Venezuela is a vital base of operations for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and three of its seven blocs (fighting divisions) have a presence there. The country provides the guerrillas with key drug trafficking corridors, a place to escape pressure from Colombian security forces, carry out training and resupply with weaponry.
Venezuela has been a site of operations for the FARC for some time, but its importance to the group increased exponentially after Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, and after the rebels lost their government granted safe haven in 2002. This coincided with increased pressure from paramilitaries and from the Uribe government in Colombia (2002-2010), which all turned Venezuela into a crucial rearguard area for the rebels.
Principal Criminal Groups
There have been allegations of links between the guerrillas and the highest levels of Venezuela’s government and armed forces. The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has sanctioned several top-level officials in the security forces for allegedly helping the FARC to smuggle cocaine, including the later defense minister General Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva. A shadowy faction of the military, known as the Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles) is believed to have links to the guerrillas, swapping cocaine shipments for arms. Files retrieved from the computer of slain FARC commander alias “Raul Reyes” in 2008 described an alleged meeting between Chavez and Raul Reyes in 2000 in which the president said he would lend the rebels money for arms.
The question of FARC encampments in Venezuela led to a major diplomatic row between former presidents Chavez and Alvaro Uribe. Colombian intelligence reports leaked in 2010 estimated that some 1,500 FARC rebels were active in 28 encampments in the Venezuelan border states of Apure and Zulia.
The FARC’s maximum leader is currently Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, alias “Timochenko.” Luciano Marin, alias “Ivan Marquez,” who currently serves as the guerrilla group’s lead peace negotiator in Havana, is believed to have spent a considerable amount of time in Venezuelan territory.
Three of the FARC’s seven blocs have a presence in Venezuela: the Caribbean Bloc, the Magdalena Medio Bloc, and the Eastern Bloc. The FARC’s cocaine trafficking routes into Venezuela are principally controlled by the Eastern and Magdalena Medio Blocs, which operate in Colombia opposite to the Venezuelan states of Apure, Tachira and Zulia. Apure is one of the main transit points for cocaine moving through Venezuela to Europe and the Caribbean, and the FARC control many of the shipments moving through the state.
The porous border provides the rebels with a number of drug crossing points (see map), with the Eastern Bloc’s 10th Front and Magdalena Medio’s 33rd Front being the key players in cross-border cocaine flows. The FARC also has considerable influence in the Venezuelan border state of Zulia.
In addition to their drug trafficking operations, the guerrillas are thought to have a hand in illegal mining operations in Venezuela. The group’s 16th Front — based in the Colombian border provinces of Vichada and Guainia — extorts gold miners in Venezuela and may even be moving into exploiting the country’s coltan reserves.
Allies and Enemies
The Chavez government offered a generally tolerant atmosphere to the rebels, although the relationship was not as straightforward or close as some Chavez critics claimed. The files retrieved from Raul Reyes’ computer paint a picture of a fraught relationship, with commander “Mono Jojoy” reportedly referring to Chavez as “deceitful and divisive.”
After Uribe’s successor, President Juan Manuel Santos, took office and improved relations with Chavez, Venezuela stepped up its actions against the rebel group. Santos stated in 2011 that Venezuela was free of FARC encampments. However, a number of attacks along the border in 2012, including one in which members of the FARC’s 59th Front reportedly came over the border from Venezuela to attack Colombian security forces, before retreating back into the neighboring country, suggest otherwise.