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.