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Who is the target of the announced border military operations between Colombia and Venezuela?

Photo: @mindefensa Colombia

On April 21, 2023, Colombian President Gustavo Petro announced a military alliance with Venezuela to combat the National Liberation Army (ELN). The president justified the measure as a response to the non-acceptance of the ceasefire by the insurgent group, and added that now the Bolivarian National Guard “is acting in alliance with the Colombian government, with its Army, taking away a space that was previously freely held by the ELN”.

The announcement, however, does not occur in a vacuum. On August 10, 2022, that is, just 3 days after Petro took office, the Venezuelan defense minister stated  that Maduro had given him instructions “to establish contact with the Colombian defense minister without delay”. And already in November 2022, the first meeting between representatives of the armed forces of both countries was held, in San Antonio del Táchira.

Finally, on May 11, 2023, a meeting of the defense ministers of both countries and of both of them with Maduro was held. In this regard, the Venezuelan defense minister said that “with the border operations we are going to liberate the national territory from terrorists, armed groups, wherever they are from. No group has the morale or the authorization to remain in the Venezuelan sovereign space and they are going to be fought with all the force”.

In 2021, the Maduro government had coined the term “TANCOL” to refer to criminality originating from Colombia. At that time, Maduro specified that “they are neither guerrillas, nor pseudo-guerrillas, nor paramilitaries, they are the TANCOL, terrorists, armed, drug traffickers from Colombia.” And those TANCOL groups “have been infiltrating Venezuelan territory”. In this way, a campaign was launched against a type of criminal organization that no one had heard of and that made the presence and criminal actions of all the others invisible: guerrillas, pseudo-guerrillas and paramilitaries. That is why it is not clear if both ministers have in mind the same type of groups that are the target of this announced cooperation.

The truth is that, since Chávez came to power, the armed attacks by the Colombian guerrillas against armed forces posts in Venezuela had stopped. After the signing of the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC, some confrontations have taken place again, although more sporadic and mainly led by the ELN, until the announcement of the ex-FARC dissidents to return to arms in 2019. Other criminal groups of a paramilitary nature in Colombia and mega gangs on the Venezuelan side have begun to act in recent years in the border strip, generating conflict, not only with the security agencies of both countries, but also strong confrontations among themselves for territorial and human trafficking business control.

Three days after the meeting of defense ministers in Caracas, the governor of the border state of Táchira, Freddy Bernal, admitted that the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents and members of the Gulf Clan operate on the border. The statement was made within the framework of a joint operation by the Venezuelan military and police, which resulted in the death of three alleged criminals who would have attacked a business in the Pedro María Ureña municipality at the beginning of May.

Bernal’s statement is surprising, since it is the first time that a Venezuelan official recognizes the presence of these organizations, beyond the generic name of “TANCOL”. However, it remains to be seen if the operations to combat the presence of irregular armed groups focus only on lower-ranking actors and on the border or if there will really be a plan to dismantle the presence of all types of irregular armed actors both in the states borders as inside territory.

It is not easy to understand what has changed in Maduro’s logic of thought, beyond the change of government in Colombia, to engage in this apparent shift in focus against irregular armed groups from Colombia. The only time that Maduro took any action against the Colombian population was in 2015, with the massive expulsion of civilian Colombian residents and the closure of the border, an action that was preceded by a strong campaign of xenophobia promoted by the high government and that caused serious violations of the human rights of thousands of Colombians, including refugees whose right to non-refoulement was violated.

It is speculated that Maduro no longer wants the ELN in Venezuela, as part of his new role in the framework of the Total Peace process promoted by Petro. But it is also true that the ELN continues to serve the interests of the Venezuelan government in its territory, in areas such as the protection against and control of unwanted actors in the Orinoco Mining Arc, alliances for the preservation of fluvial corridors for the exit of drugs and the self-designation of this armed group as “defenders of the Bolivarian revolution” in areas where the presence of Venezuelan authorities is almost non-existent.

In this changing and still confusing context, the first challenge for the international community and for civil society organizations is to highlight the need to recognize the existence of these groups and their effects on the rights of the population that lives in territories controlled by them. A second challenge is to begin to incorporate the issue into the agendas of the negotiating table of the representatives of Maduro and the Unitary Platform and in the Total Peace process in Colombia, including the evaluation of the relevance of creating the figure of a special envoy of the UN Secretary General who can support the articulation of binational efforts on these issues.