Bogota, Colombia - Venezuela’s socialist government has launched a major military offensive on its border against a group of remaining fighters from the now defunct Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) from Colombia.
In the past, border states in western Venezuela have been something of a safe haven for Colombian criminal armed groups like the former FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), with whom Venezuela’s regime, in theory, shares a leftist-ideology.
The change in tack from the government of President Nicolás Maduro most likely reflects a conflict in other shared interests: cocaine trafficking and illegal gold mining.
Some 5,000 Venezuelans have fled across the border into Colombia from the department of Apure since bombings and firefights erupted just over a week ago.
The region has long been a hotspot in a simmering conflict between various armed groups and state actors from both countries, but the recent fighting is an escalation of violence and the first time the Venezuelan government has launched such a direct offensive against Colombian guerrilla groups.
Venezuelan military forces launched the first phase of “Operation Bolivarian Shield” by bombing the municipality of La Victoria, Apure on Saturday March 21. Some 3,000 Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guardsmen (GNB) soldiers were deployed throughout the region, which is rich in resource mining and host to trafficking routes for cocaine, of which Colombia is the world’s biggest producer.
“There are a lot of guns being pointed at Arauca right now,” said Alvaro Jiménez Millan, who runs the Colombian Campaign Against Anti Personnel Mines (CCCM), a non-profit. “It’s not pleasant to feel like you are living on top of a powder keg.”
Venezuela has insisted that it is attacking Colombian paramilitaries, not leftist guerrilla groups, in response to harm done to Venezuelan citizens. President Maduro claimed, without proof, during a television appearance on March 28th that the fighters on Venezuelan territory were being coordinated by the Colombian and U.S governments.
But Human Rights Watch’s Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco rejected that. “This is not an effort to protect the Venezuelan people,” he said. “It is a retaliatory operation against the 10th Front.”
The 10th Front was a regiment of the former FARC that operated semi-independently during Colombia’s civil war. It has maintained territory on both sides of the border for decades. The group opted out of the historic peace deal signed between the FARC and government in 2016, and has expanded its reach within Venezuela, according to the International Crisis Group and the think tank InSight Crime.
“Since [last] Sunday the entire region has been occupied by [Venezuelan] national forces and without electricity” due to fighting between the 10th Front and Venezuelan military, Juan Francisco García Escalona, a coordinator for Fundaredes, a non-profit told VICE World News by phone. “Entire villages have fled. We have received credible accounts of landmine use by guerrillas as well as looting by [Venezuelan] soldiers. A lot of people have gone missing in the chaos.”
Venezuela’s Minister of Defense, Vladimir Padrino López claimed that his forces had killed six “terrorists,” detained 12 guerrillas and was holding 27 more suspects that would face charges of terrorism. He also confirmed the deployment of the elite police unit FAES (Special Action Forces), a security body with a long history of human rights abuses.
FAES released photos of three of those killed in the offensive, but local media in Apure and residents questioned whether those killed were really guerrillas at all. Raiza Isabel Remolina, who said that five of her family members were killed, stated in a widely shared interview that her family members were farmers, not rebels, and insisted the photos had been staged. Venezuelan officials responded by announcing two prosecutors from the Public Ministry have been assigned to investigate the case.
The 10th Front has denied that any of their fighters were captured or killed, and accused the Venezuelan government of arbitrarily detaining farmers as well as looting and human rights violations. The group competes with others in a region plagued by cocaine smuggling, illegal mining, kidnapping, forced recruitment and extortion.
Historically, violence in Colombia has long spilled into Venezuela and the government there has a history of embracing its neighbour’s left-wing guerrilla groups. As recently as 2019, Maduro welcomed FARC leadership into the country. Colombia and Venezuela severed diplomatic ties and formal communication in 2019 amidst political tensions.
“The problem with informal deals built on illicit profit-sharing is that they are tenuous accords at best,” said Bram Ebus, a researcher for the International Crisis Group. Tension has been building between the 10th Front and the Venezuelan government over the last two years as the group has often refused to share its illicit earnings with corrupt GNB officials.
Meanwhile, the number of those displaced by the most recent conflict continues to grow, and both countries have begun massing troops along their shared border.