FBL/FPLN

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The Patriotic Forces of National Liberation (FPLN) is a guerrilla group based in western Venezuela, along the border with Colombia. It is also commonly known by its previous acronym: the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL). Unlike traditional insurgencies, the FBL/FPLN has generally supported the government of Venezuela and has avoided confrontations with security forces.

History

The FBL’s origins are unclear. While some analysts believe the group was founded by a radical leftist faction of the Fatherland for All Party (PPT), the PPT has denied any links to the guerrillas. Others believe that it emerged from the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) in the late 1980s.

The FBL first gained prominence in Venezuela in 1992, when it claimed responsibility for several attacks on public officials who were widely perceived as corrupt. The most high-profile of these was the September 1992 assassination attempt against the president of the Venezuelan Confederation of Workers (CTV), Antonio Rios. However, they were not directly involved in Chavez’s failed coup attempt against the government of Carlos Andres Perez that same year.

After fading from the limelight during the 1990s, the FBL re-emerged after Chavez was elected in 1999. In 2002, the group distributed flyers declaring support for the president, causing some to suspect that the group was revived with the help of the Chavez administration.  Both the guerrillas and government officials denied this, however, and Chavez himself publicly condemned the FBL’s activities as contrary to his “Bolivarian revolution.”

Although allegations of direct collusion between the FBL and the Chavez administration are disputed, Chavez’s more lax approach to the policing of irregular armed groups allowed the FBL to formalize some of its operations and establish a political wing known as the Bolívar and Zamora Revolutionary Current (CRBZ). Tensions emerged in the FBL between those who supported the Chavez presidency and those who wanted to push for more radical social change.

Around 2008, internal disputes caused the group to split. According to journalist and FBL/FPLN expert Sebastiana Barráez, the faction that kept the acronym FBL continued to operate for some time from strongholds in La Guaira, conducting attacks and propaganda campaigns in Caracas, but now appears to be relatively inactive.

The other major faction adopted a more political course, maintaining tight relations with the CRBZ and taking the initials FPLN, seeking to distance itself from the extortion and terror tactics of its past. This faction continues to be active in the border states of western Venezuela, where they are commonly known as “Boliches”.

Leadership

According to the Venezuelan military, the FBL was led by an individual known as Jeronimo Paz, and a five-member commanding body headed by aliases “Zacarias,” “Macaebo,” “Ernesto Guevara,” “Julian” and “Carlos Chileno.”

Following the group’s split, the faction commanded by Jeronimo Paz became the FPLN. Barráez states that the faction commanded by alias “Zacarias” retained the acronym FBL, although this group’s profile is now very low, prompting speculation that it has disbanded or reintegrated with the FPLN. Little is known about the remaining commanders.

The National Coordinator of the FPLN’s civilian wing, the CRBZ, is Kevin Rangel.

Geography

The FPLN is believed to have between 1,000 and 4,000 members, and is active mostly in the western border states of Apure, Táchira and Barinas. They have traditionally used the densely forested San Camilo and Ticoporo nature reserves as their main hideouts. In recent years, however, they have operated increasingly openly across the state of Apure, particularly in the Páez municipality.

The guerrilla group funds itself mainly by extorting local landowners and businesses along the border with Colombia. In 2011, for instance, the FPLN reportedly charged a group of oil workers in Apure a “protection fee” of 110,000 bolivars, or about $25,000. Currently, locals report that the group controls the cattle business throughout Apure by extorting local ranchers. It uses river crossings to smuggle cattle and gasoline from Venezuela to Colombia: a business that has become increasingly lucrative since Venezuela’s descent into economic turmoil. The group has also been involved in the extortion of migrants, charging large sums of money to guarantee safe passage to those crossing the José Antonio Páez International Bridge.

Allies and Enemies

Its financing activities have at times put the FBL/FPLN in conflict with Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN), which also operates on the border. It has had close relations with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has provided the FBL/FPLN with logistical support and training, although it is unclear whether it retains ties with the FARC dissidents following the Colombian peace process.

The FPLN’s control of criminal economies has been facilitated by its ties with security forces and public officials in Apure. The CRBZ has considerable political influence in the state, controlling several communal councils and mayoral offices and maintaining a close relationship with Apure state governor Ramón Carrizalez. Although the CRBZ portrays itself as a peasants’ rights movement, it remains tightly linked to the FPLN and profits from its criminal economies.

Prospects

The group is unusual among guerrilla movements in that it benefits from close ties to the current government. As such, its prospects are intimately linked to the durability of the Bolivarian system that endorses its public ideology and protects its access to criminal economies.

In the post-Chavez period, as pressure has mounted on Venezuela, the group has shown itself willing to put its knowledge of guerrilla tactics at the service of the Maduro administration. In 2019, FPLN members were documented leading civilians in military training exercises, with the participation of local mayors and government officials.

– See profile of the FARC in Venezuela

– See profile of the ELN in Venezuela

– See profile of the BACRIMs in Venezuela

Resources

Declassified internal US Department of State memo (pdf)describing FBL’s emergence, November 1992.

El Universal, “ETA y FARC pretendían globalizar la lucha,” March 7, 2010.

El Tiempo,  “Ejercito hallo un organigrama de grupos guerrilleros en Apure,” March 12, 2012.

Veneconomia Report (pdf), “Guerras fronterizas: FBL contra el ELN,” October 2004.

Infobae, “Así entrena el chavismo a civiles en el manejo de armas en la frontera entre Venezuela y Colombia”

Noticiero Digital, “Sebastiana Barráez: La guerrilla venezolana se disputa la frontera con el ELN, las FARC y los paramilitares”

Venezuela Awareness, “Quienes tienen un reducto en La Guaira son las Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación (FBL)”

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