The ELN is involved in all manner of criminal economies along the Colombian-Venezuelan border, but its continuing role in facilitating cattle smuggling may be one of the most overlooked.
Repeated operations carried out by Colombian authorities in 2022 have shown the decisive role played by the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) in helping to move cattle between Venezuela’s northern state of Apure and the neighboring Colombian state of Arauca.
Earlier this month, a network of smugglers was dismantled after allegedly buying cattle from the ELN in Venezuela, moving them across the border, butchering them in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, and selling the meat across the country, according to a report by Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office.
Cattle ranchers in Apure also denounced the ELN’s participation in this criminal economy at the end of September.
"From being the king of cattle raising for national food sovereignty, Apure became the king of cattle smuggling on behalf of the Colombian guerrilla," said Chara Melgarejo, regional director of Venezuela’s National Federation of Cattle Raisers (Federación Nacional de Ganaderos - Fedenaga) in an interview with Crónica Uno. As a consequence, Apure’s legal production of cattle has dropped by 50 percent since the 1990s, according to Crónica Uno.
Fedenaga estimated that around 700,000 cows a year are smuggled, either live or as meat, into Colombia.
“Since 2000, the guerrilla and the very low price of meat … have made contraband the best business in the world,” Melgarejo said.
In 2018, Colombia's Tax and Customs Police (Policia Fiscal y Aduanera - POLFA) reported that the ELN charged 200,000 pesos ($66) for each head of cattle crossing from Venezuela. That same year, as many as 24 illicit crossing points were found in Apure where animals were transported across the border.
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At a time when the ELN may return to negotiations with the Colombian government, cattle trafficking serves as an important reminder of the range of criminal revenues the ELN has enjoyed.
The ELN’s involvement begins at the cattle rustling stage, where animals are stolen from farms by local gangs. Ranchers and a local official, who spoke with InSight Crime on condition of anonymity for security reasons, confirmed how the ELN helped to formalize this process.
"Contraband is no longer taking place because of common cattle rustlers. It has turned into an organized underworld that has allied itself with Venezuelan state security officials, and then … with Colombian irregular groups," said one rancher.
And the ELN has overseen this process beyond the Apure-Arauca border. Further north, in Venezuela’s state of Zulia, ranchers also confirmed the ELN’s involvement.
"These groups provide a custody service and allow the transfer of animals through the trails under their control, in exchange for a commission. They sometimes receive animals for these services,” one rancher told InSight Crime.
Security forces and local authorities are also compromised. "All security forces present in the border zone receive bribes in exchange for allowing the transfer of animals," stated a cattle rancher in Machiques, a border municipality in Zulia.
Trade relations between Colombia and Venezuela have recently been re-established and although the measure may eventually have an impact on smuggling, cattle ranchers are skeptical.
"We do not believe that the reopening of the border will have a direct impact on smuggling," said Gerardo Socorro, president of the cattle ranchers’ association in Las Piedras, a village near the border city of Machiques in Venezuela. "Rather, the impact would come from regulating the price difference between both sides."