Some 5,000 Venezuelan refugees, many of them children, have reportedly fled into Colombia in recent weeks following the Venezuelan military’s offensive against Colombian illegal armed groups near the two countries’ border. Security experts have described the assault, which began with airstrikes in Venezuela’s Apure state on March 21, as Venezuela’s largest use of military force in decades. Who are the main targets of the offensive? Why has Venezuela launched the operation now, and what does it seek to accomplish? What must Venezuela, Colombia and the international community do to address the resulting refugee crisis?
Claudia Blum, foreign minister of Colombia: “The current humanitarian situation on the Colombia-Venezuela border, due to internal clashes in the Apure region in Venezuela, is another consequence of Venezuela’s multidimensional crisis, provoked by the illegitimate regime of Nicolás Maduro. That dictatorship has destroyed the rule of law, the productive system and basic social services, and it is responsible for grave human rights violations against Venezuelans. Furthermore, the regime has long tolerated and protected different illegal armed groups involved in drug trafficking and other illegal economies. This is the real context of the situation, and although Maduro’s regime always tries to divert international attention from its responsibility on the Venezuelan crisis, the world knows that the dictator does not respect any international standard related to human rights and rule of law. The humanitarian consequences of the crisis are reflected in more than five million people already expelled in recent years to Colombia and other countries. Colombia has decided to grant temporary protected status to about 1.8 million Venezuelans living in our country. In recent weeks, we have been providing humanitarian assistance to 6,500 displaced people in 19 shelters in the municipality of Arauquita. International cooperation is essential to helping these victims with solidarity. The international community must maintain diplomatic pressure and action to prevent impunity on the serious crimes attributed to Maduro’s regime by various countries and international organizations, and to ensure the restoration of democracy in Venezuela as the only way to solve this crisis, which affects civilians and the region’s stability.”
Vanessa Neumann, former Juan Guaidó-appointed Venezuelan ambassador to the United Kingdom: “The armed conflict that began when FARC-EP dissidents attacked a Venezuelan army battalion in the town of La Victoria could be the beginning of a perfect storm that might threaten Maduro’s grip on power. In Apure, Maduro’s friends are now his enemies, and Venezuelan civilians caught in the crossfire could at least temporarily view Maduro—the enemy of their enemy—as their friend. The FARC-EP mean business: they are using rocket launchers and land mines. In this battle over lucrative cocaine trafficking routes, the Venezuelan armed forces are looting and committing atrocities against Venezuelan residents, including the bombardment of a house and school in Los Cañitos and the murder of five relatives in El Ripial. By contrast, the Colombian terrorists have been smart: they have thus far avoided attacking Venezuelan civilians, opening the possibility that the locals might consider rising up with them against Maduro’s security forces. Many desperate Venezuelans have joined the ranks of the Colombian terrorist groups, who at least give them food and a job. Apure is an important drug trafficking route under the control of Iván Márquez, to whom Maduro has publicly avowed asylum. Hence Maduro only refers to the combatants there as ‘irregular armed groups,’ rather than the FARC-EP dissidents with whom he has aligned himself. On their way to Brazil, drugs from Apure snake across Venezuela and through the Mining Arc, which is controlled by yet another group of Colombian terrorists, the ELN, which is now also rising up against the Venezuelan armed forces there for control of the mines. In short, the Venezuelan military, which has kept Maduro in power, is getting increasingly bogged down in open battles against its allies for control of cocaine and gold. While Maduro’s resilience should never be underestimated, he is definitely under pressure. I fear, though, that should the collapse of the Maduro regime come at the hands of foreign terrorist organizations, it would be as ever, at a high cost to my fellow Venezuelans.”
Humberto de la Calle, former Colombian vice president, interior minister and chief negotiator in the peace process with the FARC: “What is happening along the border has enormous destabilizing potential. For the thousands of migrants from Venezuela, a dangerous confrontation involving Venezuelan military forces is now an additional concern. Colombia has also activated military units. The Venezuelan military mobilization coincides with a change in diplomatic strategy. For several years, the panorama was framed by complaints from Colombia over the protection of illegal groups in Venezuela, to which Venezuela responded with a resounding refusal. Now, in different forums, including through letters to the U.N. Security Council, Venezuela is seeking to change the paradigm: it maintains that it is a victim of aggressive actions by Colombia. The effect is that the two foreign ministries today are speaking the same language, each from their own side. These mutual and equivalent accusations are a Gordian knot that sets the conditions for an escalation of tensions. That is why I welcome the initiative of a group of people from both sides of the border who have petitioned the United Nations to appoint a special envoy for the border crisis. It’s about sending a sensible message and avoiding the temptation to escalate the confrontation. Sectors of the Venezuelan opposition have been promoting a proposal for a peaceful transition in Venezuela. Biden is likely to view this favorably. The Trump/Bolton era is over, and hopefully this can be resolved before it is too late.”
