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A/J Remigio Ceballos, comandante estratégico operacional de la FANB, a la derecha de la imagen (Foto: Archivo)
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Colombia, Armed Groups and Border Fighting: Analysis Beyond Apure

The Colombian-Venezuelan border is heating up again with the latest war events involving irregular criminal groups coming from Colombia and the security forces of the Bolivarian Republic, and as any hot spot of conflict, it is being oversaturated with information and crossed narratives that are worth analyzing as they are evidence of an informational management forged according to certain tactics of hybrid warfare.

We must start by piecing together some events reported in the media or issued by the main actors of the conflict in order to understand the context in which the informative attacks are inserted and, above all, to have before our eyes the widest possible panorama of the border focus that today erupts in Venezuela.

The objective of Operation Bolivarian Shield 2021

The first thing to be mentioned is that since February, the Bolivarian Shield Operation 2021 had been underway in Venezuela within the framework of the joint military exercises “Supreme Commander Hugo Chávez Frías 2021”, activated by the Strategic Operational Command of the Bolivarian National Armed Force (CEOFANB) at the beginning of March with the purpose of “increasing the operational readiness of the Bolivarian National Armed Force, to combat and expel internal and external threats and Colombian armed groups that could be found in the nation”.

These military maneuvers include the four components of the FANB (Bolivarian Army, Bolivarian Navy, Bolivarian Military Aviation and Bolivarian National Guard), the Bolivarian Militia and other security agencies of the Venezuelan State in the territorial space that gathers the eight Strategic Regions of Integral Defense (REDI), the 28 Operational Zones of Integral Defense (ZODI) and 99 Areas of Integral Defense of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

This is not the first time that the CEOFANB’s Operation Bolivarian Shield has been deployed in Venezuela’s border regions, as in February, March and April 2020 exercises were carried out in different phases, in addition to the fact that this type of instruction among the various security components of the country had been given with the Bicentennial Civic-Military Operation of Angostura 2019 (February of that year), the Simón Bolívar Liberating Campaign Joint Action Exercise 2019 (July-August of that year) and the Venezuela Sovereignty and Peace Exercise 2019 (September of that year).

At present, and at the closing of this special analysis, the operation is in combat status. President Nicolás Maduro stated that before the Venezuelan authorities initiated military procedures on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, intelligence and counterintelligence work was carried out to locate the threats that serve as targets for the exercises.

But there had already been results of Operation Bolivarian Shield 2021 since February: on February 12 the FANB dismantled eight camps, destroyed eight drug landing sites and seized an aircraft with false license plates, solar panels, uniforms and war material in the Pedro Camejo municipality of Apure state. Últimas Noticias reported that “for two weeks there were confrontations between the State security forces and the subversive groups present in the area of the Pedro Camejo municipality”, therefore combat situations were occurring in the ZODI Apure before the events of this month, a fact to be taken into account due to the over-informational treatment of the confrontations occurring at present.

But shortly before, although in another geographical point of Venezuela, Operation Jiwi 2021 also took place within the framework of Operation Bolivarian Shield. On February 5, there were confrontations with a cell of irregular groups coming from Colombia in three sectors in the vicinity of Puerto Ayacucho, capital of Amazonas state, after it was located through patrolling and search by CEOFANB units.

The Venezuelan military sector has been carrying out exercises and operations for months now, which show a significant criminal activity by non-state armed groups that cross the porous Colombian border to reach Venezuelan territory for different purposes, the most important of which is related to the trafficking of illicit substances.

Generally, the south of the Venezuelan border has not had the same media coverage as the west, since Táchira and Zulia serve as the main migratory arteries through which it is easier to reach the large Colombian cities, and vice versa. The departments of Arauca and Vichada are bordering the state of Apure, both geographically integrated by the Orinoco plains. The density of the jungle means that these border points are not very busy, except for the characteristic populations of the region, those that make up the social and economic frontier, which are historically involved in the violent conflict of half a century in Colombia.

