Colombia's EPL guerrillas have reportedly taken over territory across the border with Venezuela, driving out the Venezuelan military and confronting neo-paramilitary groups in an offensive that, if confirmed, represents a major escalation and unprecedented cross-border expansion for the group.
In a series of tweets, Quinto Día journalist Sebastiana Barráez reported that around 500 members of the remnants of the demobilized Maoist guerrillas the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación - EPL) had invaded sectors of the border town San Antonio del Táchira.
According to Barráez, the EPL are confronting Colombian criminalized paramilitary groups that operate in the area in a dispute for control of trafficking routes used to move everything from arms to contraband medical supplies.
Barráez blamed the EPL invasion for an "unquantifiable" number of disappearances from the area and at least 10 murders in recent weeks, adding that shootouts between the guerrillas and their rivals are now regular occurrences.
The journalist also claimed the guerrillas have even displaced the Venezuelan military and national guard from various sectors, and alleged the security forces have turned a blind eye to their advances in order to allow them to confront the neo-paramilitaries.
Barráez added that the EPL had been carrying out checks and controls, demanding to see identification and checking personal details of local residents and even of the security forces.
InSight Crime Analysis
The EPL's territorial stronghold is the border region of Catatumbo, and there have long been indications that the group runs cross-border criminal activities including drug trafficking, arms trafficking and contraband smuggling.
Reports suggest the group has recently been aggressively expanding in the region as it seeks to fill the vacuum left by the demobilizing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) guerrillas. Earlier this year, sources in Venezuela told InSight Crime this expansion has also seen the EPL establish a presence in Venezuela for the first time.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the EPL
However, if Barráez's allegations of the EPL making territorial advances, openly confronting rivals, displacing the security forces and establishing a level of social control are confirmed, then this would represent an unprecedented expansion of their activities and presence in Colombia's neighbor.
The criminalized paramilitaries they are reportedly confronting -- principally the Urabeños, although there are also indications of a revived Rastrojos cell now operating in the area -- have an established presence on the Venezuelan side of the border, offering them control of smuggling routes and a safe haven from the Colombian security forces.
Driving these groups out and claiming control of criminal economies on the border would represent a major coup for the EPL especially if, as has happened with other Colombian guerrilla groups, the Venezuelan security forces tolerate or even collaborate with the guerrillas.