Armed Groups and Contraband Smugglers Spark Colombia-Venezuela Border Crisis

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Venezuela has deployed troops to its border and called for crisis talks with Colombia after an attack against its security forces sparked outcry over contraband smuggling and armed groups in the frontier region.

On August 19, a shoot out in the Venezuelan border state of Tachira left three Venezuelan soldiers and one civilian injured.

According to the Tachira state governor, Jose Vielma Mora, the confrontation took place after soldiers intercepted contraband smugglers moving products into Colombia, reported El Espectador. However, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said the soldiers were shot in the back in an attack bearing the hallmarks of Colombian paramilitaries.

In response to the violence, the Venezuelan government deployed over 1,500 soldiers to close the border crossings linking the Colombian city of Cucuta to San Antonio and Urena in Venezuela, reported La Nacion. Following the unilateral move, which has proven controversial in Colombia, an emergency meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers to discuss the crisis was called, reported El Espectador.

Tensions between the countries were increased by further comments from Maduro, who raged against the “Colombian paramilitary plague” that is “taking over Venezuela.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Contraband smuggling is a highly lucrative criminal activity along the Colombia-Venezuela border, with smugglers taking advantage of price controls and the currency black market in Venezuela to make dizzying profits on basic goods.

The Venezuelan government has previously used temporary border closures to stem the flow of contraband, but runaway inflation in Venezuela has meant the economic incentive fuelling the trade has not only remained in place but has grown more attractive by the day.

Contraband is a major source of revenue for the Colombian paramilitary-criminal hybrid groups known as the BACRIM (from the Spanish abbreviation of criminal bands) that operate in the border region, which “tax” and control smuggling routes.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Contraband

It is possible, indeed likely, such neo-paramilitary groups were behind the attack against the Venezuelan military, and the BACRIM are undoubtedly a genuine security threat to Venezuela, where they have a growing presence.

However, despite their paramilitary roots, the BACRIM bear little resemblance to the specter of politically inspired paramilitary terrorism that has become Maduro’s go-to foreign bogeyman. While Maduro routinely accuses Colombian paramilitary groups of conspiring with his enemies to destabilize the government, in reality it is highly unlikely such groups have any interest in Venezuelan politics as long as the profits from contraband, drugs and extortion continue to flow.

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