Venezuela’s interior minister declared that the thousands of extra troops sent to reinforce the border with Colombia have detected no signs of armed groups, a dubious claim considering the importance of the border area to drug traffickers and guerrillas.

On May 31 Interior Minister Tareck El-Aissami told reporters, “We inspected [the Venezuelan border], there is absolutely no indication that irregular groups have a presence,” adding that military operations in the area will continue, reported El Universal.

El-Assami was speaking in reference to the recent deployment of some 3,000 soldiers to the border. The initiative was prompted by allegations by Colombian authorities that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (FARC) 59th Front had fled into Venezuela following a deadly attack which killed 12 Colombian soldiers on May 21. Venezuelan Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva replied that any rebel groups found in Venezuela would meet with the “iron fist” of the Venezuelan military.

The interior minister also announced Thursday that in the past week, 36 illegal airstrips used for drug flights were destroyed in the border state of Apure. Additionally, drug flights in Venezuela have been reduced by 50 percent since the beginning of 2012, according to El-Assami, who stated, “We are meeting our obligation of fighting and confronting these organizations like never before,” reported the AP.

InSight Crime Analysis

Venezuela has made an effort recently to clean up its image, tarnished by accusations of high-level complicity with drug traffickers and Colombian guerrilla groups. Venezuela has become one of biggest transit points for Colombian cocaine on its way to Europe and the US and there are allegations of widespread corruption in its security forces. In September the US decertified Venezuela for its failure to fulfill its international obligations in the war on drugs while the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates that 200 tons of cocaine are moved through the country each year.

The destruction of 36 airstrips in one week is a notable victory for Venezuelan authorities, given only 45 were destroyed in all of 2011. As the AP points out, however, El-Assami’s claim that drug flights in Venezuelan airspace have decreased by 50 percent this year is difficult to verify since no further details were given on how many flights were detected nor how they were prevented. What is clear is that the government is seemingly trying in earnest to counter the problem, with Congress last week approving legislation adopting a “shoot-down” policy against suspected drug flights.

However, the claim that “irregular groups” are not present along the border is unlikely. Allegations of rebel presence in Venezuela are not new: they caused a major diplomatic flap between the two countries in 2010 when then president Alvaro Uribe sent the case to the Organization of American States (OAS). Once President Juan Manuel Santos took power, relations improved, leading Colombia to declare last year that Venezuela had successfully rid its territory of the rebels. However after the latest FARC attack, Colombian officials renewed their public calls for a crackdown in Venezuela, something they had refrained from doing for some time, as El Tiempo noted.

A report released in April by Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris, the culmination of a two-year investigation, found that the FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN) still have a strong presence on both sides of the border. Furthermore, the Rastrojos drug gang have apparently increased their activity there to the point they are considered the major players in the area, even controlling the northwest Venezuelan state of Zulia with help from the Mexican Zetas cartel, according to the report. It seems somewhat surprising, therefore, that Venezuelan authorities have failed to detect any group.

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