It is in these territorial networks where a set of essential related activities take place. This is what Minister Izquierdo Torres defines as “the social border” or how the presence of Colombian influence is palpable inland in Venezuela. pic.twitter.com/FtkK8Hd6s6

– Samuel Robinson Institute (@isrobinson_) March 27, 2021.

“The overall balance [of Operation Bolivarian Shield 2021 in its Apure chapter] thus far yields six terrorists neutralized, 27 suspects placed at the order of Military Court No. 14 of control, and another 12 detained yesterday (Friday, March 26),” said G/J Vladimir Padrino López, Venezuelan Minister of Defense, at an international press conference on Saturday, March 27.

The minister pointed out that during the operation, weapons, grenades, ammunition, explosives, military clothing, vehicles, drug packages and technological equipment with information related to the activities of the Colombian irregular group were also seized.

He also lamented the loss of two Venezuelan officers killed and more than 20 wounded by firearms during the fighting.

The tactics used by the Colombian irregular groups, characteristic of the narco-culture so widely disseminated by television and corporate media, include the placement of anti-personnel mines in the surroundings of the camps where they were operating their industry; the execution of psychological warfare campaigns on the population of the invaded territory through social networks and WhatsApp chains in order to spread social panic, recruit local operators and try to inoculate an anti-government sentiment through fake news and other infowar mechanisms (such as the hoax of “false positives” attacked by Venezuelan forces, which will be amplified by the government of Iván Duque and Team Guaidó, and which we will comment on later); and the attack to public institutions and infrastructure (CORPOELEC, SENIAT and PDVSA) with heavy weapons and explosives.

#Apure 9 Venezuelan military personnel are reported wounded during the last fights with Colombian irregulars who try to control the Apure-Colombia border crossing. The wounded are from firearms and unconventional mines made with R1 explosives, according to reports pic.twitter.com/h6kpPXdCDG

– Eligio Rojas (@ELESPINITO) March 29, 2021

The imprint of the Colombian conflict can also be noted in the criminal use of people displaced by drug trafficking and clashes as human shields to cross from the Venezuelan side to the neighboring side, a tactic qualified as a war crime under the Rome Statute.

The announced results show what is the objective of the military operations, being G/J Padrino López the state spokesman denouncing the political actors that promote the criminal scheme that is in the process of insertion in the Colombian-Venezuelan border. The Venezuelan State’s fight against Los Rastrojos and other non-state actors related to drug trafficking and various criminal activities in the west of the country is an immediate precedent of the actions carried out by the FANB and other national security institutions, taking into account the deep relationship existing between the Colombian narco, the State currently presided over by Iván Duque, the Mexican cartels and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.

During the press conference, G/J Padrino López reported that the focus at the moment is in the south of the country due to indications from intelligence, military counterintelligence and factual analysis. This year, on January 21, January 30, February 21 and March 10, aircraft and shipments of illicit substances were neutralized, among other drug trafficking equipment, as already mentioned in this report, in the context of Operation Bolivarian Shield 2021.

These elements make up an anti-narcotics operation of the Venezuelan State, without losing sight of the drug trafficking factor, whose market functions as a “lubricant” of its economy. It is a matter of nipping in the bud a “criminal corridor on the border”, as stated in a communiqué signed by the Venezuelan Minister of Defense himself, published on Saturday 27th.

The theater of operations surrounds a total of approximately 10 thousand square kilometers, in a geographic triangle in the south of Apure state, between El Nula, La Victoria and Guasdualito, being the second protagonist location of the Colombian insurgency and counterinsurgency operations in its vicinity.

captura teatro de operaciones.png

Zona donde toma acción la Operación Escudo Bolivariano 2021 (Foto: Captura de imagen)

It is worth noting in this report that the approach used by Venezuelan authorities in counterinsurgency operations combines the traditional “enemy-centric” approach, oriented towards the total destruction of the enemy by force, with the “contemporary population-centric” approach, which proposes the protection of populations and the recovery of state legitimacy over the territorial space. Military use is contemplated in a univocal manner against criminal armed groups and the protection of fundamental human rights by the State in the aforementioned theater of operations.

