A move by the ELN to expand its control along the banks of the Orinoco River in Venezuela appears to be part of a broader strategy to control criminal economies in Colombia and Venezuela.
On January 1, authorities attributed an attack around the town of Barrancas del Orinoco, in northeastern Venezuela, to the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN). As locals celebrated the new year, armed men with black and red armbands appeared near the town's entrances, opened fire and threw grenades, witnesses told the Caracas Chronicles. The armed confrontation left at least eight people dead and several more injured.
According to media reports, the ELN sought to challenge a local gang known as the Barrancas Syndicate (Sindicato de Barrancas) for control over this area along the Orinoco River, critical for transporting contraband, illegal mining and drug trafficking.
On January 13, another shootout left two alleged members of the Syndicate dead in Barrancas del Orinoco.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the ELN in Venezuela
While no violence has been reported since then, the town continues to live in fear. On February 5, a report by Efecto Cocuyo revealed that many inhabitants of the town have not returned since fleeing in early January. Those who remain must shut their businesses at 4 p.m., and they report that the heavy police presence sent by the state after the shootouts has already been scaled back.
Here, InSight Crime looks at three crucial aspects of the ELN's move on Barrancas del Orinoco, the resistance it faces there and the area's importance for the group's presence across Venezuela.
1. The Importance of Barrancas del Orinoco
Barrancas del Orinoco is a prized criminal possession that has firmly been in the grasp of the Barrancas Syndicate for at least a decade.
The crown jewel is the Orinoco River. Before reaching the town, the river travels past part of the border with Colombia, as well as the Venezuelan states of Amazonas, Apure, Bolívar, Guárico and Anzoátegui. This makes it one of the most crucial routes in Venezuela for moving drugs, contraband, gasoline, illegally mined gold and migrants.
In Barrancas del Orinoco, the river begins to open up into the Orinoco Delta, towards the Atlantic Ocean. This makes it easier to navigate various waterways to Guyana, the Caribbean Sea and on to international markets.
2. The Barrancas Syndicate Doesn't Fear the ELN
Controlling five municipalities in the states of Monagas and Delta Amacuro and counting on at least 300 men, the Barrancas Syndiciate should be a pushover for the ELN. Facing off against the biggest criminal threat in both Colombia and Venezuela, the Syndicate should be outmanned and outgunned.
But it has several crucial competitive advantages. It has been present in Monagas for at least 10 years, although some residents of Barrancas del Orinoco claim the group has been around for 15 years.
According to Venezuelan media outlets, the group started as a union that brought together workers from companies and municipal institutions in the area. When one of its members was placed in charge of security in the area by the local government, the Syndicate developed ties to officials and laid down deep social connections, which last to this day. Over the years, the community allegedly began to rely on the group for solving conflicts and ensuring security, according to Caracas Chronicles.
But by 2016, the group's criminal nature had been fully revealed. They took part in smuggling, drug trafficking and providing chemicals, supplies and labor for illegal mining operations. The group’s power had also grown by this time. They took over the area that year, gaining an important bastion for smuggling, drug trafficking, and obtaining inputs and labor for illegal mining.
"Speaking with inhabitants of the Orinoco, we know the members of this criminal organization use their vessels to take Venezuelans fleeing the government of Nicolás Maduro to Trinidad and Tobago. Indigenous residents also told us that the group sells oil, gasoline, weapons and explosives to Guyana," one police investigator told El Pitazo.
3. Another Step in the ELN's Consolidation Strategy
The events in Barrancas del Orinoco did not happen in a vacuum, but are part of a broader campaign by the ELN to control key criminal territories.
In Venezuela, the ELN has managed to consolidate a stable, and in some cases dominant, presence in areas of the states of Amazonas, Apure, Guárico and Bolívar, mostly in towns surrounding the Orinoco River. By gaining control of Barrancas del Orinoco, the ELN would gain strength in the state of Monagas, where it is currently weak.
Hundreds of kilometers away, in the Colombian department of Arauca, the ELN has waged a bloody war since late 2021 against dissident factions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), primarily the 10th Front.
There are similarities between the two areas. The Orinoco River flows through Arauca as well as Barrancas del Orinoco, and both areas are crucial to the ELN's drug trafficking routes from Colombia to the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean.
While no attacks have been reported in Barrancas del Orinoco in several weeks, this lull may not last for long, given how important Monagas could be for the ELN's criminal domination.