In the early hours of January 1, 2022, a confrontation took place in Barrancas del Orinoco, Monagas state, with the balance of at least 7 people dead and several others injured. Local residents and the media coincide in pointing out as protagonists of the confrontation a criminal gang known as “The union” (El Sindicato) that has operated in the area for some 15 years, and members of the Colombian guerrilla group National Liberation Army (ELN). So far, the only official source on the events was a note released by the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) that refers to the “Union of Barrancas and another irregular group” as the protagonists of the event, refraining from mentioning the guerrilla group. The area was militarized from January 2, through the “Cacique Urimare” operation.
On the other hand, on January 2, clashes were reported in the border region between the Venezuelan state of Apure and the Colombian department of Arauca. The clashes, which would have occurred on both sides of the border between members of the ELN and dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), reportedly resulted in at least 24 deaths. Additionally, on January 3, the killing of a member of the ELN in the town of El Amparo, Apure state, was known, after which the guerrilla that controls the area ordered to close the passage of canoes along the Arauca River, affecting the entire civilian population of the sector.
In both cases, these are groups with control over territory and population, whose presence is disputed by another group that aspires to obtain that control. In both cases, they are groups with great firepower whose actions are tolerated – and in some cases protected – by the Venezuelan authorities. In both cases, the control in dispute implies ensuring means of subsistence in areas such as mining or drug trafficking, by controlling important river passages. Finally, in both cases, there is a power ceded by the Venezuelan State, which explains the late or simply absent institutional response.
While in Barrancas, the GNB minimized the seriousness of what happened, describing it as a “settling of accounts”, in the case of Arauca – Apure there has not even been an official pronouncement. This silence contrasts with the position of local authorities on the Colombian side, who spoke out immediately, warning of the risks to the civilian population and requesting humanitarian support in the event of a possible displacement. At the time of preparing this note, there had been no pronouncement by the national or local authorities of Venezuela, although a source reported the displacement of Venezuelan military vehicles to the town of La Victoria, Apure state.
The underlying reasons were explained by Rocío San Miguel, an expert analyst in military matters, and by an opposition deputy. San Miguel recalled that “what happened in Barrancas del Orinoco on January 1 is a portrait of the New Frontier. One that is no longer next to international limits, but everywhere where the FANB [Bolivarian National Armed Force] handed over control of arms to organized crime”.
For her part, Deputy María Hernández del Castillo, affirmed that “it is evident that the Venezuelan State, today with all its institutions usurped and corrupted, have allowed, consented, negotiated, and protected anarchy in the area, at the expense of the Monaguense family. The point is the control of the Orinoco and its Delta for smuggling” (sic).
There are more and more points of the territory where the State has ceded control. As these corridors are important for businesses such as drug trafficking and illegal mining, it is possible to predict that these confrontations will continue, with negative effects on the rights of the population.