A recent series of Venezuelan military operations in the state of Apure has once again exposed the complex relationship between the Venezuelan government and Colombia's insurgent groups camped in the country's border regions -- and more armed clashes should be expected.
The latest conflict began in the early morning hours of March 21, when members of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana - FANB) conducted a military operation against Colombian militants in the José Antonio Páez municipality, a border region in Apure.
According to an official statement issued by the Venezuelan Ministry of Defense, the operation Bolivarian Shield 2021 reportedly resulted in the capture of 32 members of an irregular armed group, the destruction of 6 camps, the seizure of important war materials and the death of one of the group’s leaders, known as “Nando.”
According to the defense department, which said that the country would have "zero tolerance" for these criminal structures in Venezuela, two soldiers also died in the confrontations.
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While the Venezuelan army did not name the irregular armed group involved, regional media and local residents have said that fighting in the region is related to the state’s persecution of ex-members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the guerrilla group that demobilized in 2016 following the signing of a peace agreement.
The ex-FARC fighters in the region belong to the 10th Front, which is led by Jorge Eliécer Jiménez, alias “Jerónimo” or “Arturo,” who coordinates diverse criminal operations on the border between Apure and the Colombian department of Arauca.
Following the military operation, 10th Front fighters did not hesitate to retaliate. On the night of March 23, a group of them launched explosives at the headquarters of Venezuela's National Integrated Customs and Tax Administration Service (SENIAT) in the La Victoria sector of Apure state. The attack was accompanied by recorded messages and pamphlets from the dissident faction announcing future assaults.
InSight Crime Analysis
This is not the first time the Venezuelan army has fired on Colombian guerrillas and other criminal actors in the country. Various armed clashes between them reflect a relationship marked by criminal gains and losses, underscoring that armed confrontations likely to continue.
The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), the long-running Colombian rebel group, and FARC dissidents have both come into armed conflict with with Venezuela's armed forces.
For example, the November 2018 arrest of ELN commander Luis Felipe Ortega Bernal, alias “Garganta,” resulted in the deaths of four members of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana - GNB). According to local investigators who spoke with InSight Crime, the clash in the municipality of Puerto Ayacucho, in Amazonas state, was the product of an economic disagreement between the two sides.
Two years later, in December 2020, Garganta regained his freedom and continued coordinating illegal operations.
Venezuela's military has also gone after ex-FARC prior to the recent confrontation. In September 2020, military units attacked three camps belonging to the 10th Front in the Tres Esquinas, Mata de Bambú and Las Palmitas sectors of José Antonio Páez. Despite these attacks, the presence of the faction was not altered.
Similarly, the FANB were deployed in late January as part of Operation JIWI 2021 to expel FARC dissident structures present in Apure and Amazonas. According to local journalist Sebastiana Barráez, the clashes were related to particular interests of the ELN and another FARC dissident structure, the Segunda Marquetalia, which runs illicit business in those regions.
The relationships among the various Colombian insurgent groups and the Venezuelan government have become ever more complex. Though the government insists it will not tolerate these groups on Venezuelan soil, the presence of Colombian militants camped in Venezuela, as well as businesses connected to them, contradict this assertion.
Additionally, the various insurgent-cum-criminal groups in the Venezuelan border region have also come into conflict. The Segunda Marquetalia and the ELN, for example, have clashed with 10th Front ex-FARC cells, which is why they share an interest in expelling this dissident faction from the border area.
For the moment, the only concrete thing these military operations have achieved has been a humanitarian crisis. According to figures from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Colombia (OCHA), more than 4,741 people have been displaced by the bullets and bombs raining over Apure.