Border troubles

Confrontation between Colombia and Venezuela over illegal armed groups.

At present, there is no form of communication between the Governments of Colombia and Venezuela after diplomatic relations were cut in 2019. This has compounded tensions at the border where Venezuela is becoming less tolerant of FARC dissidents.

A retired General of the Colombian Army explained, “There are at least two illegal armed groups operating in the region: the group led by alias Jesús Santrich and Iván Márquez (Nueva Marquetalia) and a group of dissidents led by alias Gentil Duarte. The Nueva Marquetalia has links with the Government of Venezuela through a relationship that dates back several years.”

“There are at least two illegal armed groups operating in the region […] The Nueva Marquetalia has links with the Government of Venezuela.”

Retired General, Colombia Army

Both Presidents, Nicolás Maduro and Iván Duque continue to exploit the confrontation rhetoric as a strategy to distract their respective populations from internal problems. Last February, President Maduro accused Colombia of plotting with the CIA to topple the Venezuelan executive. President Duque’s counter accusations are that Maduro is offering protection to elements of the former FARC engaged in criminal activities along the border.

According to a political analyst that has been following closely following the confrontations, “The current situation is largely due to a dispute, over control of drug trafficking, between Venezuelan border forces (the National Guard and the Armed Forces) and illegal armed groups from Colombia that are operating in Venezuelan territory. The potential for conflict is made worse by the lack of communication between both governments. Even the smallest misunderstanding could escalate rapidly.”

“The potential for conflict is made worse by the lack of communication between governments. Even the smallest misunderstanding could escalate rapidly.”

Political analyst, Colombia

The retired General agreed and provided some further details, “The dispute is over the control of the drugs trade towards Central America, US and Europe. Apparently, the Government of Venezuela is confronting the group of Gentil Duarte and supporting Nueva Marquetalia. There are areas of the border where Colombia has not exercised control. This land is important for drug trafficking as there are more than 2,400 land trails and several waterways. More than 2 or 3 generations of people live in these areas that have links to the extinct armed groups FARC or the National Liberation Army (ELN). Various governments have tried to solve this problem using the military but it needs a coordinated approach involving all institutions.”

In recent weeks, the National Bolivarian Guard (part of Venezuela’s Armed Forces) clashed with illegal Colombian groups in the Apure state on the Venezuelan side of the border. Human Rights Watch said that it had received credible evidence reporting abuses committed by Venezuelan military forces against the local population. Vladimir Padrino, Minister of Defence of Venezuela, confirmed on 6 April 2021 that eight Venezuelan officers were killed in border skirmishes.

The General continued, “With the death of Venezuelan soldiers, tensions are expected to increase. More combatants from the group led by Santrich are expected to arrive, coming from Perijá and Catatumbo to fill the gap that Duarte might leave. However, it is important to note that Duarte’s group is strong and will seek to build alliances. Also, the ELN recently invited an alliance with Nueva Marquetalia to control the area together as they believe they have common interests.”

“With the death of Venezuelan soldiers, tensions are expected to increase. […] Also, the ELN recently invited an alliance with Nueva Marquetalia.”

Retired General, Colombian Army

Maduro said that the government is ready to take any action to end conflicts in the area which will include the declaration of a “special defence zone” on the Venezuelan side of the border and the creation of a military division called “Negro Primero” with combat equipment to stop Colombian agents entering Venezuelan territory.

It is highly unlikely that Maduro and Duque will be able to find common ground to de-escalate tensions. Interestingly, Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño Echeverry, former leader of the FARC, and an opposition leader, offered to mediate between Duque and Maduro to promote a common solution. It is highly unlikely that these efforts will succeed.

A catalyst for de-escalation could be Colombia’s Presidential elections in 2022 where Colombia’s relationship with Venezuela, also due to the migration crisis, will be a central topic.

Polls held at the end of March 2021 showed a wide lead for the left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro with 23% of voting intention. He is followed by the former Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo with a 12%, and current vice-president of the government Marta Lucía Ramírez with 9% of the estimated vote.

A presidential victory for Petro in 2022 could change current bilateral toxic dynamics. He has affirmed that, if elected, he would re-establish relations with Venezuela. Petro said that border clashes are costing blood and deaths and that the management of the region has been handed to criminals.

In the last years Petro, a friend of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, has publicly showed his disagreement with Maduro’s government. Petro compared Duque to Maduro and said that they both have an interest in the border conflicts. He argued that, if elected, he would start an investigation into the drug trafficking routes going through Colombia to determine responsibilities for the current border clashes.

“If Gustavo Petro is elected, it would be worrying since he has never forcefully rejected Chavismo. […] his position would resemble something like that of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.”

Political risk analyst, Colombia

A political risk analyst harboured other concerns about Petro, “If Gustavo Petro is elected, it would be worrying since he has never forcefully rejected Chavismo. Petro believes that a hostile relationship with Venezuela would threaten Colombians and perhaps his position would resemble something like that of Andrés Manuel López Obrador [President of Mexico].”

In conclusion, it seems there will be no short-term solution to the conflicts at the border. A new government in Colombia may change this but elections are still a year away and in Latin America everything can change overnight. As an example, check out this week’s article on Ecuador.

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