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Colombia & Venezuela: The not-so-secret border war

By John Sweeney

26.09.05 | Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez complains frequently that political and criminal violence is crossing the border from Colombia into Venezuela due both to Plan Colombia and also to the Colombian government’s failure to maintain a strong security presence along the entire length of Colombia’s border with Venezuela. This is an inaccurate explanation of what is causing the increasing instability and violence along the border between Venezuela and Colombia.

The border region between Colombia and Venezuela has always been an area characterized by lawlessness and a weak government security presence in both countries. Since 1998, however, the Colombian-Venezuelan border region has become significantly more dangerous, unstable and chaotic. The Chavez government’s core argument that the Colombian government is responsible for the deteriorating security situation along the border between both countries is wrong. There are several factors causing the instability and violence along the border between Colombia and Venezuela.

One, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) have been operating openly from bases inside Venezuela since 1999, when Chavez assumed the presidency of Venezuela. Plan Colombia and the more recent Patriot Plan executed by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez with over $3 billion of U.S. military assistance to date did not drive the FARC and ELN into Venezuelan territory, as some critics argue. Plan Colombia and Patriot Plan have been executed mainly in southern Colombia where the FARC historically has maintained its core stronghold. Since the start of 2005 Colombian military forces have conducted more operations against the FARC and ELN in eastern and northeastern Colombia along the border with Venezuela. However, permanent FARC and ELN bases inside Venezuelan territory were established starting in 1999, the first year of Chavez’s Bolivarian reign.

Two, the Chavez government since 1999 has allowed the FARC and ELN to maintain a long-term physical presence in states like Apure, Bolivar, Barinas, Tachira, Trujillo, Merida and Zulia. Army General Nestor Gonzalez Gonzalez has related that when he commanded troops along the border with Colombia, he received orders on more than one occasion from the Chavez government in Caracas to not interdict and attack FARC and ELN forces discovered by Venezuelan army patrols. Other army officers including colonels, majors, captains and lieutenants that have served in Venezuelan combat units on the border with Colombia have had similar experiences when Colombian rebels have been encountered in Venezuelan territory and field commanders have been ordered by their superiors in Caracas to not engage the enemy. Many Venezuelan officers also have revealed that Venezuelan border units are undermanned and poorly equipped to carry out their mission of protecting the border.

Three, the FARC’s good relations with the Chavez government have allowed the Colombian communist militant group to expand its geopolitical sphere of influence and its geographic battlefield into Venezuelan territory. For example, FARC leader Rodrigo Granda, who was abducted in Caracas last December in a clandestine Colombian operation, applied for Venezuelan citizenship in Barinas, received his Venezuelan citizenship papers in Maracay (where he lived openly with his wife), and frequently visited Caracas to attend local Bolivarian events or to catch international flights to countries like Ecuador and Brazil where he advanced the FARC’s criminal and insurgent activities. Granda was linked directly to the Paraguayan communists that kidnapped and murdered the daughter of former President Raul Cubas.

Also, FARC units based inside Venezuelan territory increasingly have launched operations from their Venezuelan sanctuary against targets in Colombia since the start of this year. Colombian troops and towns have been attacked by FARC units that retreat back into Venezuela. Bomb attacks also have been perpetrated against targets in Colombia by FARC units based in Apure.

Four, the Chavez government is stoking lawlessness and chaos deliberately in Venezuela’s states bordering Colombia. The accelerating pace of illegal land confiscations that the Chavez government is carrying out against private landowners, literally at military gunpoint, have also encouraged a growing wave of unreported land invasions by allegedly “landless peasants” that are being organized and led by radical chavistas. Also, the Chavez government has allowed the Bolivarian Liberation Front (FBL) to flourish in states like Apure, Barinas, Tachira, Trujillo and increasingly even Zulia. The FBL is a Venezuelan Marxist insurgent group that reportedly now totals over 2,000 members, and is linked politically and financially to senior leaders in Caracas of the Patria Para Todos (PPT) party – whose leaders also control the Foreign Ministry, the Energy and Petroleum Ministry, Petroleos de Venezuela, and the Labor Ministry.

The FARC, ELN and FBL forces operating in Venezuela’s border region states literally get away with murder because their victims – cattle ranchers and farmers with large estates – are, in the eyes of the Bolivarian revolution, “latifundistas” and legitimate political targets. Bolivarian prejudice against private property owners, plus Bolivarian ideological empathy with Colombian guerrillas and a weakened Venezuelan FAN add up to growing instability, violence and chaos along the border.

The border security crisis is also complicated by the presence of international drug traffickers that have links with the FARC, Colombian paramilitaries, corrupt elements of the Venezuelan National Guard, and organized criminal enterprises operating in both countries. U.S. counter-narcotics entities like the Drug Enforcement Administration have confirmed that rogue Venezuelan National Guard personnel reportedly have become important players in recent years in the Venezuelan narcotics trans-shipment industry. That’s one of the main reasons why Venezuela was decertified on Sept. 15.

The security crisis along the border between Colombia and Venezuela will worsen in coming years. Although U.S. congressional authority for Plan Colombia expires this fiscal year, President George W. Bush confirmed several months ago that the U.S. government will continue to support Colombia’s military offensive against “narcoterrorists” like the FARC. If Uribe’s bid for re-election to a second four-year term in May 2006 is not derailed by Colombia’s Constitutional Court, the Colombian military offensive against the FARC will intensify through the end of this decade. Over 70 percent of Colombian voters like Uribe and support his Peace and Security offensive, which means only the Constitutional Court is standing in the way of his easy re-election.