Therefore, the Venezuelan State has decided to strike directly at the foreign irregular groups that invade Apure State, while at the same time indirectly attacking the Colombian drug trafficking structure. Apure-Arauca is a strategic corridor as it is geographically flat for air shipments to Mexico. The most recent shoot downs of drug planes have occurred along this route. And this is no coincidence.

Colombian drug traffickers, the Sinaloa cartel and the DEA

The aforementioned communiqué issued by the Ministry of Popular Power for Defense provides an explanation of the causes of the recent violent events in the state of Apure:

“This situation of violence that is affecting our border states with the neo-Granadian nation, is the result of the decades-long total abandonment of its borders by the authorities of that country, which suffers from an armed conflict, whose origin lies in social inequality, injustice and the blind exercise of power by a rancid oligarchy subordinated to imperial guidelines (the bold letters are ours).”

We highlight the fact that there is abandonment on the part of the Colombian State regarding ensuring the fundamental human rights of the populations along its borders, and such consent has positive repercussions on the criminal economy that structurally pervades Colombia. The exposure of the border zone on the Colombian side of the border to the circuit of non-state armed groups is an agreement that seems to have been established between the State and national and transnational para-economic actors.

In itself, the balance of the armed conflict that has plagued Colombia for more than half a century, in territorial and economic terms, consists of the imposition of a narco-state clearly under the tutelage of the U.S. government, which outsources its economic and financial operations through the non-state armed groups that constitute the contemporary post-signing of the Peace Accords in Havana in 2016. What some analysts identify as an “abandonment” of the territories formerly occupied by the defunct FARC army, now undermined by numerous armed groups of different denomination of origin, and of course expanded through the tactic of violent displacement of rural communities throughout the country in conjunction with the implementation of the narco-economy, can be seen as a plan to build a much more efficient framework to cover up the business that really “lubricates” the Colombian economy, the main reason for the zealous protectorate of the DEA and the U.S. military.

This has had repercussions in a highly unequal Colombia, where, for example, the caudillismo imposed by the figure of Álvaro Uribe Vélez and his unpunished crimes is stronger than the evidence against him presented before the courts and the media. The Secretary General of the United Nations (UN), Antonio Guterres, informed that the resurgence of violence in Colombia has displaced or confined 13,422 people (almost half of them minors) in 2021 alone, a somber figure of the current situation of the country, once known as Neo-Granada.

The important thing to mention here is that the development of the conflict attracted transnational forces that, attracted by the functioning of the paraeconomic power, are inserted as actors of capital importance in that context, modifying it towards a modification of the regional division scheme of drug trafficking, In this context, cocaine production is carried out in Colombia, from where it is extracted and transported by predominantly Mexican cartels to the United States, the world’s main consumer of illicit drugs, passing through countries such as Venezuela, Panama, Honduras, among other nodal points in Central America, North America and the Caribbean.

The presence of Mexican drug traffickers is key to understanding the current structure of Colombian drug trafficking. According to the Colombian presidential advisor for national security, Rafael Guarín, interviewed by Reuters, four cartels from Mexico control the purchase and trafficking of cocaine in Colombia:

“The Mexicans are the main buyers of the supply of coca produced in Colombia. The Mexicans are basically in charge of the buying, trafficking and selling in the United States.”

“The role they basically play here (in Colombia) is to send emissaries and negotiators and also individuals who verify the quality of the drugs leaving Venezuela or leaving the Pacific or northern Ecuador to Central America and the US market”, explained the official, which confirms the fact that the Colombian state possesses the necessary elements to control the quality of the drugs.

The Sinaloa Cartel is the most active drug trafficker in Colombia with links in different regions of the country with different criminal groups, dissidents and remnants of the FARC and the Gulf Clan, as a detailed web search can prove. They even report the uses of emissaries of Mexican cartels, who verify the weight and purity of drugs leaving Colombia, coordinate shipments abroad by sea or air, and in some areas finance the planting of coca leaves. Colombian production of illicit substances maintains a financially convenient “pragmatic relationship” with Mexican drug traffickers.

