EPL, Rastrojos Behind Rising Violence in Venezuela Border State of Táchira

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A recent shootout at the main border crossing between Colombia and Venezuela and the killing of five people in another border town show that clashes between criminal groups vying to control smuggling routes are intensifying.

On May 2, an intense firefight close to the Simón Bolívar Bridge, which links Venezuela with Colombia across the Táchira river, wounded one person and alarmed thousands of people who cross the border every day using remote trails near the official border crossing, which has been closed since February 23.

The battle was fought among gangs seeking to control “human trafficking, extortion, drug trafficking and contraband,” according to Cristian Kruger, director of Migración Colombia, El Espectador reported.

SEE ALSO: EPL News and Profile

A week earlier, four people were murdered in less than 24 hours in the town of Ureña, in the border state of Táchira. The first of the murders occurred on the morning of April 25, when Marcela Andrea Rodríguez Ríos was shot seven times by a gunman inside her home.

Later that day, a man fled into a school to hide from two attackers, but they followed him inside and shot him dead, according to police. That night, Noraima Yaneth Contreras Rodríguez was killed on the street by an assailant after a car pulled up alongside her. Minutes later, two men shot Saida Yasmith Laguado Suarez in front of her house.

In another border town in the northern part of Táchira, a woman named Karla Yuraima Fagundez was also also killed on March 25 in a clash among groups of meat smugglers and members of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB).

Authorities have attributed all these acts to groups vying for control of smuggling routes, especially the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) and Venezuelan paramilitary forces known as colectivos.

InSight Crime Analysis

Sources told InSight Crime that the four killings in Ureña were linked to smuggling. The three women killed were all allegedly involved in the movement of contraband gasoline, while the man shot in the school was said to be a drug trafficker.

Members of the EPL, also known as “Los Pelusos,” who operate out of the Colombian department of Norte de Santander, are ramping up efforts after a year of trying to dominate the municipality of Ureña and surrounding areas, according to InSight Crime sources.

The shootout near the Simón Bolívar bridge appears to have involved the EPL, who have been muscling in on a hotly contested area where the Rastrojos, the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional – ELN), dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and Venezuelan colectivos all roam.

SEE ALSO: Rastrojos News and Profile

In the north of Táchira, the Rastrojos appear to have lost ground in Venezuela and been pushed back into Colombia after military operations by the Venezuelan army. This area, known as Guarumito, serves as a major transit point for illegal goods and migrants from Venezuela to Colombia.

A police source from Guarumito told InSight Crime that the Rastrojos had responded in order to assert control over dozens of trails across the border, while the Venezuelan military is also trying to profit from these longstanding criminal economies. The recent arrest of a Rastrojos boss appears to have worsened the situation.

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