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Threat Assessment: Increasing Military Tensions on the Venezuela-Colombia Border

Team: Mirjana Stancic, Leidy Castellanos, Daniel Carr, SOUTHCOM

Week of: April 19, 2021


The Venezuelan Border State of Apure[1]


Summary


Since March 21, 2021, military tensions have escalated at the Venezuela-Colombia border, worsening the humanitarian crisis and revealing connections between Colombian terrorist groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel. The threat posed to civilians through direct conflict is high in the western region of Apure Venezuela, as it has caused at least 5,000 civilians to flee the region into Colombia.[2] The potential for the conflict to further destabilize the critical border zone between Venezuela and Colombia is medium-high as the tensions place strain on the deteriorating diplomatic relations between the two states. Increasing clashes between the Venezuelan and Colombian militaries, as well as military raids against extremist groups, have contributed to the cyclical displacement of Venezuelan refugees. Additionally, the presence of narcoterrorism in the Apure state has further contributed to clashes between extremist groups and military forces. Alternatively, the alleged connections made between the FARC and the Sinaloa cartel could be misinterpreted and the entire situation in Apure could be more complex. Future security implications may involve the facilitation of cooperative negotiations from foreign governments rather than increased military intervention.

Assessments


Increased clashes between the Colombian and Venezuelan militaries, along with terrorists and drug traffickers, pose a significant threat to the civilians residing in the Apure region. Military assaults in the region of Apure, one of Venezuela’s poorest states, have included air strikes, bombs, and ground attacks from soldiers.[3] The intention behind raids has been to locate and neutralize FARC rebels and any civilian collaborators. The military action has been followed by reactionary attacks by FARC dissidents, which also threaten the local population. One of the consequences of the intensified conflict has been an increased number of Venezuelans fleeing the area into neighboring Colombia. The influx of movement is highly likely to cause increased strain on the Colombian government and worsen the existing refugee crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to border closures and has forced refugees to seek illegal routes into Colombia. This practice is likely to continue with more civilians fleeing the instability of regions such as Apure.[4] The Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called on the international community to assist with this humanitarian crisis, which has resulted as a consequence of the confrontations on the border. This demonstrates the immense pressure that Colombia has faced from not only the COVID-19 pandemic but also the Venezuelan refugee crisis and the prolonged presence of terrorist groups in their territory. The coalescing factors emphasize the social, economic, and political dimensions of the situation and the likely consequences of lack of support for states such as Colombia.


The increased militarization of Venezuela and Colombia in response to the heightened violence is worsening the relationship between the two countries and further destabilizing the situation for military personnel and citizens in the region. In Venezuela, reports have emerged of soldiers targeting civilians on the suspicion of collaboration with terrorist groups and drug traffickers.[5] This is concerning, as it demonstrates that the military, who is supposed to be responsible for civilian safety, is a threat to the population along with drug traffickers and terrorist groups. It highlights the scale of the problem and some of the reasons for the Venezuelan refugee crisis in South America stem from a distrust of the Venezuelan military and government. The inability of the state to provide for or protect its citizens leads to fear and desperation, driving the large numbers of Venezuelan’s fleeing insecurity in their own country.


The use of antipersonnel landmines in Apure is indicative of FARC operation in the area and is likely to bolster Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s claims of illegal terrorists working with drug traffickers. Their use in the region is characteristic of the weaponry employed by FARC, as it is a cheap and effective means of defending territory. However, landmines have a severe impact on civilians through death or maiming, presenting an added barrier to the security of civilians in the Apure region. Additionally, the recent arrest of members of the Sinaloa drug cartel by the Venezuelan military further solidifies President Maduro’s claims of drug traffickers and terrorist groups cooperating at the border. In April, the Venezuelan military created a new unit for the western state of Apure called the Integrated Operational Defense Zone (ZODI) in an attempt to deal with the presence of guerrillas and illegal activities in the area. Meanwhile, the Colombian Defense Minister, Diego Molano, has accused President Maduro of working with drug traffickers and protecting his own interests.[6] The conflicting perspectives of the two governments are reflective of the tension surrounding the issue. As both countries struggle with the social and economic consequences of COVID-19, the presence of drug traffickers and guerillas will likely continue to elicit conflicting responses. Accusations of corruption on both sides of the borders underscore the difficulties in addressing the issue as foreign assistance for either side could be squandered if authorities are working with drug traffickers or terrorists.


Alternatively, it is possible that FARC members are neither operating in the area nor collaborating with members of the Sinaloa cartel. For example, as antipersonnel landmines are an extremely efficient means of defense, other groups of drug traffickers could be using them to hold territory in the border region between Colombia and Venezuela. Due to years of humanitarian crises in Venezuela and the prolonged outpouring of refugees into Colombia, many groups of human traffickers have taken advantage of the situation and crime has continued to flourish. Since President Nicolas Maduro has proved himself untrustworthy in the past, it could be likely that he is seeking an excuse to increase military presence in the area and consolidate his political power. There have been widespread claims of election fraud in last year’s Venezuelan government elections which calls into question President Nicolas Maduro’s legitimacy.[7] Additionally, the National Liberation Army (ELN) could be behind most of the incidents with the landmines. Both the FARC and ELN have collaborated on drug trafficking, coca cultivation, and extremist activity, yet evidence does not disprove that the ELN is the main contributor to violence near the Venezuelan border. Because of the insecurity of the region, it is difficult for both journalists and the Colombian military to intervene. Therefore, gathering accurate information about extremist activity is both difficult and rapidly evolving.


Future Implications


Recommendations from foreign governments may be necessary to help alleviate these tensions at the border and facilitate negotiations between the two governments and militaries. Pressure from the international community is likely to encourage the militaries to withdraw from the region in order to minimize violence towards civilian populations. Conversely, increased militarization is very likely to fuel tensions between the Venezuelan and Colombian militaries as well as rebel groups in the area. Unless the governments of both countries can work together to eliminate extremist activity and drug trafficking in the region, it is highly unlikely that the issue will be resolved in the near future. It is expected that more Venezuelans will continue to flee to Colombia in the coming months due to the continuous clashes on the border. Several of these refugees will not only flee to Colombia but will escape to other countries in the region, leading to increased pressure on the already strained governments of Latin American countries.

_____________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]The Venezuelan Border State of Apure” by Google Maps

[2] 5,000 Flee as Venezuela Launches Largest Military Campaign in Decades, The New York Times, April 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/world/americas/venezuela-colombia-military-campaign.html

[3] Venezuela’s ‘Unprecedented’ Military Offensive Raises Border Tensions With Colombia, World Politics Review, April 2021, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/29578/maduro-s-unprecedented-military-offensive-sends-venezuela-colombia-relations-spiraling-further-downward

[4] Venezuela: Women and girls at greatest risk as thousands escape violence due to military operations in the border zone with Colombia, ReliefWeb, April 2021, https://reliefweb.int/report/colombia/venezuela-women-and-girls-greatest-risk-thousands-escape-violence-due-military

[5] 5,000 Flee as Venezuela Launches Largest Military Campaign in Decades, The New York Times, April 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/world/americas/venezuela-colombia-military-campaign.html

[6] Venezuela creates military unit on Colombia border amid fighting, Reuters, April 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-colombia-idUSKBN2BT01Y

[7] Maduro claims election victory, leaving Venezuela with three Congresses amid fraud claims, Miami Herald, December 2021, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/venezuela/article247677735.html



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