Colombia’s top military commander says 40 percent of ELN and ex-FARC fighters operate in Venezuela, a figure that must be considered speculative but reflects important shifts in guerrilla dynamics, with consequences for both countries.
General Luis Fernando Navarro Jiménez, commander of Colombia’s Armed Forces, told Reuters recently that the four Venezuelan border states harbor up to 1,200 fighters of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). He estimated that the ELN, Colombia’s largest remaining rebel force, has a total of some 2,350 fighters.
Meanwhile, the region accounts for about 700 of an estimated 2,400 fighters belonging to dissident cells of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), known as the ex-FARC Mafia, according to Navarro Jiménez.
It’s notoriously difficult to discern the number of Colombian fighters in Venezuela. Still, the general’s breakdown of ELN and ex-FARC members in that country gives an indication of the state of these groups in Venezuela. Both use the country as a strategic rearguard area and staging post for drug trafficking and other illicit activities -- largely with the Venezuelan government's toleration, if not outright complicity.
Below, InSight Crime explores three key considerations arising from Navarro’s estimates.
1. Fluctuating Figures from Few States
Estimates of Colombian guerrilla forces in Venezuela have fluctuated considerably in recent years.
A September 2019 report by the Colombian Foreign Ministry to the Organization of American States reported 1,043 ELN guerrillas and 231 FARC dissidents in Venezuela. However, the figures were far below intelligence numbers shared with Colombian media suggesting that there were 600 former FARC fighters in the country. A statement by Colombian President Iván Duque at that time claimed Venezuela was sheltering 1,438 ELN combatants.
More recently, El Tiempo reported in May 2021 that an intelligence document indicated 1,500 Colombian fighters in Venezuela.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profile
These variations likely reflect the difficulty of intelligence gathering in Venezuela and the tendency of fighters to move freely over a porous border.
Meanwhile, it’s odd that Navarro’s most recent estimate of 1,900 fighters refers specifically to Venezuela’s western states of Zulia, Táchira, Apure and Amazonas. This may be, in a way, a tacit acknowledgment of weaker intelligence farther from the Colombian border.
2. Ex-FARC Mafia Expands, ELN Stagnates
Compared to the Colombian Foreign Ministry’s figures from 2019, Navarro’s estimate indicates that the number of FARC dissidents in Venezuela has tripled in the last two years, while ELN numbers have remained fairly constant.
Doubts about the accuracy of the figures notwithstanding, this trend is consistent with InSight Crime’s own investigations and research.
Although the ELN made rapid advances in Venezuela in the wake of the 2017 demobilization of its powerful cousins, the FARC, dissident FARC cells have since regrouped in the border region. The emergence in Venezuela of former FARC leaders who abandoned the peace process has also fortified the presence of certain factions there of ex-FARC.
Ex-FARC cells are strongly rooted in the gold mines of Amazonas and the border state of Apure, and they appear to be moving east to states such as Bolívar. Some of these groups enjoy close relations with the Venezuelan government. Others, most notably the 10th Front in Apure, have clashed fiercely with Venezuela’s military but have not been dislodged.
Further, residents of Zulia have told InSight Crime that the ex-FARC’s 33rd Front is making rapid inroads into the state, which until recently was dominated by the ELN.
The ELN’s expansion in Venezuela seems to have stalled. Although the group still maintains important strongholds in regions such as Táchira, miners have told InSight Crime that its influence has weakened in parts of Bolívar. The group has kept a notably low profile during the conflict between the 10th front and the Venezuelan military in 2021.
3. Fighters by Another Name
Gaining an accurate picture of Colombian fighters in Venezuela is further complicated by differences in how they organize themselves in Venezuela and Colombia.
InSight Crime’s local sources frequently give much higher estimates of fighters in their regions, counting hundreds in single municipalities. This may be partly because they tend not to distinguish between combatants and their civilian collaborators, known in Colombia as milicianos.
While this raises the risk of overestimating guerrilla forces, the distinction between combatants and milicianos may genuinely be more blurred in the Venezuelan context.
Unlike in Colombia, where milicianos are civilians with support and intelligence roles, many collaborators in Venezuela may be armed members of pro-government gangs known as colectivos, or even the state militia. The Venezuelan government’s tolerance of Colombian guerrillas implies that there is less need for milicianos to conceal their affiliations.