alias “El Brother,” and his lieutenant, Jhon Jairo Durán Contreras, alias “El Menor,” who led the Rastrojos crime group until they were captured in June. It is believed the photos were taken on a "trocha," or "remote trail" in the village of Guarumito, in the Venezuelan state of Táchira, along the Colombia border. These trails are used by migrants to cross the border and are also used by criminal groups to move drugs and contraband.
SEE ALSO: Los Rastrojos Profile
The images were taken in February when Guaidó traveled to Colombia to attend Venezuela Live Aid, a concert aiming to raise funds for humanitarian efforts in Venezuela. At the time, Guaidó was under a travel ban issued by President Nicolás Maduro.
The photos were recently released by Wilfredo Cañizares, president of Fundación Progresar, a non-government organization dedicated to recording activities by criminal groups in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander.
“Los Rastrojos were manning a passage for the crossing of Juan Guaidó, in which El Menor and El Brother participated," Cañizares told W Radio. The group forced families in the area to remain in their homes and stopped the movement of motorcycles during the 24 hours in which Guaidó passed through, according Cañizares.
But Guaidó and his team told a slightly different story. Carlo Vecchio, the Venezuelan opposition's envoy to the United States, told El Espectador that Guadó told him that crossing the border had been dangerous. "In no moment did he (Guaidó) tell me that he received help from these irregular groups. Therefore, I think this version does not fit the truth."
Vecchio said the opposition leader had no ties to the Rastrojos.
When asked directly, Guaidó did not deny appearing in the photos, only saying that he took many pictures during the trip and he didn't ask about subjects' "backgrounds."
InSight Crime Analysis
There is no indication to date of any formal ties between the Venezuelan opposition and Los Rastrojos, but it seems clear that Guaidó and his team needed the group's permission to safely make it across the border.
The trails connecting Guarumito, in the municipality of Ayacucho, with the Colombian border are controlled by Los Rastrojos. Therefore, any goods or people seeking to cross the border must negotiate with them.
To guarantee their control of the zone, Los Rastrojos are known to have established deals with Venezuelan army officers at four military checkpoints along the La Fría-San Félix highway, which leads to the border.
SEE ALSO: Colombia-Venezuela Border Reopens, But Hidden Trails Still Hotspots'
The area is patrolled by locals on motorbikes, who report the approach of suspicious or unknown vehicles to Los Rastrojos, InSight Crime has confirmed.
"Through WhatsApp, Los Rastrojos agree on payments with the officers at the checkpoints who allow goods and people to pass through. And they control illegal crossings on the Colombian side as well as in Venezuela," a local police official in Ayacucho told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
On the Colombian side, Puerto Santander, the nearest town, has also long been controlled by Los Rastrojos. They recently allied themselves to a faction of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) to extend their control to an almost 20 kilometer stretch of the border between Guaramito and Vigilancia.
Given this context, it would have been almost impossible for Juan Guaidó to pass through the area without the permission of Los Rastrojos and their military allies in Venezuela.