Colombia and Venezuela: A Shift in Security Cooperation?

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Venezuela and Colombia are seeking to increase security cooperation, which could have profound consequences for organized crime in the Andes.

The Colombian Defense Minister, Rodrigo Rivera, met with Venezuela’s Minister of Interior and Justice, Tareck El Aissami, to explore ways to enhance security cooperation along more than 1,300 miles of shared border. The ministers are looking for joint strategies to tackle the common threats of drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion. Earlier this week Rivera called upon Colombia’s neighbors to help plan a common strategy to secure the region from the activities of the criminal groups that the government calls “BACRIMs.” 

Relations between Colombia and Venezuela have improved immensely since the departure of the former president, Alvaro Uribe, in August 2010. Just seven months ago Colombia brought a complaint before the Organization of American States (OAS) asserting that the Venezuelan authorities were allowing up to 1500 Colombian rebels to operate in their territory, from where they launched attacks into Colombia. President Hugo Chavez responded by severing all diplomatic ties and moving troops up to the border.

Under the new détente with President Juan Manuel Santos, there are already the first signs of some real cooperation. Venezuela has deported four wanted Marxist rebels to Colombia over the last three months, and said it would not tolerate any Colombian groups or criminals using its territory. There is no doubt that rebels are still in Venezuela and use the country as a logistical base as well as a rest and recuperation area, but now they have been forced to adopt a very low profile and risk arrest from Venezuelan authorities.

On the drug trafficking front, Venezuela became a haven for Colombian traffickers after Chavez faced down an attempted coup in 2002. In the aftermath the attempted coup, which the Venezuelan president insisted had U.S. support, the government refused the U.S. permission to fly over national territory, thus ending the drug flight monitoring program. In 2005 amid deteriorating relations, Venezuela refused all aid and cooperation to the DEA, effectively blinding US anti-drug efforts.

The result was that Venezuela saw and still sees, an enormous amount of illegal air traffic, as cocaine loads from Colombia flit across the border, either depositing shipments for transport by road and sea, or refueling and carrying on their journeys across the Caribbean or towards West Africa and Europe. The latest report of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) mentions how Venezuela has rapidly become a launch pad for drug shipments.

Many top Colombian drug lords took up residence in Venezuela, beyond the reach of both Colombian and U.S. law enforcement agencies. Wilber Varela, alias “Jabon,” former head of the Rastrojos and leader of the Norte del Valle Cartel was killed in Venezuela in January 2008.  Now Daniel Barrera, alias “Loco Barrera,” the Comba brothers (Luis Enrique Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” and Javier Antonio Calle Serna, alias “El Doctor“), Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” and Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias “Valenciano,” are all believed to spend part of their time in Venezuela.

However the Venezuelans have made some very significant drug arrests. In July last year Carlos Alberto Renteria Mantilla, alias “Beto,” the last of the Norte Del Valle Cartel leaders still at large, was captured, with the help of British intelligence. He was extradited to the U.S.  Earlier this month, Venezuelan authorities arrested a man that highly resembled Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” and immediately phoned Colombian authorities to establish his identity. It was not Perez Henao, but the incident shows that the Venezuelan authorities are ready and able to cooperate. Actions against this situation may well be included in the pending anti-narcotics treaty announced on November by both heads of state.

Likewise, Colombia has answered with the extradition of high-profile drug trafficker Walid Makled to Caracas, instead of sending him to Washington, as an offer of goodwill.

The question is however how far this cooperation is going to go and whether it can turn into joint operations against rebels and drug traffickers.  With the rebels this is unlikely as it is clear there is still a great deal of sympathy for the two main rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).  However on the common enemy of drug trafficking and Colombia paramilitary groups, greater cooperation is possible and probable. This could make Venezuela that bit more difficult for the cartel to operate in meaning alternate routes like Ecuador, Peru, Brazil or Panama would be considered as alternate routes to smuggle drug shipments to destinations in Europe and Central America, and of course the US. 

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