Venezuela is a vital base of operations for dissidents from the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of 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. Following the Colombian Peace Accord, Venezuela continues to fulfill this role for the mafia comprised of deserters of 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 Chavez came to power in 1999, and after the rebels lost their government-granted safe haven in 2002. This coincided with increased pressure from paramilitaries and from the Uribe government in Colombia (2002-2010), which all turned Venezuela into a crucial rearguard area for the rebels.
During the Chávez presidency, there were allegations of links between the guerrillas and the highest levels of Venezuela’s government and armed forces. The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned several top-level officials in the security forces for allegedly helping the FARC to smuggle cocaine, including the later defense minister General Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva. A shadowy faction of the military, known as the Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles) was believed to have links to the guerrillas, swapping cocaine shipments for arms. Files retrieved from the computer of slain FARC commander, alias “Raul Reyes," in 2008 described an alleged meeting between Chavez and Raul Reyes in 2000 in which the president said he would lend the rebels money for weapons.
The question of FARC encampments in Venezuela led to a major diplomatic row between former presidents Chavez 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 Chavez presidency, however, Colombo-Venezuelan relations improved under Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and Chavez’s abetment of the guerrillas appears to have waned.
There is no conclusive evidence that Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, has actively supported FARC presence in Venezuela. Indeed, Venezuela played an important role in Colombia’s 2016 peace accord with the FARC, as one of five guarantors of the process. However, Maduro’s preoccupation with the escalating economic and political crisis engulfing the country has allowed Venezuela to become a refuge for FARC dissidents who refused to participate in the rebel group’s demobilization. Initially scattered and disorganized, these dissidents have regrouped and grown in number as the peace process has faltered over subsequent years.
Data released in May 2019 by Venezuelan NGO Fundación Redes identified six dissident movements of the FARC operating in Venezuela. Of these, the 33rd Front is believed to be steadily extending its control in the country. Just as was the case during the Colombian conflict, Venezuela continues to offer a safe haven and access to important criminal economies to FARC rebels seeking to strengthen their influence in Colombia.
As Venezuela under Maduro has slid deeper into political and economic chaos, the relationship between the country and the FARC dissidents has become increasingly symbiotic. Venezuelans are now believed to comprise a significant proportion of the ex-FARC mafia in the country, as the ex-FARC and other guerrilla groups have tightened their control on local criminal economies by recruiting impoverished Venezuelans in the Colombian border region. Furthermore, ex-FARC rebels are believed to be key members of Venezuelan armed movements, notably the “border security colectivo” that became notorious for its role in blocking humanitarian aid to the country in February 2019.
Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” commands the 7th front of the ex-FARC mafia and is currently the dissident leader most wanted by Colombian authorities. He is believed to have been hiding out in the southern Venezuelan state of Amazonas since November 2018.
Another key figure is Duarte’s lieutenant Gener García Molina, alias “Jhon 40.” Based in Venezuela for at least two years, “Jhon 40” is credited with having reunified the scattered FARC dissidents in the Catatumbo region into the 33rd Front, on the orders of Gentil Duarte. He is now thought to command a structure of over 300 men, many of them Venezuelan.
In addition, Venezuela is likely refuge for former FARC commanders including Luciano Marin Arrango, alias “Ivan Marquez” and Hernan Dario Velasquez, alias “El Paisa.” These leaders ended their cooperation with the peace process and went into hiding in 2018, citing their dissatisfaction with the Colombian government’s handling of the process. It is feared that both may be seeking new command positions within the ex-FARC mafia.
Venezuelan NGO Fundación Redes identifies six movements composed of former FARC rebels operating in Venezuela. Their presence has been documented in at least seven of Venezuela’s 24 states: Zulia, Mérida, Táchira, Apure, Guárico, Bolívar and Amazonas. The vast jungles of Amazonas are of particular strategic importance as a hide-out and drug-trafficking corridor. From here, Gentil Duarte’s 7th Front coordinates cocaine shipments from Colombia in collusion with drug-traffickers in Mexico and Brazil, receiving in return high-grade weaponry which is smuggled to FARC dissident groups in southeastern Colombia.
The Venezuelan region of Catatumbo, across the border from Colombia’s Norte de Santander, has regained importance for the FARC since 2018, when Jhon 40 set out to reconsolidate the former guerrilla’s forces and criminal economies in the area. A key part of this mission was to reestablish the FARC’s trafficking routes into Venezuela and coordinate the local buying of coca paste. The ex-FARC mafia under his command is now believed to control a large part of the drug-trafficking market into Venezuela, including the onward route into Brazil.
In addition to their drug trafficking operations, the ex-FARC mafia are engaged in the illegal mining of gold and coltan in the southern states of Bolívar and Amazonas. From here, they export the metals across the border into the Colombian states of Guainía and Vichada.
Allies and Enemies
The Chavez government offered a generally tolerant atmosphere to the rebels, although the relationship was not as straightforward or close as some Chavez critics claimed, and weakened further during the final years of the Chavez presidency.
Although Maduro has not shown open support for rebel presence in Venezuela, his weak control of Venezuelan territory and criminalized security forces have allowed the FARC dissident movements to thrive and reconsolidate in the country. Probably for this reason, the rebels have expressed support for the Maduro administration, including distributing pamphlets encouraging citizens to vote for him during the controversial 2018 elections. There is also some evidence of collusion between former FARC rebels and the upper echelons of the Venezuelan government, notably in the “narco-nephews” case, in which the nephews of Maduro’s wife were accused of trafficking cocaine sourced from the FARC.
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. However, after several years of conflict, 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.
The ex-FARC mafia’s drug-trafficking activities are facilitated by alliances with international criminal groups, including Brazil’s Red Command (Comando Vermelho) and Family of the North (FDN), and Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.
Venezuela’s ongoing turmoil, weak territorial control and criminalized security forces have made it the ideal arena for scattered FARC dissidents to regroup and reorganize following the guerrilla group’s formal demobilization. As distrust among former FARC guerrillas towards the Colombian government’s handling of the peace process continues to swell the ranks of the FARC dissidents, Venezuela provides these deserters of the peace process with both sanctuary and an economic lifeline, as well as routes to smuggle weaponry back into Colombia. For as long as Venezuela’s government remains unwilling or unable to tackle the plethora of irregular armed groups operating on its territory, the ex-FARC mafia is likely to continue capitalizing on the safe haven and criminal economies the country offers. A potential alliance between the ex-FARC mafia and the ELN could drastically increase the threat posed by these groups to both countries.