A cross-border war between Colombia and Venezuela is highly unlikely, but brutal drug wars are already being fought in the border region. The latest row has exposed an escalating conflict between illegal armed groups, but the politicization of security stands in the way of effective action.
For months, it has been clear that the border area presents a significant security threat for both Colombia and Venezuela. Many of the drugs that come out of Colombia are taken to Venezuela by land or boat en route to Central America and Europe. The FARC and ELN have a presence on both sides of the border, as do drug gangs and paramilitary groups. Nevertheless, so far, government responses have been ineffective and, crucially, totally uncoordinated. As violence continues to escalate, each country accuses the other of harboring illegal groups.
Since Uribe came to power but especially since the U.S. base deal scandal, people throughout Latin America have come to associate the Colombian government with paramilitarism (just look at pop star Calle 13’s wardrobe choices for the MTV awards). Similarly, at least in Colombia, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has long been suspected of offering a safe haven for FARC guerrillas and even of offering them financial and military support.
The current border row echoes, in part, some of those old accusations. Chavez complains about paramilitary violence along the border with increasing frequency. Uribe, meanwhile, accuses Chavez of tolerating or even supporting the FARC and ELN. The row recently intensified over the massacre of a Colombian soccer team on the Venezuelan side of the border. Colombian officials blamed the ELN of kidnapping the team in Colombia and murdering the players in a safe haven in Venezuela, but their Venezuelan counterparts later stated that the evidence pointed to Colombian paramilitaries. Venezuelan authorities also blamed the shooting of Venezuelan border guards days later on paramilitaries based in Colombia.
Clearly, this politicization of Colombia’s armed conflict is an obstacle to effective regional coordination on security issues. Neveretheless, in a way, both governments are right in their accusations. Hugo Chavez may not be supporting Colombian guerrilla groups directly, but he certainly is not making a serious effort to expel the FARC and ELN from his country. The guerillas treat the Venezuelan jungle as a safe house. Last month, after ELN leader “Pablito” escaped in a worryingly sophisticated guerrilla rescue operation near the border and most likely took refuge in Venezuela.
Similarly, the Uribe government’s pursuit of new paramilitary drug gangs near the border has been less than enthusiastic. Despite denouncing such groups in press conferences, the Colombian military has largely focused its efforts on the FARC. Paramiiltary groups, especially in border areas, continue to grow quickly in terms of number and firepower. Inaction on both sides of the border precludes any success in establishing peace and the rule of law.
The recent border row also has important domestic political ramifications in both Colombia and Venezuela, which constitute the second obstacle to action. Both leaders treat violence and drug-running on the border not as the security threat that it poses, but as another front in the broader Colombia-Venezuela rivalry. The issue is highly personal; Uribe and Chavez are both charismatic populists who clearly do not get along.
In Colombia, Uribe and his supporters continue to maneuver for a second re-election referendum. Most Colombians support it, but the political process has stalled. Just a few months away from the crucial 2010 elections, few things would be better for Uribe, a right-leaning and security-minded President, than escalating tensions with the left-leaning and frighteningly erratic Chavez.
Chavez also has a sizeable political stake in the border row. As in Colombia, there is a political incentive to re-energize the citizenry’s nationalist spirit. Moreover, Chavez has succeeded in exacerbating broad regional apprehension about the presence of U.S. troops in Colombia. He seems to believe that his leadership role in the Latin American left depends, in part, on his ability to remain Uribe’s most vocal and visible challenger. Already, he is taking advantage of the border row to invent coup conspiracies.
So there are political incentives behind the inaction on both sides of the border. Neither country is likely to change its security policy. The dangerous accusations and military escalations will continue for a few days, but how far will this crisis really go?
It is obviously unlikely to lead to armed confrontation. The massacre of the soccer team has temporarily exacerbated regional paranoia and mistrust, but, if the political incentives behind the public tensions are strong, the incentives against armed conflict are even stronger. More interesting than the moot possibility of armed conflict itself is the fact that both governments are increasingly turning to risky militaristic rhetoric in crises like the current one.
On the other hand, the crisis could definitely lead to the permanent closing of the border, which would devastate the economy on both sides of the border. Chavez has used border policy to put economic pressure on Colombia in previous crises. He is threatening similar action now.
In the long run, however, little will change. Bilateral trade, which has risen to almost $7 billion a year, is too important to permanently fall victim to what is little more than political theater. Meanwhile, the border region will continue to experience a drug trafficking boom and high levels of violence, to the detriment of Colombians and Venezuelans alike.