Gustavo Roosen, member of the Advisor board and president of IESA in Caracas: “The deployment of the armed forces is aimed at tamping down fighting among Colombian guerrilla groups and regaining territorial control. Venezuelan military presence in the region will continue. Maduro’s government will allow some degree of illicit activity by Colombian guerrilla groups in its territory. But at a time when his authority is already being seriously questioned, Maduro cannot allow fighting among the guerrilla groups inside Venezuelan borders. What is unique about this operation is that the Venezuelan authorities are responding. The government has turned a blind eye toward former FARC and ELN guerrillas. The Venezuelan government has preferred to work with guerrillas and criminal groups along the border to advance common interests. Ideologically, the FARC had more in common with late President Hugo Chávez. Since the Colombian peace accords in 2016, many guerrilla fighters have refused to put down their weapons and continue participating in the drug trade, fuel smuggling and illegal mining, departing from ideological beliefs. The ties between Maduro and these guerrilla groups prompted the U.S. Justice Department in March 2020 to indict Maduro, several other Venezuelan officials and members of the FARC leadership on narco-terrorism charges. Besides the need to keep the money flowing, Maduro’s government must use this moment to prove he can control the territory of Venezuela, which is facing a very precarious economic situation. The heavy-handed response is proportionate to the risk the regime seeks to eliminate. As it pertains to the humanitarian crisis this military confrontation has created, the best avenue open to the international community is to support Venezuelan migrants with financial contributions and humanitarian services, based on the Colombian law known as ‘Estatuto Temporal de Protección para Migrantes Venezolanos.’”
Juan David Escobar Valencia, director of the Center for Strategic Thought at the Universidad EAFIT in Medellín: “The situation on the Colombian-Venezuelan border is the manifestation of a frequent occurrence between criminal actors who have an alliance but then, due to the nature of these criminal actors, in this case the Colombian narco-terrorist groups and the drug trafficking and criminal cartels that make up the Venezuelan military, they end up in a war to seize the business and have territorial control. This all turns the population into victims of their dispute. The Venezuelan government has hosted Colombian narco-terrorist groups such as the FARC, and others such as Hezbollah, to manage the drug business and control the resources of the Venezuelan Mining Arc. Today, the Venezuelan dictatorship wants to regain control, and its former allies have entered into a confrontation. This is affecting people of the area, who are fleeing to Colombia. If Venezuela were led by a democratic government, the alternative of forming diplomatic channels with the collaboration of a country or an organization such as the OAS, would be one option, though one that may have limited results. But what is happening on the border is a fight between criminal cartels, and that is why such an alternative would be naive and useless. What the ‘international community,’ if one exists, can do is support Colombia, not with speeches, but rather with dollars and material aid. Colombia is a poor country that graciously received almost two million suffering Venezuelans and is now receiving victims of a war between cartels.”
Phil Gunson, senior analyst for the Andes region at International Crisis Group: “The government of Nicolás Maduro has ceded control of large swathes of Venezuelan territory, both urban and rural, to a range of nonstate armed groups that includes criminal gangs and Colombian guerrillas. (Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez did the same.) From time to time, conflicts arise with one or other of these groups, often over the division of spoils from illicit activities. But as their strength grows, the government needs to deploy ever greater firepower on those occasions when it chooses to reassert control. The group targeted in the military offensive in Apure is the ‘Frente 10,’ part of a faction of the disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement that has refused to accept the 2016 peace agreement signed with the Colombian government. This is distinct from the ‘Segunda Marquetalia’ group of rearmed FARC rebels headed by the leaders known as Iván Márquez and Jesús Santrich (both aliases), with whom the Maduro government appears to have a closer relationship. The precise cause of the breakdown in relations between the Frente 10 and the Venezuelan security forces is unclear, although reports suggest it may include the former’s failure to give the military a cut from certain illicit rackets. What is apparent is that armed clashes in this volatile border region could spark a broader conflict if not brought under control. There is an urgent need to re-establish channels of communication between Caracas and Bogotá, given that the two governments have had no diplomatic relations for over two years.”
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