The Nicolás Maduro regime has been exploiting the growth of armed groups in Venezuela, encouraging the strengthening of some illegal groups considered useful for social control and repression.
“The Maduro regime realized that it is not capable of exercising control with its own forces. It is trying to have territorial control by different means […], but it does not have the strength, it does not have sufficient military capability or discipline to carry it out […],” Roberto Briceño León, director of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV), a nongovernmental organization that monitors insecurity in Venezuela, told Diálogo. “He prefers to establish some temporary agreements with these groups and lets them exist because they are useful for him.”
According to Briceño, these criminal groups went through processes of concentration, unable to stay on top of their finances due to the economic downturn and COVID-19. “There is greater territorial control [of criminal groups], larger; and there is greater concentration of these groups. That is, there are fewer groups, but they are larger and more powerful; they have greater control,” he said.
On May 11, during the 7th Annual Hemispheric Security Conference in Miami, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations Matthew Steinhelfer said that “these groups are increasing their power with the support of the Maduro regime; they will continue to grow and expand into neighboring countries.”
According to Steinhelfer, 60 percent of armed groups enjoy some support from the Venezuelan regime.
The Venezuelan dictatorship treats non-state armed groups selectively, Briceño said. “The difference it makes between these groups is very clear. They manage them as political alliances or strategic mechanisms. With some they have agreements and understandings. There are agreements at the regional or local levels, but they function in the sense of territorial control,” he added.
Inhabitants of Apure whose towns were raided in January by groups of Venezuelan soldiers and guerrillas told HRW that they were looking for people believed to have collaborated with the 10th Front, also known as the Martín Villa Front, a dissident group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Juan García, coordinator of the NGO Fundaredes in Apure, corroborated the actions of Venezuelan service members and the ELN, and told Diálogo that the regime’s overarching goal is to displace FARC dissidents and take over illegal trade routes.
“Historically, the FARC had control in Apure, but they were displaced by the ELN […], which operates in the zone jointly with the FANB, openly with the Army and the Navy. There are farms taken over in which there are even units of the Air Force and the Navy, on the Arauca border. This has led to a displacement of the FARC, both in the lower and upper Apure,” García added. “These guerrillas are extending their influence on other areas of the country such as Zulia and Bolívar. What interests them most is to take control of businesses.”