By cracking down on FARC dissidents, Caracas aims to co-opt the guerrillas as loyalist proxies it can wield as a foreign policy tool.
On March 21, the Venezuelan government launched Operation Bolivarian Shield 2021, ostensibly intended to neutralise a dissident faction of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, known as the 10th Front.
Misleadingly branded as an operation to uproot “narco-mercenaries” aligned with Bogota, the Venezuelan armed forces were deployed to the border town of La Victoria in the southwestern state of Apure in what is considered the largest military operation undertaken by Caracas in decades.
On March 22, the 28th Front – another dissident faction loyal to Duarte – declared its solidarity with the 10th Front and attacked a Venezuelan border post a day later. Caracas responded with aerial assaults, which effectively cleared a series of 10th Front installations, camps and airstrips, enabling the military to push them out of La Victoria proper.
Given that these escalations mark a shift in relations between the Venezuelan government and the FARC, it is worth assessing the reason behind the recent violence between two parties.
Splintered FARC Dissidents
Historically, the Venezuelan government has enjoyed friendly relations with the FARC. President Nicolas Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez was widely seen as a backer of the guerrilla, and both leaders ultimately acted as mediators during the 2012 to 2016 Colombian peace process that culminated in the Havana Accords.
Initially, the accords saw the FARC formally demobilise and transform into a political party. However, the lasting nature of the peace was largely undermined by two major developments inside Colombia.
First, Colombians rejected the accords in a referendum in October 2016. Second, Ivan Duque was elected President of Colombia in 2018 on the basis of a hard-line approach to the guerrilla group and demobilised FARC soldiers and Colombian social movement leaders faced an unprecedented wave of targeted killings.
In this climate, dissident FARC factions began emerging almost as soon as the accords were signed. From his base in southern Colombia along the Venezuelan borderlands, Duarte – a member of the old FARC military high command, leadership and negotiating team – mobilised and united several fronts, including the 10th and 28th Fronts, as early as 2016.
Having ditched the peace process early on, he positioned himself as a magnet for discontented fighters in an attempt to rebuild the guerilla movement on the backbone of the criminal economy.
Two years later, after absorbing a number of splintered militant units, he began openly rebuking elements of the FARC party leadership who were still committed to the accords, including former political chief Ivan Marquez and Jess Santrich.
By 2018, sections of the FARC leadership chose to abandon the accords altogether. Santrich and Marquez lost faith in what they saw as an ineffectual peace process due to the US’ attempts to extradite them that year on drug trafficking charges and President Duque’s ambivalent position.
Just as Marquez and Santrich opted to coercively remobilise, Maduro declared them “leaders of peace” and welcomed them to Venezuela. At the same time, the country’s border regions have continuously been a haven for a host of irregular outfits – including ELN, EPL, Rastojos and various FARC dissidents – who use Venezuelan territory for smuggling cocaine and illegal mining.
However, the decision to set up base on the Venezuelan side of the border effectively created overlapping areas of operations between the rival Second Marquetalia and the factions loyal to Duarte. Failed unification talks in March escalated a competition for leadership over the FARC dissidents into an armed confrontation between the factions. Ultimately this provoked a response from the Venezuelan government to back the Second Marquetalia.
Politics of ‘Operation Bolivarian Shield 2021’
Despite Maduro’s framing of the military engagement as intended to defend Venezuelan sovereignty from unidentified Colombian “narco-mercenaries”, it seems to be aimed at saving the smaller Second Marquetalia from the larger fronts close to Duarte.
Tacitly, the operation also sends a message to FARC dissident leaders to unify under the Second Marquetalia or risk conflict with the Venezuelan armed forces.
Strategically, the consolidation of a FARC into the Second Marquetalia loyal to Caracas could serve as a useful foreign policy tool. An armed proxy hostile to both Colombia and the US could enable Maduro to exert pressure onto both states, thereby leveraging the militants as a bargaining chip against hostile external actors.
A few weeks after clearing La Victoria, videos surfaced emphasising this split between a Second Marquetalia backed by Caracas and units loyal to Duarte, key among them the 10th Front. On April 14, Marquez released a video explicitly naming his group’s only enemy as the Colombian state while stating that the Venezuelan armed forces were not military targets.
The beleaguered guerrilla leader distanced his faction from bombings and attacks carried out in the name of the FARC over the course of the operation, suggesting either the existence of an established relationship with Maduro or a willingness to develop one.
Conversely, Duarte’s faction released a video four days later denouncing the Second Marquetalia as traitors because they signed onto the accords. The video goes on to accuse the Second Marquetalia of being in business with elements of the Venezuelan government and alleges that the group orchestrated Bolivarian Shield to weaken the 10th Front.
Do the risks outweigh the rewards?
Maduro’s ten-day clearing operation gave way to a two month military presence in Apure. However, the threat of renewed incursions from Duarte-affiliated militants remains a ubiquitous reality.
To add to the climate of uncertainty, reports of human rights abuses against civilians perpetrated by units belonging to Venezuela’s infamous Special Action Forces and army could very well fuel public anger that could sustain insurgent resistance against Caracas. Venezuelan human rights NGO FundaRedes reported on June 15 that 7,000 people were displaced from the area throughout the conflict.
Maduro’s attempts to successfully co-opt and consolidate FARC dissidents into loyalist factions is fraught with obstacles. Maduro had previously warned that a military response was necessary should Colombian commandos cross into Venezuelan territory to counter guerilla operations.
On May 17, Santrich was murdered in Venezuela under disputed circumstances. The Second Marquetalia claimed that he died at the hands of Colombian soldiers in a shallow bid to draw Venezuela and Colombia into a military confrontation.
Either way, the killing of a top leader in Maduro’s preferred faction will have a lasting impact in embroiling Caracas in a conflict that increases in complexity by the day. Historically, La Victoria is a Socialist Party stronghold.
The alleged violations of humanitarian norms and human rights laws wrought by Bolivarian Shield could lead to unintended political consequences in the future.
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