Eight months into the Gustavo Petro presidency, Colombia’s new security policy has underlined the role of Venezuela in defeating binational criminal groups that operate in both countries.
Colombia’s Defense Ministry presented its “Security, Defense and Citizen Coexistence Policy” on April 25, where, among other issues, the ministry outlined its intention to tackle security threats on its borders. It did not rule out using “bilateral or multilateral cooperation mechanisms.”
Just days before the announcement, during a visit to the United States, Petro told Colombia’s Semana magazine that the government had a military alliance with Venezuela to “take away the space” of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) inside Venezuela.
The ELN is Colombia’s most powerful binational guerrilla group, having expanded from its home in Colombia to operate with relative impunity inside Venezuela. The Colombian government is currently trying to reach a ceasefire agreement with the ELN as part of its ambitious “Total Peace” plan, in which it seeks to demobilize armed groups.
The ELN has a presence across Colombia’s border with Venezuela. In the Catatumbo region of the Norte de Santander department, the group fought ex-FARC mafia factions and now controls the movement of cocaine from Colombia to Venezuela. To the south, on the border between Colombia’s Arauca department and Apure in Venezuela, one of the group’s most powerful factions, the Eastern War Front, is headquartered. There, heavy clashes between the ELN and ex-FARC mafia factions have previously cast doubt on the Total Peace plan.
In Venezuela, InSight Crime verified that the ELN operates in at least eight of the country’s 23 states. It has its hand in multiple illicit economies and enjoys support from the Venezuelan government and armed forces led by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
However, with Petro’s announcement, the situation appears to have shifted. Venezuelan military forces, which previously provided and received support from the ELN, are now apparently allied with the Colombian government. Similarly, Maduro’s government, which has protected the group in the past, is a guarantor in peace talks between the group and the Colombian government.
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Venezuela appears to be supporting Colombia’s security policy aims by agreeing to act against the ELN. Though the move would leave the ELN in a drastically weakened position, its plausibility is being questioned.
While some believe the ELN was useful to the Venezuelan government during the administration of former Colombian President Iván Duque, who saw Maduro as an enemy, is now an unwanted visitor if Venezuela’s promises are to be believed, argued Luis Trejos, professor at Colombia’s Universidad del Norte.
“The ELN is in a very bad position. It has lost its strategic sanctuary and a source of revenue. It will have to move the entire strategic command in Venezuela to Colombian soil,” Trejos told InSight Crime.
Though the United States has imposed sanctions on several high-ranking Venezuelan government officials, including Maduro, it has recently proposed easing those sanctions. This may be behind Venezuela’s shift on the ELN, Trejos suggested.
However, not all is lost for the ELN, Trejo added. It is still the major group negotiating peace with the Petro administration. Indeed, Colombia’s new security policy came during the third round of talks between the two sides, where one item on the agenda will be a ceasefire.
And there are still doubts about whether the Venezuelan state and its armed forces are really committed to combatting the ELN.
For Karim Vera, deputy of the Venezuelan National Assembly for the Primero Justicia (Justice First) party, Venezuela’s willingness to combat the ELN is mere “talk” considering how the Venezuelan state has handed over citizen security to the group.
“The ELN works under the indifferent eyes of the security forces. They are the ones in control of the armed forces … they work in commercial collusion with the armed forces,” Vera told InSight Crime, adding that “there is no political will to liberate the population [from the ELN].”
Vera points out the Venezuelan security forces have tried to expel paramilitary groups on the Colombian-Venezuelan border for years, and were aided by the ELN. These attempts were known by numerous Venezuelan politicians like, Freddy Bernal.
However, should Maduro come through on his promise to shut down the space the ELN has enjoyed for so long in Venezuela, then the ELN faces a very different future. As Petro has stated in the past, if he cannot achieve the aims of the Total Peace plan through negotiations, then he will do militarily.
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