In Venezuela, the government is literally fighting a ghost.
In mid-2021, a mysterious new criminal actor appeared in Venezuela. It became an obsession of the country's security forces, which pursued cells all over the country.
“They are not guerrillas, nor pseudo-guerrillas, nor paramilitaries,” President Nicolás Maduro said in September 2021. "They are the Tancol: terrorists, armed drug traffickers from Colombia. And these Tancol groups have been infiltrating Venezuelan territory."
But after a year and a half of operations against these Tancol -- which stands for Armed Colombian Terrorist Drug Traffickers (Terroristas Armados Narcotraficantes de Colombia) -- there is still no evidence the criminal network exists outside of the imagination of the Venezuelan state.
InSight Crime has partnered with VE360, an organization dedicated to geospatial visual presentation of the issues and challenges facing Venezuela, to produce an interactive map showing all “Tancol” security operations where the location was reported. Explore the maps below to see where operations have taken place, what groups and criminal activities have been targeted, and how these operations have evolved over the time period.
Still, according to Maduro, the Tancol's presence in Venezuela was part of a strategy devised by the Colombian oligarchy to attack the country from the inside, and Venezuela was preparing to fight back.
Weeks later, Maduro revealed further details about the supposed Tancol plot against Venezuela. He claimed its cells consisted of hitmen, former police and military officials from Venezuela and Colombia, and Colombian paramilitaries, who were being trained by the government of Colombia's then-President Iván Duque.
Their plan, Maduro said, was to target key infrastructure, such as the electrical grid, and to act as political agitators to undermine the Bolivarian Revolution, the political movement launched by former President Hugo Chávez.
Maduro's declaration of war came two weeks after the first report of an operation against the Tancol, in which security forces detained a man near the Colombian border in the state of Apure, whom they accused of being the collaborator of a former paramilitary commander. Authorities touted how, at the time of his arrest, he was not carrying weapons or contraband but rather eight pairs of rubber boots and matching black socks, two mosquito nets, two packets of talcum powder, and communications equipment.
By the end of 2021, security forces had reported carrying out a total of 12 actions against the Tancol, according to InSight Crime's monitoring of official sources and media reports.
Many Operations, Little to Show
In 2022, operations snowballed. By the end of the year, there had been 126 reported actions by security forces against Tancol, an average of 11 per month. By the end of February 2023, 18 months after the first arrest, InSight Crime had recorded a total of 149 actions claiming to have targeted the Tancol.
On the surface, the Tancol have been by far the main target of the Venezuelan security forces over this period. However, the patterns shown in these operations do little to support Maduro's claims of a Tancol plot against his government -- or even of the existence of any such networks.
By evaluating the information provided on each case, including the location; the criminal activities involved; the profiles of any detainees; and the equipment, arms, and infrastructure used, InSight Crime determined that 41% of operations in that period targeted Colombian guerrilla groups, above all the ex-FARC mafia, a loosely connected network of criminal groups which refused to demobilize after the 2016 peace agreement with the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). They are involved in drug trafficking and have been designated as terrorist organizations by the United States.
However, the ex-FARC mafia have committed no known acts of political terrorism on Venezuelan soil, and even those that have been targeted in security operations retained close criminal and political ties to elements of the Venezuelan state until recently.
Another 40% of actions likely targeted drug trafficking networks, in some cases involving Colombian criminals. The targets ranged from sophisticated transnational transport networks to human couriers with a few grams of cocaine in their stomachs and, in one case, a woman selling a topical pomade purporting to be made from coca and marijuana.
In short, the cases reviewed did not involve armed groups with political motives. Instead, they were clandestine networks -- or their low-level recruits -- dedicated to transporting drugs or providing logistical services to traffickers, such as smuggling aviation fuel. In several cases, those detained were below even this level of security threat and were arrested for retail-level drug sales.
Many of the remaining operations targeted groups that had no known connections to drug trafficking or terrorism and had no apparent links to Colombia.
Among them were mining gangs in the state of Bolívar, known as sindicatos. Authorities labeled detained members of the El Ciego gang, Tren de Guayana, the El Perú Sindicato, and the R Organization (Organización R - OR) as Tancol, even though these are all local Venezuelan groups dedicated to profiting from the gold trade.
Authorities have also applied the label to extortion gangs, such as the one led by Erick Alberto Parra Mendoza, alias "Yeico Masacre," and in one case to a local cattle rustling gang.
None of the actions reviewed showed evidence of terrorist attacks, political activity, or any plots against the Venezuelan state, nor did they suggest connections to the Colombian government or economic elites.
A Political Smokescreen?
In the year and a half, since Maduro declared war on the Tancol, InSight Crime has conducted field investigations in all but two of the 18 states where anti-Tancol operations have been reported. There we have conducted hundreds of interviews with residents, victims of armed groups, members of criminal networks, local investigators, civil society leaders, experts, and public officials. None of those sources, except active security officials, have mentioned any groups matching Maduro's description of the Tancol.
The Tancol, in other words, simply does not exist. So why, then, did the Maduro regime employ this phantom enemy? The answer is not clear, but there are some clues.
To begin with, the term first emerged against the backdrop of the conflict between the Venezuelan military and the ex-FARC 10th Front in Apure. Prior to those battles, the Venezuelan military had worked with the 10th Front, so calling them Tancol may have been a convenient way of obscuring this relationship.
Secondly, Maduro has gained political advantages by converting the Tancol from a simple coverup device into a fantasy criminal enemy hellbent on destroying the Venezuelan state. The vague nature of the supposed Tancol threat allows Maduro to depict a broad range of often unrelated security operations as a relentless and coherent campaign to protect Venezuelans from a formidable foe.
Third, having a straw enemy supposedly backed by hostile foreign powers has allowed the government to lay the blame for Venezuela's security issues on its neighbor, Colombia.
That may be changing. Since Gustavo Petro assumed the Colombian presidency in August 2022, relations between the two countries have improved dramatically, even to the extent of renewed security cooperation. The Colombian government no longer makes for a convenient scapegoat for Venezuela's security problems.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the security forces' reports of operations against the Tancol have declined. In August 2022, when Petro took office, there were 62 Tancol-related actions reported; for the first months of 2023, there were 6 Tancol-related actions reported.
*InSight Crime has partnered with VE360, an organization dedicated to geospatial visual presentation of the issues and challenges facing Venezuela, to produce an interactive map showing all “Tancol” security operations where the location was reported. Explore the maps below to see where operations have taken place, what groups and criminal activities have been targeted, and how these operations have evolved over the time period.