The Border Security Colectivo (Colectivo de Seguridad Fronteriza – CSF) is a state-supported irregular militia group based in the Colombian border state of Táchira.
Since its establishment in 2018, it has proven an essential tool in the Maduro regime’s strategy to regain control over criminal economies along the border with Colombia and to subdue the opposition’s attempts to promote social protests.
From its stronghold in Táchira, the CSF protects the Maduro regime’s illegal revenues on the border by controlling informal border crossings, or “trochas” (trails). The group also coordinates with local political leaders to suppress opposition protests in Táchira, a state whose large migration flows have rendered it a hub for humanitarian assistance. By controlling the strategic state of Táchira, the CSF acts as an effective tool to repel actions by opposition leaders and international coalitions, without risking cross-border confrontations with military forces.
The Border Security Colectivo is one of thhe most recent iterations of government-sponsored armed groups that act to protect the Maduro regime’s interests across Venezuela. While the CSF lacks the community-based organizational structure typical of colectivos, the group shares its ideological roots in Chavismo, as well as their militant and political practices.
In 2018, Freddy Bernal was appointed the “Protector of Táchira” by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, granting him power over military, social and economic policies in the state. Bernal has been involved with the promotion and training of colectivos since his time as mayor of Caracas (2000-2008), and is believed to be the political godfather of the CSF.
A few months after Bernal was designated the “Protector of Táchira,” the Border Security Colectivo emerged and quickly proved its efficacy as a tool to repress the political opposition. In January 2019, the group intimidated protestors following the declaration of Juan Guaidó as interim president and later attempted to stop humanitarian aid coming in via the international bridges along the border.
Since early 2019, the CSF has taken advantage of border closures to exert control over several informal border crossings known as “trochas” (trails). Control over border crossings allows the group to manage smuggling routes and generate revenue by charging migrants passage, a business that has sharply increased in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CSF also exerts a high level of social control in its areas of operation. While it has not usurped any local government functions, the group exercises significant control over the population, charging local businesses in exchange for “security” and imposing codes of conduct on some communities. Additionally, the CSF uses graffiti to coerce voters in the days leading up to local and national protests, effectively suppressing protest turnout.
As the group continues to expand in the border region, it allows the Maduro regime to collect illegal revenues and provides the regime with irregular militia forces at the border to defend against external aggression.
The CSF’s chain of command is blurred, owing to its hybrid civil, political, and armed character. The group takes its political line from the government and local leaders of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV). It is unclear whether Bernal plays a direct leadership role in the CSF, but it is evident that they respond to his interests and strategies. InSight Crime investigations in Táchira report that mobilizing the group has been a part of his plans for the region, and there is evidence of close collusion between the CSF and the local security forces that Bernal commands in his role as protector. Furthermore, Bernal has publicly met with and offered support to the region’s colectivos. William Gómez, mayor of Bolívar municipality and Jhon Carrillo, mayor of Pedro María Ureña, have been identified by locals as leaders of the CSF, and the group has been seen using mayors’ offices as operational hubs.
Local operational leaders coordinate actions on the ground. For instance, Oscar Rangel, alias “Cachu,” a grassroots activist linked to communist youth movements, coordinates the group’s operations in the municipality of Bolívar and reports to his political bosses.
When it was established, the group had approximately 150 members. However, according to an interview conducted by InSight Crime in Táchira, the group experienced significant growth during 2019, as Nicólas Maduro’s government worked hard to establish greater control over criminal economies and armed actors along the Colombian border.
The CSF’s criminal economies, political, and military presence are concentrated in San Antonio del Táchira, the main town on the border with Colombia. Since 2018, the group has taken advantage of Colombian border closures and the COVID-19 pandemic to consolidate its control of criminal economies and expand its presence to other municipalities in the state of Táchira, including San Cristóbal, the state capital. Its presence has been identified in the area of the Tienditas international bridge, in the neighboring municipality of Pedro María Ureña, and the urban area of the Junín municipality.
According to field interviews conducted by InSight Crime in San Antonio, emissaries of the CSF have a sporadic presence in the municipalities of Torbes and Cardenas. In northern Táchira, it has moved from García de Hevia to the municipality of Panamericano.
There are even reports of robberies by the CSF in the Colombian district of La Parada, close to Cúcuta. However, its main criminal economies are still limited to Venezuelan territory and there is no evidence that it is undertaking systematic operations in Colombia.
Allies and Enemies
The CSF collaborates with security forces to ensure control of Táchira. In May 2020, Bernal announced the deployment of 3,000 members of different Venezuelan security forces to the border between Colombia and Venezuela to control migratory flows. Evidence suggests that the CSF coordinates actions with the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) and the police special actions forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES), whose current leader, Miguel Domínguez, was Bernal’s bodyguard and right-hand man for several years.
The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) a Colombian guerrilla group operating in Venezuela, is a strategic ally of the CSF and has collaborated with the group to repress political protests and impose social control. According to local residents and officials consulted by InSight Crime in the Bolívar municipality, ELN members have participated in the distribution of CLAP food boxes and may have organized street cleaning days and deliveries of presents to children, alongside members of the CSF.
There is even evidence of coordinated military action between state security forces, the ELN and the CSF. In mid-February 2020, Venezuelan security forces began a series of operations intended to expel Los Rastrojos, a Colombian criminal group, from the border area, especially from the Puerto Santander-Boca de Grita corridor. The ELN and colectivos led by Freddy Bernal participated in these operations, with the ELN providing the bulk of military force and the CSF providing local backup.
The Border Security Colectivo’s control along the Colombian border in Táchira has been driven by the Maduro regime’s increasing need for criminal revenues and border security. In the face of international pressure and diminished state coffers, these conditions look set to continue, making the CSF an important force in propping up the Maduro regime.
The CSF’s control of informal border crossings allows the government to control, and profit from, migration between Colombia and Venezuela, while the group’s capacity for repressing political dissent makes them a valuable political instrument.
Given Freddy Bernal’s historic roots in the Bolivarian Revolution and the group’s political makeup, the CSF would certainly play an important role in defending the Maduro regime against external aggression. While the exact number of group members is unconfirmed, the CSF has proven its worth in a support role for the army and Maduro-aligned armed forces along the border.