Venezuela has been a site of operations for the FARC for some time, but its importance to the group increased exponentially after Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, and after the rebels lost their government granted safe haven in 2002. This coincided with increased pressure from paramilitaries and from the Uribe government in Colombia (2002-2010), which all turned Venezuela into a crucial rearguard area for the rebels.
There have been allegations of links between the guerrillas and the highest levels of Venezuela’s government and armed forces. The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has sanctioned several top level officials in the security forces for allegedly helping the FARC to smuggle cocaine, including the later defense minister, General Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva. A shadowy faction of the military, known as the Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles) is believed to have links to the guerrillas, swapping cocaine shipments for arms. Files retrieved from the computer of slain FARC commander alias “Raul Reyes” in 2008 described an alleged meeting between Chavez and Raul Reyes in 2000 in which the president said he would lend the rebels money for arms.
The question of FARC encampments in Venezuela led to a major diplomatic row between then-Presidents Chavez and Colombia's Alvaro Uribe. Colombian intelligence reports leaked in 2010 estimated some 1,500 FARC rebels were active among 28 encampments in the Venezuelan border states of Apure and Zulia.
However, the much-examined relationship between Chavez and the FARC may not have been as close as some Chavez critics suggested. The computer files paint a picture of a fraught relationship, with commander “Mono Jojoy” reportedly referring to Chavez as “deceitful and divisive.”
After Uribe’s successor, President Juan Manuel Santos, took office and improved relations with Chavez, Venezuela stepped up its actions against the rebel group. Santos stated in 2011 that Venezuela was free of FARC encampments. However, a number of attacks along the border in 2012, including one in which members of the FARC’s 59th Front reportedly came over the border from Venezuela to attack the Colombian security forces, before retreating back into the neighboring country, suggest otherwise.
Three of the FARC’s seven blocs have a presence in Venezuela: the Caribbean Bloc (in total roughly 250 fighters) led by Emilio Cabrera Diaz, alias “Bertulfo;” the Magdalena Medio Bloc (800 fighters) led by FARC overall leader Rodrigo Londoño, alias “Timochenko;” and the Eastern Bloc, led by Jaime Alberto Parra, alias “El Medico,” with some 4,000 guerrillas. The head of Ivan Rios Bloc, or the Northeastern Bloc, Luciano Marin, alias “Ivan Marquez,” who heads the rebels' International Front, is also believed to spend much of his time in Venezuelan territory.
The FARC’s cocaine trafficking routes into Venezuela are principally controlled by the Eastern and Magdalena Medio Blocs, which operate in Colombia opposite to the Venezuelan states of Apure, Tachira and Zulia.Apure is one of the main transit points for cocaine moving through Venezuela to Europe and the Caribbean, and the FARC control many of the shipments moving through the state.
The porous border provides the rebels with a number of drug crossing points (see map), with the Eastern Bloc’s 10th Front and Magdalena Medio’s 33rd Front being the key players in cross-border cocaine flows. The FARC has considerable influence in the Venezuelan border state of Zulia, with the Caribbean Bloc controlling much of the north of the state and the Magdalena Medio Bloc the south.
The Caribbean Bloc -- consisting of the 14th, 19th and 59th Fronts -- is not as deeply involved in drug trafficking, but generates significant revenue through cross-border fuel trafficking, extortion and kidnappings within Venezuela. State control keeps gas prices low in Venezuela, allowing smugglers to sell it in Colombia at a price dozens of times higher.
In addition to their drug trafficking operations, the guerrillas are thought to have a hand in illegal mining operations in Venezuela. The group’s 16th Front -- based in the Colombian border provinces of Vichada and Guainia -- extorts gold miners in Venezuela and may even be moving into exploiting the country’s coltan reserves.
"Los tentaculos de las FARC en Venezuela," El Espectador, May 18, 2010
"Cocaine's Flow is Unchecked in Venezuela," New York Times, July 26, 2012