Latin America Advisor

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Would Colombia-Venezuela Military Ties Boost Security?

Photo of Petro Just days after Gustavo Petro was sworn in as Colombia’s president, Venezuela said it is seeking closer military ties with the neighboring country. // File Photo: Facebook Page of Gustavo Petro.

Venezuela will seek to re-establish military ties with Colombia, the Venezuelan defense ministry said Aug. 9 in a tweet. The announcement came just two days after the inauguration of Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who is seeking to thaw relations between Colombia and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government. What would closer military ties between Venezuela and Colombia mean in practice? What effect would closer cooperation on military matters mean for drug trafficking and for dissident rebels operating in the area? What do the Colombian and Venezuelan governments have to gain from closer military ties?

Stephen Johnson, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs (2007-2009): “Venezuelan and Colombian militaries are two very different institutions. The Venezuelan armed forces answer to a corrupt, repressive dictatorship. Their mission is to keep the country’s near destitute population under control and make money for the regime by facilitating narcotics and natural resource trafficking. Poorly trained in military missions, they are nonetheless well schooled in terrorizing regime opponents and ordinary citizens. Despite being unconventional, they represent one of Latin America’s largest armed forces with some 1.6 million active duty, reserve and regime-backed militia members under arms by some accounts. In contrast, the Colombian military is a conventional defense force: highly professional, largely dedicated to public service and much smaller in number. Lest we forget, Colombian soldiers and police proved their mettle against guerrilla armies and criminal bands in reducing a decades-long civil war to a manageable peace process. For Colombia’s part, any cooperation with Venezuela may well be cautious and superficial—likely serving as eyewash for Petro’s supporters on the left and treated with a great deal of suspicion by the country’s security services that remember Venezuela’s history of supporting Colombian guerrillas. For Venezuela’s Maduro, it could provide a propaganda coup and a fresh opportunity to spy on and lay traps to compromise Colombian soldiers. Compare the two defense ministers: Colombia’s Iván Velásquez is former prosecutor and a principled corruption fighter; Venezuela’s Vladimir Padrino López is military apparatchik who’s reportedly had his fingers in port operations, mining and money laundering, suspicious food distribution schemes and drug smuggling. Colombia’s military has the most to lose.”

Julia Buxton, British Academy Global Professor at the University of Manchester: "Improved military relations are integral to development and security in both Venezuela and Colombia. Criminal entrepreneurs, armed groups and corrupt military and civilian officials in both countries have benefited from poor cross-border military and intelligence cooperation. An environment of impunity and insecurity has been exacerbated by mutually exclusive military doctrines and foreign military relations. Since the 1990s, Colombia has received more than $10 billion in U.S. counternarcotics assistance. This has not led to any advance in illegal drug market containment—coca cultivation and cocaine production reached historic highs during the Duque presidency. It also failed to staunch paramilitary and insurgent violence. As Colombian military doctrine has hewed to the United States, Venezuela has conversely veered to asymmetric warfare and division of the country into a complex of integral defense zones. Since 2006, U.S. and European (2017) arms export controls steered Venezuela to supply agreements with Russia, and the country has looked to Cuba for instruction on ‘anti-imperialist defense.’ In both Colombia and Venezuela, military officials have profited from pork opportunities in defense supply and protection of criminal interests—at an egregious cost to human rights, democracy and national security. Closer cooperation will require intensive confidence building, as well as mutual reorientation to shared security interests with benefits for institutional professionalism and transparency on both sides of the border. Venezuela is a critical partner in Petro’s plans for disarmament of rebel groups and reduction of drug trafficking. (The UNODC reported Venezuela’s seizure of 51 tons of Colombian cocaine in 2021.) It is a prospect that powerful vested interests will resist.”

Diego Arria, member of the Advisor board, director of the Columbus Group in New York and former permanent representative of Venezuela to the United Nations: “It is not surprising that Maduro would try to erase overnight the sordid actions that he for years has instigated against the Colombian people, harboring narco guerrilla terrorists. The statement by his defense minister, General Padrino, that he was instructed to contact his Colombian counterpart to re-establish military cooperation was immediately and sharply rejected by President Petro, who unequivocally declared: ‘before military relations comes institutional and economic issues, as well as social, cultural and even family ones.’ He was obviously reminding Maduro that Colombia is ruled by democratic institutions, not by the military, and that a decision to re-establish military relations is not a priority nor a unilateral decision by Maduro. Petro knows well the level of cooperation that the Venezuelan regime since Chávez has provided to narco guerrillas as well as the dominant role it plays in drug trafficking. Traditional military cooperation between the two nations was ended by Hugo Chávez who openly helped the guerrillas and their drug trafficking. The Colombian army is the best in the region, and I am sure it would be extremely careful about participating in any arrangement with the infamous Maduro-Padrino forces that are today in charge of torturing and persecuting dissidents, accused before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, and leading the pillage of Venezuelan treasure and natural resources. Maduro mistakenly believes that a former guerrilla leader is at the helm of Colombia, not a constitutional and democratic president.” 

R. Evan Ellis, Latin America research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute: “Re-establishing military ties, following the exchange of ambassadors, benefits the Maduro regime by decreasing its isolation in security, as well as in political terms. Colombian Defense Minister Iván Velásquez will likely proceed with caution, reflecting his newness, plus profound concerns within Colombia regarding the direction that Gustavo Petro intends to take the nation. Ties are likely to begin with high-level talks establishing the scope agreement, likely including border coordination as well as possibly exchanging liaison officers, students between each other’s professional military education and training institutions. For Colombia, intelligence, counterterrorism and counterdrug cooperation will be more delicate, given the penetration of the Venezuelan armed forces by Cuban intelligence and Venezuelan armed forces’ collaboration with narcotraffickers, FARC dissidents, the ELN and other entities engaged in criminal activities against the Colombian state.”

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