Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro claims Colombian paramilitary groups are exercising criminal and political influence in his country. This is partially true. It also ignores the alleged key role of Maduro loyalists in illegal trade of any kind.
On August 19, Maduro ordered a temporary border closure between the Venezuelan state of Tachira and the Colombian province of Norte de Santander after 3 military officials were wounded in a shoot out with contraband smugglers. The closure was then extended indefinitely and over 1,500 Colombians were deported from their homes in Venezuela.
What’s going on Venezuela’s side of the border
The border between Colombia and Venezuela has existed in a state of mutual neglect for years. Neo-paramilitary groups and partners are taking advantage of this, smuggling gasoline, consumer goods, and drugs.
After Colombia began to crack down on drug trafficking over the first decade of this century, many large scale operations moved to Venezuela where they were received by a sometimes ambivalent, and often complicit government. Rather than using Colombia’s Caribbean coast, the drug lords are now trafficked to Venezuela where widespread corruption among the authorities allows them to ship drugs to the Caribbean.
Illegal trade between the two countries isn’t limited to drug trafficking. Because of this state of neglect border cities like Cucuta in Norte de Santander, Colombia have grown dependent on the clandestine trade of consumer goods between the two countries. Shortly after the border closure, Cucuta experienced a shortage of gasoline, after its usual supply of cheap gas from Venezuela was cut off.
Despite the Venezuelan president’s measures, the deportations and border closures have had little effect on the smuggling of goods across the border. On September 14, the Colombian Army seized 3,850 gallons of fuel smuggled across the border in La Primavera, Vichada, where gas is smuggled on boats along the Orinoco River.
Since the closure, smuggling has been reported across clandestine roads and along rivers connecting the two countries, suggesting that the problem of smuggling is rooted in both sides of the border.
Why Maduro blames “Colombian Paramilitaries”
Maduro and his Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez have repeatedly justified the course of action as necessary to combat the incursion of “Colombian paramilitaries” operating across the border, smuggling drugs and goods, and plotting against the Bolivarian revolutionary government.
Those who Maduro has accused of undermining his government are not strictly Colombian nor are they paramilitaries.
The use of the word “paramilitary” is politically charged, and refers back to Colombia’s history of right-wing armed groups who had battled the leftist guerillas in the country’s internal armed conflict, now 50 years old.
In 2003, the Colombian government negotiated the demobilization of paramilitary groups. That demobilization however was partial, as many groups splintered off to continue drug and contraband smuggling. Though, to call these groups “paramilitaries” is misleading and potentially politically expedient for the chavistas in Venezuela.
What’s important to remember is that ‘paramilitaries’ are, by definition, armed groups with political motivations. Since demobilization, those motivations have slipped away, and now what exist are better referred to as bands of organized criminal groups, or BACRIM, taking advantage of the porous border and economic imbalance between Colombia and Venezuela.
Paramilitaries morph into criminal groups
The now defunct paramilitary group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, was active along the Colombian-Venezuelan border, controlling drug trafficking routes and smuggling contraband gasoline. While they were operating, the AUC did accuse the Chavez government of supporting the ELN and FARC, and according to organized crime watchdog InSight Crime, AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso testified that the AUC met with anti-chavez factions twice in the early 2000’s to discuss operating against the Bolivarian government.
After the 2006 demobilization, splinter groups formed to maintain and take advantage of lucrative illegal trade routes across the border.
Now, according to the national police, the organized criminal groups, the Aguilas Negras, Rastrojos and Urabeños all operate in Tachira, near the Colombian city of Cucuta, where the shoot out that spurred the border closure occurred.
In recent years, the Rastrojos have controlled much of the Venezuelan border, including the state of Zulia and its important port city of Maracaibo. There they are known to coordinate with the Mexican Zetas cartel to ship cocaine north. However high level arrests have depleted the Rastrojos, causing them to lose much of their dominance to rival criminal group, los Urabeños.
However, the actions of these criminal groups belie the supposed political nature that Maduro has cast upon them. The Urabeños and other BACRIM operate out of economic interests rather than political or ideological lines, going to far as to form tenuous alliances with the ELN and FARC – historical enemies of Colombian paramilitary groups.
What Maduro isn’t saying
On the Venezuela side of the border smuggling is coordinated by former Venezuelan military officials called the Cartel de los Soles. Using their connections and influence in the military, the Cartel de los Soles move cocaine through Venezuela to the global market.
The Soles aren’t a cartel in a traditional sense, but a loose connection of criminal cells within the various branches of the Venezuelan military. The Soles are most active in the border regions, where they are believed to work with the FARC, a Colombian leftist guerrilla group to move cocaine across the border.
The United States federal government has recently stepped up its investigation of governmental corruption in Venezuela. Their main target is Diosdado Cabello, the president of Venezuela’s national assembly and its second most powerful man after President Maduro. Cabello is believed to be the ringleader of a large narco-trafficking organization. They have also identified members of the upper levels of the Venezuelan government and military as the leaders of drug trafficking operations in Venezuela.
The convenient term for Maduro
Maduro has a habit of using the word ‘paramilitary’ to describe any group that is not in lock step with his regime.
According to professor Ronal Rodriguez, professor and investigator for the Venezuela Observatory at the Universidad de Rosario, under Chavez Venezuelan paramilitary groups were established, ostensibly to help protect the Bolivarian Revolutionary government. Those groups, he argues are less political in nature and more criminal – ranging from petty thugs to sophisticated organized syndicates.
Under the Chavez regime these groups were tolerated and relatively managed. Unlike his predecessor, Maduro has been unable to keep them in line and thus has taken to calling the “Colombian paramilitaries.”
In a recent op-ed for La Semana, Rodriguez wrote “Many of these bands have the Colombian component, without a doubt, but not as part of an orchestrated from Colombia’s right in order to destabilize Venezuela, but because, according to Maduro’s own statistics, one in every six Venezuelan is of Colombian origin.”
“That is to say Maduro’s talk of the last few days is the result security policy failure that has gotten out of control.”
In 2014, the Tachira state of Venezuela was a hot bed of dissent against the Venezuelan government. Students took to the streets and protested by blocking crucial roads. In the town of Rubio, pamphlets appeared, allegedly written by the Aguilas Negras, threatening death to student protestors if they failed to clear roadblocks. However, opposition leaders expressed doubt that it was actually the Aguilas Negras, but rather a fabrication of the chavistas looking to intimidate students protesting Maduro’s government.
It’s a befuddling accusation – an ostensibly right-wing group attempting to intimidate students protesting their left-wing government. Due to the decentralized and murky nature of the Aguilas Negras, it’s impossible to know if the pamphlets were actually made by the Aguilas. However, had it been them, it’s more likely that the intimidation tactic was spurred by the economic interest of maintaining smuggling routes, rather than a desire to sabotage the Bolivarian government.