Colombia’s guerrilla groups no longer use Venezuela as a convenient hideout from their country’s armed forces.

Instead, they are now deeply rooted in Venezuela — socially, politically, and economically — and are truly binational guerrilla groups.  

Following five years of fieldwork and dozens of interviews across Colombia and Venezuela, InSight Crime presented its investigation, “The Colombo-Venezuelan Guerrillas: How Colombia’s War Migrated to Venezuela,” on October 3.

A panel of experts hosted by InSight Crime and moderated by Javier Mayorca, a journalist specializing in security issues in Venezuela, discussed the implications of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and dissidents of the now defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), known as the ex-FARC mafia , now operating as binational groups in both Colombia and Venezuela. 

SEE ALSO: Venezuela: A Mafia State?

Binational Groups

InSight Crime co-director Jeremy McDermott explained that Colombian guerrillas initially came to Venezuela to hide or retreat during the government of Colombia’s former president, Álvaro Uribe (2002 – 2010). 

Now, these groups have managed to replicate criminal governance models they use in Colombia in Venezuelan territory, building social, economic, and political relations, McDermott said.

Similar cases have been seen with the ex-FARC mafia groups. But while they have expanded into Venezuelan territory, they have not had the same reach as the ELN. 

“The Second Marquetalia was born in Venezuela, and Venezuela may become its grave,” McDermott said, referring to one of the largest ex-FARC mafia factions.

María Victoria Llorente, executive director of Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP), said that the rupture of bilateral relations between Colombia and Venezuela in 2018 aided the groups’ expansion into Venezuela, enabling them to operate as “customs authorities” on the border.

Llorente also pointed out that the relationship between the groups and the governments of Colombia and Venezuela have different connotations. While in Colombia they are seen as insurgent groups, in Venezuela they are considered state allies. 

Paramilitaries or Guerrillas?

InSight Crime’s investigation revealed a relationship between groups like the ELN and the Venezuelan government that, while not new, could be described as symbiotic, McDermott explained.

“In Venezuela, they are paramilitaries; in Colombia, guerrillas,” he said. 

On Venezuelan soil, the groups control criminal economies and, as military allies to the regime of President Nicolás Maduro, also oppress political opposition. They provide security services, administer justice, and hand out food.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela’s Cocaine Revolution

As Llorente pointed out, this is not necessarily problematic for the Venezuelan regime, which has shown its ability to adapt its relationship with illegal groups. The Colombian government’s proposed peace talks with binational guerrilla groups will likely bring increased international scrutiny of their dealings, which could result in a quick change in their relationship with Venezuela’s government.

“That’s what happened with the megabandas,” Llorente said, referring to the former role of some Venezuelan gangs as government allies.

Peace, but Not Total

These groups operate on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border, and they are aware of the calls for peace by Colombia’s new president, Gustavo Petro. 

For Luis Trejos, a professor at the Universidad del Norte, it is necessary to “analyze the territories in a differentiated manner,” as the groups face different forms of warfare in Colombia and Venezuela, and in the border region. 

It’s possible that the ELN will not join the talks, leading to it becoming “institutionalized” in Venezuela, depending on the agreements that may be reached with the government or the decisions of the ELN’s own factions, Trejos said.

Even though there have already been formal approaches between the groups and the government, the ELN has not always been in agreement with the peace talks. “Pablito and Antonio [García] are in Venezuela, but they see peace differently,” Trejos said.

Added to this is the volatile forms of alliance that the Venezuelan regime can make with paramilitary groups. McDermott said Maduro is capable of replacing one alliance with an illegal group with another as and when needed. This instability could mean that any negotiations for peace with binational groups could take years.

“The elements of the ex-FARC and ELN make it almost impossible to reach a Total Peace,” McDermott said. 

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