Patriot Plan has been carried out in southern Colombia for the past two years, where some 17,000 troops are permanently deployed on combat operations against the FARC. However, Uribe also plans to deploy 20,000 troops to northwestern Colombia near the border with Panama over the next 6-12 months. Uribe’s government recently also reinforced the Army’s 10th Armored Brigade in northeastern Colombia, where 9,000 Colombian troops are currently deployed on infrastructure protection and offensive combat operations against the FARC, ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a small regional group of Marxist bandits that also hides out in Venezuelan territory. The 10th Armored brigade covers a region stretching from the northern region of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to the departments of Cesar and Guajira.

As the Colombian military presence grows along the border with Venezuela, FARC and ELN units are retreating deeper into Venezuelan territory, repeating a pattern they employ in southern Colombia along the border with Ecuador. Recently, Colombian military intelligence confirmed the existence of at least 20 permanent FARC camps inside northern Ecuadorian territory, despite the presence in that area of some 10,000 Ecuadorian troops and police.

The FARC has responded to Uribe’s sustained military offensive by re-deploying its forces towards the borders of Ecuador in Southern Colombia, and Venezuela in the southeast and northeast of Colombia. FARC forces also have been reorganized from territorially stationary Fronts of 50-80 fighters to squad-size units of 10-12 fighters that are highly mobile. FARC units have also increased their use of homemade landmines (thanks to instruction from IRA bombers that were paid in cash and cocaine), and increasingly employ sniper teams of 2-3 persons that ambush army patrols and function as read-guard forces to slow advancing army units and give escaping FARC units time to cross the border into Venezuela.

Since the start of 2005 the FARC also has maintained a low-level offensive against the Colombian army that killed over 350 soldiers and police during the first eight months of this year. Although the Uribe government has succeeding in “demobilizing” over 12,000 communist rebels and rightwing paramilitaries in the past two years, recent reports from Colombia indicate several things. One, the FARC’s effective military strength has been reduced from 17,000 active fighters in 2002 to 15,000 fighters today. These numbers mean that the FARC’s recruitment efforts are keeping pace with the loss of fighters through combat, capture or voluntary surrender. Increasingly, the FARC reportedly is recruiting Venezuelans, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Argentines, Bolivians and other Latin American nationalities.

Two, while the Colombian army has inflicted heavy material losses on the FARC, the rebel group’s ability to wage guerrilla war remains intact. In effect, the FARC have adapted to Uribe’s military offensive by avoiding combat except when it’s absolutely necessary, and waiting to see if Uribe will be re-elected in 2006.

Where does Venezuela fit into this geopolitical stuation? Several months ago Uribe threatened to order Colombian troops into Venezuela in pursuit of FARC forces if the Chavez government didn’t strengthen its side of the border. Uribe’s threat caused a row with Caracas, and then tensions died down and now Uribe outwardly is trying to get along with Chavez. Recently the Colombian government rejected a political asylum request by 11 Venezuelan generals, admirals and colonels that the Chavez government wants to arrest on charges relating to the political violence in Caracas on April 11-13, 2002. In recent months, the Chavez government also has cooperated with Bogota by arresting and deporting some Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries.

However, sources in Washington, D.C. and Caracas reported very recently that in the past few months there have been several incidents in which Colombian troops have entered Venezuelan territory to carry out precision attacks against FARC units in Venezuelan territory. We have been unable to confirm these reports, and we find it difficult to believe that the Chavez government would remain silent if these reports were, indeed, true. That said, the FARC’s growing physical presence inside Venezuela and the increased deployment of Colombian troops to the border region with Venezuela significantly raise the possibility that Colombian troops will battle Colombian guerrillas on Venezuela’s side of the border – accidentally, of course, since it’s so difficult in the dense jungle to precisely identify the border line of demarcation..

In the longer term, the political enmity between the Bolivarian revolution in Caracas and the pro-U.S. government in Bogota will persist and intensify. Uribe has already expanded the Colombian military to over 363,000 personnel, and over the next five years could expand this number even more to 500,000 if that’s what it takes to defeat the FARC and ELN. Of course, a military expansion of this magnitude would depend on substantial ongoing U.S. military aid for Colombia.

However, Chavez is also expanding his Bolivarian military and paramilitary forces. The number of Russian assault rifles already ordered, and the North Korean rifles that Chavez reportedly has negotiated quietly too, indicate that Venezuela’s president wants to arm a force of at least 350,000 personnel. This is a hypothetical number based on the number of FAL assault rifles in the Venezuelan military’s arsenals (approximately 100,000), and the new rifles ordered from Russia and (reportedly) North Korea (250,000). As Venezuela’s assault rifle stocks increase, it’s likely that more Venezuelan military rifles and munitions will find their way into the hand s of the FARC, ELN and other militant groups in countries like Ecuador and Peru. Whether this happens as a result of a deliberate political decision by the Bolivarian revolution or because of corrupt Venezuelan personnel peddling weapons illegally doesn’t matter. The point is that more Venezuelan assault rifles likely will wind up in the hands of the wrong people along the border between both countries, and regionally as well.

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