The presence of these paramilitary descendants, which the Colombian government calls “criminal bands” (bandas criminales - BACRIMs), has been blamed for a rise in violence. The Venezuelan authorities complain that they are destabilizing the country and are carrying out kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking in border states like Tachira, Apure, and Zulia.
The AUC was an alliance between dozens of self-defense groups that trafficked drugs, terrorized civilians, and waged war with the Colombian rebel groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Despite their right-wing ideology, the AUC originally praised the election of Hugh Chavez in 1998, sending him a congratulatory letter which stated that “as a military man” Chavez would likely “put things in order” in Venezuela. However, the AUC’s rhetoric would soon change completely, and they publicly labeled the Venezuelan president a “defender” of Colombian guerrilla groups.
Paramilitary warlord Salvatore Mancuso has testified that the AUC met with anti-Chavez factions in the Venezuelan military on two occasions to discuss carrying out military actions against the government.
Among the first paramilitaries to run sizable drug trafficking operations in Venezuela were Miguel Angel Mejia Munera and his brother Victor Manuel, known as "Los Mellizos" (The Twins), who controlled cocaine exports from the states of Sucre, Bolivar, and Delta Amacuro. They became formally allied with the AUC in 2001, leading the Vencedores de Arauca Bloc. Los Mellizos were among the first narco-paramilitaries to be targeted by Venezuelan authorities, with the launch of Operation Orinoco in 2000, which was intended to disrupt their drug trafficking operations.
Asides from controlling drug trafficking across certain parts of the border, and the contraband petrol trade, the AUC caused the displacement of tens of thousands of refugees into Venezuela. One faction, the Catatumbo Bloc in Norte de Santander, would regularly kill civilians on the Colombian side of the border and dump the bodies in Venezuela to delay investigations.
The AUC formally demobilized between 2004 and 2006, but its successor groups, the BACRIMs, remain active in some parts of eastern Venezuela.
Among the first BACRIM groups whose activity was registered in Venezuela were the Aguilas Negras, in Tachira and Zulia states. This is not considered to be a centralized criminal organization, but rather collections of former AUC members who use the name “Aguilas Negras” to threaten land and labor activists, and commit other crimes. The name first appeared in Colombia’s Norte de Santander province circa 2006.
As was the case in Colombia, the Aguilas Negras announced their presence in Venezuela via a series of pamphlets distributed in Tachira state in 2008 and 2009, promising a campaign of "social cleansing." These pamphlets were accompanied several violent incidents, including the kidnapping and murder of 10 amateur Colombian soccer players in October 2009. The case was never solved, but it raised tensions between Colombia and Venezuela about "spillover" violence. The Aguilas Negras then began running extortion networks and kidnapping cells, and established assassins-for-hire in Tachira. In some towns, they even allowed residents to take out a life insurance policy on themselves to avoid assassination.
According to the state police director, the Aguilas Negras, the Rastrojos, and the Urabeños all have a presence in Tachira. Of these, the Rastrojos are currently believed to be the biggest player controlling criminal operations along Venezuela and Colombia’s 2,000 kilometer border, although they do not have as many troops deployed there as the ELN and the FARC. According to Colombian think tank Nuevo Arco Iris, the Rastrojos control Zulia state, including the city of Maracaibo. In collaboration with Mexican cartel the Zetas, the Rastrojos use Maracaibo port and hidden airstrips for cocaine exports overseas. The group is also believed to have ties to the Zulia State Police.
The Rastrojos are fighting with Colombia’s other major criminal group, the Urabeños, and have reportedly taken this war to Venezuela. In January 2012, four people were killed in a reported clash between the two groups in the border state of Tachira.
Former members of the AUC have also found refuge in Venezuela. This includes Hector German Buitrago, alias “Martin Llanos,” who headed powerful paramilitary faction the Autodefensas Campesinas del Casanare. He was arrested in Anzoategui state in February 2012. Oscar Ospino Pacheco, alias “Tolemaida,” the former head of the Northern Bloc and the right-hand-man to paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias "Jorge 40," was arrested in Miranda state in December 2009.
- See profile of the FARC in Venezuela
- See profile of the ELN in Venezuela
"La Frontera Caliente," Nuevo Arco Iris, April 2012.