A recent attack by Colombian criminal group, Los Rastrojos, on a military base in Venezuela confirms that the group is gathering strength in the country and will not hold back in its confrontations with Venezuelan security forces in order to safeguard its criminal markets along the border.
On October 30, between 70 and 100 Rastrojos members stormed Venezuelan military base La Mulata, which belongs to Detachment 212 of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) and sits just 20 meters from the Colombian border, according to the official version of the event reported in La Nación.
Another report from the daily, El Colombiano, added that the attackers carried two AK-103 rifles, grenades, as well as long-range weapons. They also took the base commander, Sergeant Gerson Hernández Sanguino, as a hostage.
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Hours before the attack, the GNB had arrested two members of the Rastrojos in Venezuelan territory. And 11 days before that, the Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES) of the national police arrested another six members of the armed group. These arrests were part of an operation to combat gasoline smuggling at the border and came at the order of Freddy Bernal, the new “protector” of the state of Táchira and a key supporter of President Nicolás Maduro’s administration.
These setbacks may have served as the Rastrojos’ motivation for the attack. The criminal group released Sergeant Hernández Sanguino a day later, on October 31, and returned the two AK-103 rifles they had stolen from the GNB, according to news outlet La Opinión.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Venezuelan government implemented a series of actions in 2018, supposedly to curb the illegal activities of the armed groups operating at the border with Colombia. And who is heading up the government’s plan? Bernal – a former congressman and police officer who was added to the US Treasury Department's “Kingpin List” for alleged ties to Colombian guerrilla groups.
Gasoline smuggling may be the most lucrative illegal economy currently at the disposal of criminal groups. It also happens to be the Rastrojos’ primary business. Bernal recently announced that the FAES carried out 12 operations to curb gasoline smuggling in the past two months, arresting more than 50 suspects that include both members and leaders from the Rastrojos.
However, the Rastrojos are not resigned to losing the territory they have conquered in Venezuela. On June 23, suspected members of the gang, toting high-powered weapons, ambushed an FAES commission. They had planned the attack as revenge for the capture of one of their members, identified as alias “El Paraco.”
The criminal group has now grown to over 120 men with 60 of them armed, several sources along the border have told InSight Crime. The October 30 attack on the Venezuelan military outpost was a show of force, both in terms of the number of men mobilized to execute such a commando-type raid, as well as the caliber of the weapons used.
InSight Crime has also learned that the Rastrojos maintain a base of operations in the Venezuelan village of Boca de Grita, in Táchira state, which borders the Colombian town of Puerto Santander. And sources in the area confirmed that the GNB is allied with the criminal organization in its gasoline smuggling operations.
The focus of FAES and Bernal on this criminal group and the attack on the La Mulata military base are two new episodes in what looks to be an ongoing battle between criminal structures and the Venezuelan military around the lucrative fuel smuggling business along its border.