Illegal armed groups from both Colombia and Venezuela have taken advantage of the two countries’ broken relations, according to a newly released study.
According to the report of Fundacion Paz y Reconciliacion (PARES), particularly the two countries’ non-cooperation in law enforcement has been a blessing for guerrilla groups and organized crime.
During its months of investigation, PARES registered the activity of 28 illegal armed groups, including a group identifying itself as the Sinaloa Cartel.
These groups have benefited from the historical lawlessness in the region, and the recent diplomatic breakdown and international attempts to isolate Venezuela’s authoritarian government.
The international policy of blockade and refusal to recognize the Bolivarian Government of Venezuela, has triggered a binational crisis that helps to strengthen these criminal groups through the various illegal and illicit activities they carry out, as well as pushing the migrant population to see in these groups multiple ways out of their economic crisis, and that in the end ends up intensifying the armed and organized conflict in both countries.
Additionally, the illegal armed groups have actively destabilized the border region and have worsened the humanitarian situation on the Venezuelan side of the border, “initially with the smuggling of food and medicine through illegal border crossings to Colombia,” PARES said.
The NGO found that the situation along the border could roughly be divided in three regions that each have its own specific security challenges.
The northern region: emerging guerrillas and local gangs
The most northern part of the 2,200-kilometer border has seen an increase of activity by ELN guerrillas who appear have to have made a territorial offensive after the demobilization of the much larger FARC guerrilla group in 2017.
Additionally, paramilitary group AGC appears to have aligned itself with the Pachenca gang that originally operated from the Colombian port city of Santa Marta, which has strengthened the groups’ control over drug trafficking routes to Venezuela.
What is particular in this region is that transnational groups like Los Pranes, who were founded inside Venezuelan prisons, and local organized crime groups are using extremely violent methods while vying for control over the illegal border crossings.
These illegal border crossings have always been used to smuggle contraband and drugs, but have become of increased importance for human traffickers and Venezuelan cattle thieves.
Cucuta and San Cristobal: guerrillas, narcos and paramilitaries
The border region around the Colombian border city and its Venezuelan sister San Cristobal is vied for mainly by Colombian guerrilla groups and paramilitaries.
The Colombian Norte de Santander province is mainly controlled by the ELN, especially after it received help from the rearmed 33rd Front of the now-demobilized FARC guerrilla group.
In Catatumbo, a region in the north of Norte de Santander province, these guerrillas have been vying for control over vast coca plantations with the EPL and their allies, “Los Rastrojos,” who dominate drug trafficking routes in the southern half of this region and have significant criminal interests in the cities.
The last two groups can allegedly also count on the support of a group calling itself the Sinaloa Cartel and a paramilitary group calling itself the AUCV, which mainly operates on the Venezuelan side of the border.
The refugee crisis caused by the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has mainly benefited the groups that control the illegal border crossings that are used by human traffickers or where migrants are extorted.
The southern region: guerrillas, drugs and gold
The southern half of the border region has historically suffered most from neglect by both governments, partly because it largely consists of jungle.
In the northeastern province of Arauca and the neighboring Apure state, Human Rights Watch recently concluded that “the guerrillas are the police.”
PARES confirmed that Arauca is predominantly dominated by the ELN, but is surrounded by dissident FARC guerrillas, who allegedly work together with another group identified as the Sinaloa Cartel to traffic drugs from central Colombia to Venezuela.
The economic crisis that hit Venezuela in 2015 led to a major increase in illegal gold mining in the Amazonas state, which has attracted the attention of both the ELN and FARC dissidents, the International Crisis Group found last year.
According to PARES, this has created a potentially explosive situation as the FARC dissidents are splintering.