ANALYSIS - What is happening on the Colombian-Venezuelan border?

CARACAS, Venezuela

During the last three weeks, Venezuela and Colombia have experienced a new episode of diplomatic tension. The most recent impasse is set against the backdrop of the Colombian armed conflict and Apure's inhospitable regions and Arauca as the backdrop.

Usually, what happens in the small towns of La Victoria or El Ripial, located in the southwestern Venezuelan plains, affects little or nothing within the Bolivarian Republic's political dynamics.

The same happens on the other bank of the river, where what happens in Arauquita has marginal importance in the dispute for power in Colombia. However, both from Miraflores and the Palace of Narino, the realities of these places have become matters of state.

Caracas has deployed more than 90 troops in Apure state, including an elite joint action brigade with troops from its various military corps, and recently announced the dispatch of 1,000 militiamen. For its part, Bogota mobilized 2,000 new troops from its military forces and 90 marines to the department of Arauca.

Historically, the presence of the two states in these territories has been weak. Apure is one of the largest states in Venezuela, with 76,500 square kilometers, which in turn frame the largest and worst-guarded corridor on the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

The tiny state presence and the porosity of the border the line between Arauca and Apure are two ideal conditions for the development of schemes related to drug trafficking.

Narcotics trafficking causes more than $10 billion a year to flow into the Colombian economy, according to a risk assessment report by the United States Department of the Treasury published in 2018.

Such economic income is assimilated through money laundering, but a good part never enters the legal system and can be captured because there is prior control or influence by the armed groups in the territory where they will pass or produce narcotics.

Although the dynamics of drug trafficking on this border are very complex, it is believed that they work because armed groups outside the law keep a part of the profits to control border crossings and guarantee the security necessary for drug production.

According to various analysts, the Colombian guerrilla of the National Liberation Army (ELN) has played a structural role in Arauca for decades, becoming the leading force in the sector, but not the only one.

Territorial control is shared or disputed with other groups such as the so-called dissidents of the former guerrilla of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which never joined the peace process in Colombia and allegedly were involved in the recent confrontations with La Bolivarian National Armed Force (FANB) in Apure.

Ariel Avila, a researcher at the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation in Colombia, maintains that at least 17 structures of these armed groups operate in Venezuela.

To date, 17 Venezuelans have died in these clashes, including eight army personnel. Besides, the war situation produced more than 3,000 forced displacements at the peak of the combat, according to the Venezuelan government, while NGOs speak of 5,000 to 6,000 displaced persons.

These events have triggered a confrontation between the Venezuelan and Colombian diplomats, which from the television cameras seek to take the most significant possible advantage of the handling of the crisis. Accusations of support for drug trafficking come and go from one government to another, and each one handles their own hypothesis about what is happening in Arauca-Apure.

According to statements by Avila to the US news channel CNN, the confrontations between the FANB and the alleged "FARC dissidence" would be taking place under two hypotheses: the first is that the dissident groups have brought the number of operations in Venezuelan territory to an alarming level and the second is that the Venezuelan Government is favoring another section of the guerrilla, the so-called "Nueva Marquetalia," led by Jesus Santrich and Ivan Marquez, former FARC guerrilla leaders who relapsed in the armed struggle after abandoning the peace process in Colombia.

This second hypothesis is the one that manages the Palace of Narino. Recently, the Colombian president, Ivan Duque, denounced before the European Union as "something very serious" the "permanent collusion and protection that the Venezuelan dictatorship gives to terrorist groups and drug traffickers in its territory", and also pronounced in this sense his vice president, Marta Lucía Ramírez, who declared that what "is happening today is the bet that Maduro has made (…) for Marquez, Santrich and the 'Narcotalia'".

From Colombia, the confrontations are perceived as a deepening of the "humanitarian crisis" that the Bolivarian Republic is currently experiencing. In this sense, Colombian Foreign Minister Claudia Blum addressed a letter to the president of the United Nations and to the Security Council, in which she expresses her "concern about the institutional, economic and social collapse in Venezuela, and the political crisis that has led to the destruction of democracy, turning that country into a failed state."

Blum also blamed the FANB for the massive displacements of nearly 5,000 people to the Colombian municipality of Arauquita.

During his recent visit to Brussels, the Colombian president also put the issue of forced migration on the table. Duque pointed out that his country had received "in a fraternal and friendly way" 34% of the six million people who left the Venezuelan territory and denounced that there is a "very large disproportion" in terms of contributions per migrant made by the international community, taking into account the money that is destined to alleviate other crises. The receiving countries in the conflict in Syria receive 3,000 dollars per migrant, those that receive Sudanese 1,600 dollars, and those that host Venezuelans only 300 dollars, according to data from the Washington Brookings Institution.

If the international community acceded to the request of the Colombian president and contributed for a Venezuelan migrant the same as for a Syrian, 6,000 million dollars would enter Colombia for their "fraternal help," which is equivalent to about half of the money from drug trafficking or to 5% of the country's GDP.

According to the criteria put forward by Duque, only with the crisis in Arauca-Apure, his administration should receive 15 million dollars in aid, almost 28% of the annual budget of the self-proclaimed Venezuelan interim government of Juan Guaido, which is recognized by Colombia as the Legitimate government.

For its part, from Miraflores, the first hypothesis of Avila is handled, which indicates the alarming increase in the number of operations by dissident groups in Venezuelan territory.

In this sense, during his last speech, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro called for "zero tolerance for Colombian irregular armed groups" and also pointed out that in Apure there are "armed groups disguised as guerrillas but who serve the drug gangs of Iván Duque and Alvaro Uribe Velez".

For its part, Miraflores seeks to show the government exercising sovereignty in Apure, to the detriment of the self-proclaimed interim government of Guaido, recognized by the United States. And it also seeks to take advantage of the media attention, the product of the conflict, to force the Colombian government to recognize it as an interlocutor.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza sent a letter to the Security Council of the United Nations Organization requesting that it be investigated "the Colombian violence" that he considers is being directed against Venezuela.

Arreaza has also advocated the creation of a dialogue channel with the participation of third countries between Caracas and Bogota through which border policies are coordinated and controversies arising from the conflict on the border are settled.

"The entire confrontation between Colombia and Venezuela has been very poorly handled by both sides," said Venezuelan politician and writer Enrique Ochoa Antich in conversation with Anadolu Agency.

He also recalled that a year ago, he sent a letter to the Colombian president to demand a minimum understanding with his Venezuelan counterpart for handling the pandemic, which was responded to by the Colombian presidency "simply saying that they had no relationship with the Maduro government."

Antich, who is the also leader of the Venezuelan opposition, said this indicates that "we are in a truly unusual situation in which each of the governments believe that the harsher they are in front of the microphone, the better they do and in the end, those of us who pay for the broken dishes are the ordinary Venezuelans and Colombians."



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