As such, the Sinaloa Cartel’s biggest presence in southern Colombia is in the municipality of Tumaco, which is part of the department of Nariño, bordering Ecuador. Tumaco is, according to a 2020 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the municipality with the most hectares dedicated to coca cultivation in Colombia, which is considered the world’s top cocaine producer.

The Indepaz report on the presence of armed groups in Colombia published in October 2020 reports that the Sinaloa Cartel is allegedly financing the expansion of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces in the department of Córdoba and areas of Catatumbo (which includes the departments of Santander, Norte de Santander, part of Cáceres, part of Cáceres, and part of Cáceres), Norte de Santander, part of Cesar and border areas with Venezuela) and, in addition, negotiates directly with the 1st Front of alias “Gentil Duarte”, leader of a large group of FARC dissidents who, it should be noted, does not represent all FARC dissidents. It is not the same to recognize “Gentil Duarte” in La Segunda Marquetalia, a dissidence commanded by “Iván Márquez”, “Jesús Santrich”, “El Paisa”, etc., since they have different interests in the present context.

Indepaz assures that “Gentil Duarte” “has managed to expand from Guaviare, which is its main area of influence, towards the north of the country by controlling the production of coca base in departments such as Meta and Arauca. In a hamlet in the La Macarena mountain range, Duarte is said to be the only supplier of coca base in that area of the country.

But the Mexican cartel in question has direct connections to Colombian presidential power. On October 20, 2020, the web portal La Nueva Prensa published 49 photos showing Álvaro Uribe and Iván Duque with the pilot Samuel David Niño Cataño, identified as “an extinct Colombian pilot of the Sinaloa Cartel and at the same time trusted aviator of the electoral campaigns of Álvaro Uribe for the senate and Iván Duque for the presidency, has, without merit, two contracts with the Administrative Department of Civil Aeronautics of Colombia”.

In addition, the same Sinaloa Cartel not only has business dealings with the State and different armed groups in Colombia and Mexico, it also maintains a perennial dialogue with the DEA in an effort to coordinate and cooperate in sensitive areas within the global drug trafficking industry, as demonstrated in an investigation published last year by this tribune. We said:

“More revealing is Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez’s investigation into DEA contracts with Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada for the Sinaloa Cartel to monopolize the market for illicit substances in exchange for information and seizures from rival cartels’ businesses in Mexico and the United States. Hernandez’s findings call into question the legitimacy of the main US anti-drug agency, which appears to view the Zambadas more as an ally and partner than an enemy.

In that investigation we cited an interview by Spain’s El Confidencial with Juan Pablo Escobar, son of Pablo Escobar, leader of the notorious Medellin Cartel, who confessed:

“In honor of the truth it must be told how my father came to obtain such an amount of power and money. It is, without a doubt, thanks to alliances. He sent 92,000 kilos of cocaine to the DEA during three years and pocketed 700 million dollars, which allowed him to buy wills, bandits, finance terrorism and causes for his own benefit. My father’s literal words were: ‘We ended up working with those who persecuted us’. It doesn’t get any clearer than that. The same thing is happening today, 23 years later”.

It is therefore not surprising that Minister G/J Padrino López has stated that the DEA is involved in the plot involving drug trafficking groups in southern Colombia, with the Sinaloa Cartel being one of the main sponsors of the criminal economy there. In a recently published communiqué from the Central Command of the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN), they recall that “the DEA is the one who must explain to the world, being the promoter of relations with the cartels within its old practice of ‘controlled shipments’, where they inculpate and prosecute the drug traffickers and the Sinaloa cartel”.

Translation: Internationalist 360°

— Somos un grupo de investigadores independientes dedicados a analizar el proceso de guerra contra Venezuela y sus implicaciones globales. Desde el principio nuestro contenido ha sido de libre uso. Dependemos de donaciones y colaboraciones para sostener este proyecto, si deseas contribuir con Misión Verdad puedes hacerlo aquí<