Financial Mirror (Cyprus)
Venezuela passes a security test, for now
Caracas can’t allow fighting among Colombian guerrilla groups to rage on inside its borders.
Venezuelan soldiers started flooding into Apure, a state along the border with Colombia, just over two weeks ago. The deployments aimed to tamp down fighting among guerrilla groups from Colombia and regain control. The operations have so far destroyed at least nine guerrilla camps and resulted in dozens of detentions and dozens of deaths, including eight dead Venezuelan soldiers. Though the fighting seems to have quieted down for the moment, the strong military presence is likely to continue in the short term. The Venezuelan government will allow – even encourage – some degree of illicit activity by Colombian guerrilla groups on its territory. The spoils from such activities help to keep its military in line. But at a time when its authority is already being seriously questioned, Caracas can’t allow fighting among the guerrilla groups to rage on inside its borders.
What’s unique about this wave of border violence is that the Venezuelan authorities are responding at all. Normally, the government turns a blind eye to activities by former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas in hard-to-govern parts of the country like Apure. In fact, over the past few decades the Venezuelan government has preferred to work with guerrilla and criminal groups in the border area to advance common interests. Ideologically, the FARC had much in common with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution. Both championed revolutionary socialism, and both were hostile to the Colombian government. The Venezuelan government sheltered the FARC from Colombian security forces, and in return it gained leverage over the Colombian government. Over time their shared political interests grew to include economic and security interests as well.
But what’s left of the FARC is not the same as the FARC of the early years. After more than 50 years of fighting and multiple failed peace talks, the Colombian government and the FARC finally signed a peace deal in 2016. Many FARC fighters, however, refused to put down their weapons, preferring to continue participating in the lucrative drug trade, fuel smuggling and illegal mining.
The remnants of the group tried to reconstitute it in 2017. By mid-2019, two distinct factions were jostling for position along the Venezuelan border. One is called Second Marquetalia (sometimes referred to as New Marquetalia) and is led by Jesus Santrich and Ivan Marquez, a former member of the FARC Secretariat and the group’s second-in-command at the time of its demobilization. Second Marquetalia consists of multiple “fronts” and runs operations primarily in Colombia’s Caribbean region as well as northern Antioquia and parts of the Venezuelan border. The other faction, sometimes called the 1st Front Dissidence, also consists of multiple fronts and is led by Ivan Mordisco and Gentil Duarte and operates primarily in eastern Colombia.
The leaders of both groups aspire to unite the factions, but neither side is willing to submit to the other. Yet they did manage to come to an understanding for a while, through an agreement that also involved the ELN, a long-standing player along the border, and the Venezuelan government. Eventually, however, their accord broke down because of disputes over the distribution of income and territory. Based on the recent Venezuelan operations, it appears Marquez and Santrich’s Second Marquetalia has come out on top, due in large part to its ability to keep the ELN and the Venezuelan government on its side.
The Maduro government has been working for months to stop or contain the escalation of fighting between the exFARC factions. In September 2020, Venezuelan forces attacked three camps belonging to the 10th front – part of the Mordisco-Duarte faction – in three sectors of Paez municipality in Apure state. At the end of January – a day after reported skirmishes between the two factions – the armed forces launched another operation, code named Jiwi 2021, against dissident FARC camps in Venezuela. Less than a week later, on Feb. 5, participants in Jiwi 2021 clashed with FARC elements near Puerto Ayacucho in Amazonas state. A third operation occurred Feb. 11 in the Pedro Camejo municipality of Apure state, during which eight guerrilla camps were destroyed as well as eight runways used by drug traffickers. In all of this fighting, including the most recent bout beginning March 21, the Venezuelan government has carefully chosen its words in describing its targets. Reports indicate that the target group is the 10th front and affiliated members – all part of the Mordisco-Duarte faction. Presumably, Caracas wants a return to the original framework led by Marquez and Santrich, thus preserving the relationship among the Venezuelan forces, the ELN and Second Marquetalia.
The government’s strong response reveals the scale of the threat that the infighting poses to the Maduro regime. The Chavez regime laid the foundation for strong ties between the government, the security forces and Colombian guerrillas like the FARC and ELN.
Over the years, these parties have engaged in mutually beneficial black market activities. These activities in turn have become critical to the Maduro regime, which takes its share of the revenues and stays in the military’s good graces by letting it do the same. The nexus between these groups would be difficult to map out precisely, but there was enough evidence for the U.S. Justice Department in March 2020 to indict Maduro, several current and former Venezuelan officials, and members of the FARC’s leadership on narcoterrorism charges.
Besides the need to keep the money flowing, Caracas must use this moment to prove it can control its territory. The recent offensive comes as the public is seriously questioning, if not outright rejecting, the legitimacy of the regime.
The economic situation in the country is precarious, and there have been multiple attempts – by regime critics and the U.S. – to sow divisions within the military’s ranks. The territory in question is remote and difficult to secure, but if the government fails to rein in the problematic FARC faction and show it can maintain control, it would severely damage the credibility of the government and the military.
Arguably, the fact that the government and military depend on relationships with foreign guerrillas and criminal gangs in the first place is evidence enough of a lack of government control, but an acceptance of criminal activity is not quite the same as anarchy.
To that end, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez announced on April 5 the creation of special defense operation zones in three municipalities of Apure state. The government also sent in the Special Action Force of the Bolivarian National Police (FAES), which human rights groups consider to be a death squad.
The mission of the FAES is unknown, but it likely includes intelligence collection, supporting the other forces, serving as the eyes and ears of Miraflores Palace, and of course brutal suppression. The heavyhanded response is proportionate to the risk the Maduro regime seeks to eliminate.
The Bigger Picture
All this instability serves the interest of the U.S. and Colombian governments. Indeed, on several occasions the Maduro government has claimed without evidence that Washington and Bogota are behind the fighting. However, U.S. efforts to usher in regime change have flopped. Washington failed to inspire civil-military action in early 2019, when opposition figure Juan Guaido claimed the title of interim president, and sanctions have weakened the regime but have not brought it down. Neither the U.S. nor Colombia has the political or economic capital to support a military offensive to depose Maduro, nor is it necessarily in their interest for the country to slide into civil war, or descend far enough into chaos that the U.S. felt a need to get involved militarily. The potential for the struggle within the remnants of the FARC to weaken the regime by eroding confidence and exposing fissures between the government and the armed forces is the best scenario for regime change outside of the recent U.S. efforts.
For now, it appears the Maduro regime and the Venezuelan armed forces have regained control of the territory and settled the dispute between the ex-FARC groups. But if attacks by the FARC groups resume, in Venezuela or Colombia, it could indicate an unraveling of the status quo and trouble for the regime. Another sign of trouble would be if Russia, which has a vested interest in the Maduro regime’s survival, increased its support, particularly militarily.
Finally, Colombia’s response must be monitored. To date, the Colombian government has sent some military reinforcements to areas where people fleeing the violence have crossed the border, but it has steered clear of direct intervention. Any moves by the guerrillas or missteps by the Venezuelan military into Colombia that necessitate a response from Bogota could also upset the balance.