Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has ordered the armed forces to reinforce the western border after 12 Colombian soldiers died in an attack attributed to the FARC rebels, who authorities said fled into the neighboring country.
The soldiers were ambushed while on patrol Monday morning near the city of Maicao, in the northeastern province of La Guajira, just 150 meters from the border.
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon told the press that a group of rebels from the 59th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had crossed over from Venezuela in order to carry out the attack, before retreating back over the border. He said that rebel unit had probably had its base in Venezuela for a long time. The commander of the army's 1st Division said that the rebel fighters had numbered between 60 and 80.
The authorities have attributed the attack to the FARC’s 59th Front, according to a statement from the Air Force. This front is based in the Serrania del Perija, a mountain range that runs through the east of the country near the Venezuelan border (see·InSight Crime’s map·of FARC fronts), and are known to move up and down the border on the Venezuelan side.
Chavez was quick to respond, saying on television that "Since this morning we have stepped up air patrols ... we will not permit that irregular groups, of whatever kind, use Venezuela as a site to camp or to train or to attack the forces of other countries, in this case Colombia." He·held two conversations with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, in which he said he had mobilized two brigades to search for the rebels, according to Santos.
InSight Crime Analysis
The FARC appear to be stepping up attacks along the with Venezuela border. They killed 11 soldiers in an attack in Arauca province in March, and seven police officers in Norte de Santander province on May 10. This may be a result of the rebels taking advantage of the unstable political situation in Venezuela, with Chavez apparently now governing remotely as he fights cancer.
The rebel group has long used Venezuela as a site to hide out and recuperate, and to concentrate troops in order to launch attacks over the border. The amassing of forces is increasingly risky in Colombia, where the government carries out massive air strikes on rebel camps. Some of the FARC's top commanders are thought to use Venezuela as a base, crossing over the border at will.
El Tiempo notes that the Colombian authorities have not made such strong statements about the presence of the FARC in Venezuela since the last days of Alvaro Uribe's presidency in August 2010. In April last year, Santos declared that Venezuela had cleared all FARC camps out of its territory.
The new accusations could reflect the fact that Venezuela's government has slowed its cooperation over the issue of the rebel group since Colombia extradited Walid Makled, a top drug trafficker wanted by the US as well as by Venezuela, to Caracas in May last year. Since then, no high-ranking rebel has been extradited to Colombia from its neighbor. FARC leader "Julian Conrado," for example, remains in Venezuelan custody.
A version of this article appeared on the Pan-American Post.