If the Venezuelan opposition wins October's elections, pro-government armed groups could become a major threat to stability in the country, potentially evolving into a full-fledged insurgency.

On March 16, the Venezuelan army announced that military operations in the western state of Apure had uncovered an internal organization chart detailing the command structure of the guerrilla group known as the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL). While the contents of the diagram have not been released to the public, the Defense Ministry claimed that it showed that the FBL has joined forces with another, previously unknown armed rebel group calling itself the Patriotic Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FPBL). According to military officials, FBL commander Jeronimo Paz, alias “Gabino,” has taken on the leadership of both organizations.

While little is known about the FBL, it has operated in Venezuela for most of the past two decades. Although the group was founded in 1992, the same year that current president Hugo Chavez led a failed coup against the government of President Carlos Andres Perez, declassified US State Department documents suggest that the FBL had no direct involvement in the attempted takeover.

After slowly losing relevance over the course of the 1990s, the FBL re-emerged after Chavez was elected in 1999. In 2002, the group distributed pamphlets declaring their support for the President Hugo Chavez, leading some analysts to claim that the group may have been resuscitated with the help of figures in the Chavez administration, although both the FBL and the government have denied this.

The group is currently believed to have between 1,000 and 4,000 members, and is active mostly in the western border states of Apure, Tachira and Zulia, where it funds itself mainly by extorting local landowners and businesses. Last year, for instance, the FBL reportedly charged a group of oil workers in Apure a “protection fee” of 110,000 bolivars, or about $25,000.

As InSight Crime has reported, the FBL is only one of several pro-government armed groups in Venezuela. The country is also home to a number of urban militia groups, the most powerful of which are based in the Caracas January 23rd ("23 de Enero") neighborhood. The area has been described as a “micro-state” that is completely outside of state control. There, groups like La Piedrita, the Carapaica Revolutionary Movement and the Tupamaro Popular Resistance Front maintain effective control, and local police frequently do not enter without their consent.

Publicly, Chavez has distanced himself from all of these groups, denouncing their activities as contrary to his “Bolivarian revolution.” In 2009, he went so far as to order security forces to crack down on both the FBL and on the various militant groups in the January 23rd neighborhood. Their continued strength, however, belies Chavez’s stern words, and suggests that the government has adopted an unofficial policy of tolerance towards them, much like its alleged relationship with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the early 2000s.

For its part, the FARC may have had a hand in training the FBL, as well as militant groups in the January 23rd neighborhood. Computer files recovered after the bombing of a FARC camp revealed that the Colombian guerrillas had helped train hundreds of these would-be rebels over the last decade.

This latest report on the FBL is especially alarming considering the potential for imminent political transition in Venezuela. With Chavez undergoing cancer treatment and cracks beginning to emerge in his ruling Socialist Unity Party (PSUV), his future in office is beginning to seem less certain. Should the opposition’s Henrique Capriles win in the upcoming October elections, illegal groups like the FBL and urban militias are unlikely to take this lying down.

Though these groups generally abstain from targeting government institutions with violence, this may change if Chavez leaves office. Indeed, Capriles has already been attacked by pro-government activists while campaigning, and just this week a potential assassination plot against him was uncovered (although the government claimed it came from sectors on the right).

Should these militant groups decide to challenge a Capriles government, they will not find themselves in short supply of potential recruits. Chavez has been arming and training as many as 150,000 highly politicized civilian militiamen since 2009. A 2011 law put them under the direct control of the president’s office, but the vast majority will doubtlessly refuse to serve under any leader but Chavez.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

When someone is murdered in Guatemala, police, forensic doctors and government prosecutors start making their way to the crime scene and a creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucratic machine kicks into gear. Calls are made. Forms are filled out by hand, or typed into computers, or both. Some...

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

When violence surged in early 2015 in Guatemala, then-President Otto Pérez Molina knew how to handle the situation: Blame the street gangs. 

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government's Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He does...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Money

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Money

  Drugs Extortion Criminal Cash Flows Millions of dollars in dirty money circulate constantly around Bajo Cauca, flowing upwards and outwards from a broad range of criminal activities. The BACRIM are the chief regulators and beneficiaries of this shadow economy. Unlike their paramilitary and drug cartel predecessors, the BACRIM maintain a diversified...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

  The Bajo Cauca Franchise BACRIM-Land Armed Power Dynamics The BACRIM in places like the region of Bajo Cauca are a typical manifestation of Colombia's underworld today: a semi-autonomous local cell that is part of a powerful national network. The BACRIM's roots lie in the demobilized paramilitary umbrella group the United Self-Defense...