Venezuela is a vital base of operations for dissidents from the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
During the Colombian conflict, the country provided the guerrillas with key drug trafficking corridors, a place to escape pressure from Colombian security forces, carry out training and resupply with weaponry. Since the FARC demobilized in 2017 after rebel leaders signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government, Venezuela has continued to fulfill this role for the mafia comprised of deserters and dissidents from the peace process, offering them both an economic lifeline and a safe haven to regroup and reconsolidate their forces.
Venezuela was a site of operations for the FARC throughout much of the Colombian conflict, but its importance to the group increased exponentially after Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, and after the rebels lost their government-granted safe haven in Colombia in 2002. This coincided with increased pressure from paramilitaries and from the Uribe government in Colombia (2002-2010), which combined to turn Venezuela into a crucial rearguard area for the rebels.
During the Chávez presidency, there were accusations of collusion between the FARC and the highest levels of Venezuela’s government and armed forces, who allegedly provided the guerrillas with logistical support and arms. There is also strong evidence that the FARC collaborated in drug trafficking with the state-embedded trafficking cells collectively referred to as the Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles), leading to indictments against senior government figures in addition to the sanctions imposed by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control on top-level officials in government and the security forces for allegedly colluding with the FARC.
The question of FARC encampments in Venezuela led to a major diplomatic row between former presidents Chávez and Alvaro Uribe. Colombian intelligence reports leaked in 2010 estimated that some 1,500 FARC rebels were active in 28 encampments in the Venezuelan border states of Apure and Zulia. In the final years of the Chávez presidency, however, Colombo-Venezuelan relations improved under Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and Chávez’s abetment of the guerrillas appears to have waned.
Between 2012 and 2016, the Venezuelan government played an important role as one of five guarantors in Colombia’s peace negotiations with the FARC, which concluded with the rebels demobilizing in 2017. However, Venezuela also become a refuge for FARC dissidents who refused to participate in the demobilization. Initially scattered and disorganized, these dissidents have regrouped and grown in number as the implementation of the accords faltered and their ranks have been bolstered by disillusioned former FARC members, forming what InSight Crime collectively refers to as the ex-FARC Mafia.
There are now several different ex-FARC Mafia factions present in Venezuela. The state of Apure acts as headquarters for the Second Marquetalia, an ex-FARC network formed by some of the main FARC negotiators in the peace talks, who abandoned the process in 2018. This network is allied to the Acacio Medina Front. Also present in Venezuela are the 10th Front and the 33rd Front, both of which are smaller, semi-autonomous groups that are part of the biggest ex-FARC Mafia network in Colombia, which is coordinated by Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte.”
Just as was the case during the Colombian conflict, Venezuela continues to offer the ex-FARC a safe haven and access to important criminal economies, above all drug trafficking but also illegal mining and contraband smuggling. In many cases, these networks have also maintained the FARC’s alliances with corrupt security forces and political actors, allegedly including senior figures in the regime of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro.
However, these relationships are becoming ever more complex and fractious due to growing rivalries between the different ex-FARC factions and within the Venezuelan state. These tensions erupted into violence in early 2021 when the Venezuelan military launched an unsuccessful operation to drive the 10th Front out of Apure.
The Second Marquetalia is led by Luciano Marin Arrango, alias “Iván Marquez,” who is believed to be based in Venezuela. Marquez was the second most senior FARC leader prior to the demobilization and headed the rebels’ negotiating team. He founded the Second Marquetalia with Seuxis Pausías Hernández Solarte, alias “Jesús Santrich,” who also played a key leadership role until he was killed in the Venezuelan state of Zulia in May 2021.
The Acacio Medina Front is led by Gener García Molina, alias “John 40,” who is also believed to be based in Venezuela. John 40 was a senior FARC commander, who was heavily involved in the drug trade, but broke away from the rebels during the peace process. He initially formed part of the leadership group of Gentil Duarte’s dissident network until switching allegiance to the Second Marquetalia in early 2021.
The 10th Front is led by a former mid-level FARC commander Jorge Eliécer Jiménez Martínez, alias “Jerónimo” or “Arturo,” while the 33rd Front is commanded by Javier Alonso Veloza García, alias “John Mechas.” While both commanders are responsible for their groups’ day to day operations, they are believed to coordinate with the national dissident leadership group headed by Gentil Duarte.
The ex-FARC Mafia forces are heavily concentrated in the border region, although there have been reports of their presence as far into the country as the southeastern state of Bolívar.
The Second Marquetalia is based in the state of Apure, from where the leadership coordinates with cells all across Colombia and maintains drug trafficking infrastructure. Its allies in the Acacio Medina Front are largely dispersed throughout the state of Amazonas, where it controls drug routes and illegal mining operations.
The 10th Front controls a binational territory covering areas in Apure and the Colombian department of Arauca, where it profits from its control of border crossings. The 33rd Front is largely based in the drug trafficking hub of Catatumbo in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander, and initially only had a sporadic presence in Venezuela. However, in 2021, it began establishing a more permanent presence across the border in the state of Zulia, which is an important dispatch point for cocaine produced in Catatumbo.
Allies and Enemies
In Colombia, the various factions of the ex-FARC Mafia are increasingly converging around two rival poles of influence: Gentil Duarte’s dissident network and the Second Marquetalia. After initial attempts to unify their forces, the relationship between the two sides has been increasingly acrimonious, which in Venezuela has been evident in the rivalry between the Second Marquetalia and the 10th Front in Apure.
There is strong evidence to suggest the Second Marquetalia maintains ties to the government of Nicolás Maduro, who publicly stated that Iván Marquez and Jesús Santrich were “welcome” in the country after the pair abandoned the peace process. However, in contrast the government has labelled the 10th Front as “terrorists” and attacked the guerrillas, despite their evident ties to the Venezuelan military units stationed in the region.
The rapid expansion of Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) in Venezuela has put them in competition with the ex-FARC Mafia for lucrative drug-trafficking and smuggling routes on the Colombia-Venezuela border. It was reported in December 2018 that the FARC dissidents had agreed a non-aggression pact with the ELN and were working with them to coordinate illicit activities. However, since then there have been signs of tensions and even conflict between the ELN and certain factions of the ex-FARC, above all the 10th Front.
The ex-FARC Mafia’s drug-trafficking activities in Venezuela are also facilitated by alliances with international criminal groups, such as Brazil’s Red Command (Comando Vermelho) and Family of the North (FDN), and Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.
The different factions of the ex-FARC Mafia in Venezuela facing increasingly divergent prospects in Venezuela. The Second Marquetalia, and its allies in John 40’s Acacio Medina Front will likely continue to enjoy high level support from elements within the Venezuelan state, granting them near impunity to build up their forces and run criminal economies. As the Second Marquetalia has struggled to rebuild in Colombia, this ability to operate in Venezuela may become ever more central to the network.
However, the 10th Front is now operating in hostile terrain and will likely find its activities in Venezuelan increasingly curtailed. Similarly, the 33rd Front, which is also part of Gentil Duarte’s network, may encounter resistance to its attempts to expand in Zulia.