A massacre on the Colombia-Venezuela border has been attributed to warring factions of the Rastrojos gang, revealing a bloody leadership dispute that threatens to further destabilize the volatile border region.
Twelve people are reported to have died in the confrontation on June 18, which took place in Boca de Grita, in the Guaramito region of Venezuela’s Táchira state.
Police in Puerto Santander, Colombia, reported hearing gunfire in the early morning from the Venezuelan side of the Grita River. Shortly after, they intercepted a raft carrying two men attempting to cross from Venezuela.
SEE ALSO: Rastrojos Profile
The men were captured and given medical attention for bullet wounds. One man was identified as Rastrojos leader Jhon Jairo Durán Contreras, alias "El Menor," who was accompanied by a bodyguard. Both were dressed in military uniforms and carried heavy weaponry.
Residents of Boca de Grita assert that the massacre resulted from a shootout between rival factions of the Rastrojos: one loyal to Wilfredo de Jesús Torres Gómez, alias "Neco," a former Rastrojos leader who was captured in March by Venezuelan security forces; and one led by alias "El Menor," who had taken control of the gang’s illegal businesses following the arrest.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Venezuelan authorities released no official death toll and claimed not to know anything about it.
Franklyn Duarte, representative of the opposition-led National Assembly, stated on Twitter: “We have a total of 12 murdered, the result of a confrontation between armed groups. There are more than 20 injured by bullets. We're concerned that the security forces do not act as the constitution and the laws demand.”
InSight Crime Analysis
Although the silence of the Venezuelan authorities makes the details of the massacre difficult to establish, it could also cover deeper complicity.
Sources told InSight Crime that the shootout was started by Neco himself, having struck a deal with authorities to secure his early release from prison. He then allegedly returned to Táchira to reclaim his territories from El Menor, backed by Venezuelan security forces.
This account would imply a divide-and-conquer strategy by the Venezuelan military, enabling them to reestablish influence over the Guaramito region and its criminal economies through a new pact with Neco’s faction of the Rastrojos.
While gang conflict in recent months has centered on the disputed drug trafficking and contraband routes in the Ureña province, the area to the north known as Guaramito has been dominated by a fragile alliance between the Rastrojos and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación -- EPL).
A key transit point for migrants and illegal goods, Guaramito is a hub for the gasoline smuggling that represents one of the border region’s most lucrative criminal economies. The Rastrojos have maintained a base of operations in Boca de Grita since at least 2018, from which they coordinate their gasoline smuggling operations in collaboration with elements of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana -- GNB).
Tensions have risen steadily over recent months, as the Rastrojos have pushed back against attempts by Venezuelan security forces to undermine the gang’s control of these smuggling routes. Such was the Rastrojos’ command of the region that an attempt by the Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES) of the national police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana – PNB) to enter nearby Orope was ambushed and repelled by gunfire from gang members.
The military’s operations against the Rastrojos have been overseen by embattled President Nicolás Maduro’s appointed “protector” of Táchira, Freddy Bernal. Following the recent massacre, Bernal announced his intention to give a press conference in Boca de Grita, stoking speculation regarding a possible alliance with Neco. Political attendance at the scenes of recent gang massacres is not common practice in Venezuela, and such a bold promise by Bernal seemed calculated to assert dominance over previously hostile territory. The press conference never happened.
Any reconfiguration of forces threatens to further destabilize this volatile area. Violence has spiraled in Táchira’s border towns since the partial demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- FARC) and the intensification of the Venezuelan crisis started to reshape criminal economies in the region.
The days following the massacre saw an unprecedented exodus of at least 1,000 Venezuelans from Boca de Grita into Puerto Santander, fearful of the consequences of this latest gang war. In a cruel irony for a country that used to be seen as refuge for Colombians escaping armed conflict, it is now Venezuelans forced to flee the violence that is wracking the border towns.