Criminal groups known in Spanish as bandas criminales (BACRIM), created from the remnants of the paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) expanded their presence into Venezuela in 2007, where they developed distinct criminal economies. The country became the perfect hideout for their leaders, many of whom were arrested by Venezuelan authorities.
The BACRIM ultimately departed the country due to a number of outside pressures, including political attempts to remove Colombian paramilitary groups from Venezuela, the alliance of Venezuelan state actors with Colombian guerrillas, and the capture of several BACRIM commanders.
The BACRIM were descended from AUC factions that decided not to turn in their weapons in the demobilization process between 2004 and 2006, or later returned to arms. They settled throughout Colombia and saw Venezuela as a perfect territory to continue their criminal enterprise and take refuge from Colombian law enforcement operations.
The first BACRIM to settle on the Colombia-Venezuela border was the Rastrojos, the armed wing of the Norte del Valle Cartel, one of Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking groups in the 1990s. In 2007, they arrived in Norte de Santander, a department of Colombia that shares a border with the Venezuelan states of Táchira and Zulia. They positioned themselves as the strongest criminal gang on the border thanks to their ability to establish alliances with members of the Venezuelan security forces, who provided them with protection and facilitated their criminal activities.
In 2008, the name of the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles) became infamous in Táchira and Zulia. Through a pamphlet, the gang announced social cleansing measures, part of a campaign of terror and persecution against those who broke their rules. This gang is not a centralized organization, but a loose group dedicated to protecting the economic interests of former mid-level paramilitary commanders.
Three years after the arrival of the Águilas Negras, the Gaitanistas, also known as the Urabeños, the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) or the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), entered Venezuela after Vicente Castaño, one of AUC’s main leaders, refused to lay down his arms. Carlos Andres Palencia Gonzalez, alias “Visaje,” led their entry through Táchira.
The presence of the BACRIM in Venezuela began to be threatened in 2012 with the capture of several commanders inside and outside the country. This led to these gangs fragmenting into unconnected cells. In addition, the BACRIM had inherited the AUC’s bloody war with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), Colombia’s last guerrilla group, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), a guerrilla group that demobilized in 2016. The BACRIM came off as the losers on both fronts as their enemies maintained close relationships with Venezuelan officials during the presidencies of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro.
Pressure from Venezuelan security forces and rivalry with the guerrillas led to the BACRIM’s departure from Venezuela in 2020. A few active members of the AGC remain in Ureña, a border town in Táchira, but they have no connections with the group’s leaders in Colombia, according to a public official interviewed by InSight Crime. Interviews with public officials and locals in Táchira and Zulia confirm that the Rastrojos were also expelled from Venezuela after losing their battle against the ELN and security forces in late 2020.
Today the territories where the BACRIM were present are controlled by the ELN and the ex-FARC Mafia, consisting of various factions of FARC dissidents.
The BACRIM’s criminal portfolio in Venezuela included smuggling all types of goods through informal passages with Colombia, known as“trochas. This was the Rastrojos’ main illicit economy, earning profits in excess of $21,000 a week. Another source of income was extortion. The Rastrojos and the AGC both regulated the passage of goods and people through the trochas by charging extortion fees. They were also involved in different stages of drug trafficking. The AGC acted as service providers, controlling trafficking corridors and acting as escorts for cocaine shipments coming from the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander.
The leadership of the BACRIM in Venezuela was unstable. Various disputes with rivals led to the emergence of multiple leaders who failed to consolidate the strength of the gangs.
After clashes between the ELN and the Rastrojos, one possible leader of the BACRIM was Jose Gregorio Lopez Carvajal, alias “Becerro,” who was reportedly coordinating plans to recover territories with Wilfrido Torres Gomez, alias “Necoclí,” who assumed leadership of the gang in 2011 and was captured by Venezuelan authorities in 2019.
Visaje was the leader of the Urabeños in charge of consolidating the BACRIM’s presence in Venezuela. Since his capture in Spain in 2013, multiple leaders emerged who failed to hold control of the group, such as Edward Restrepo Chiusuque, alias “Chirivico,” and Wilkin Alexander Roa, alias “La Niña.” Both were captured in Colombia.
The BACRIM operated in the northern Colombia-Venezuela border area. The Colombian department of Norte de Santander and the Venezuelan states of Táchira and Zulia were strongholds for the AGC and Rastrojos.
Allies and Enemies
In Venezuela, the Rastrojos and the Urabeños were unable to maintain a network of allies that would allow them to remain in the country. The relationship between the Rastrojos and some members of the security forces fractured following Nicolás Maduro’s directives to expel the group.
The two BACRIM were rivals from the moment the AGC entered Venezuela and wanted to expand into areas controlled by the Rastrojos.
Both faced off against the ELN. The Colombian guerrillas, supported by Venezuelan state actors, confronted the Rastrojos directly and managed to push them back to Colombia in 2020. The same fate befell the Urabeños when the ELN took Ureña, the stronghold of that BACRIM, in 2019.
Another enemy of the BACRIM in Venezuela was the Border Security Colectivo (Colectivo de Seguridad Fronteriza – CSF), a pro-government group that supported the ELN in confrontations with the Rastrojos, according to a local authority in the García de Hevia municipality of Táchira.
There is currently no BACRIM presence in Venezuela. If new plans to enter the country were to be acted upon, they would have to confront the ELN, the dominant actor in the northern Colombia-Venezuela border area. The Colombian guerrillas have more members, more weapons, and the support of Venezuelan state actors to prevent the return of the BACRIM.
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