In Colombia’s Arauca department, on the border with Venezuela, not only are armed groups waging a merciless battle under the protection of the Nicolás Maduro regime, but on the Venezuelan side, Russian service members are spying on Colombia, says Border Wars, a new investigative video series of the national security think tank Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS).
The Colombian presidency said that the rivalry between the National Liberation Army (ELN, in Spanish) and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish) for control of illegal economies in Arauca has led to clashes, homicides, and displacements. Rivalry between the criminal groups left at least 50 people dead in January, the Colombian newspaper El Espectador reported.
On the Colombian-Venezuelan border, Border Wars says, are found “international narcotics trafficking, international terrorism, transnational organized crime, espionage, intelligence, [and] external actors, such as Russia, Iran, China, Hezbollah, Cuba, in a geopolitical scenario that is unlike anything we’ve seen in Latin America in our modern history.”
The Bolivarian goal
The violence along the Colombian-Venezuelan border is much more than clashes between armed groups, the Colombian Institute for Development and Peace Studies says on its website. Russian “military contractors” have been arriving in the border area in a situation that goes beyond the conflict between the FARC and the ELN, SFS director Joseph M. Humire told the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo on January 21.
“The goal of the Nicolás Maduro regime […] is expansion […]. They want to expand that power to different territories in Latin America, and I believe that it mainly has Colombia in its sight […], something that is very similar to the goal Putin has in Russia, of expanding Russia to neighboring lands — we’re talking about Ukraine […],” Humire said. Moscow, the expert added, has knowledge and experience in border conflict issues; it knows how “to weaken a border to strip another country of its sovereignty and dismantle its democracy.”
As such, Maduro “is manipulating” the situation in Arauca, Humire said. The growing tension on the border with Venezuela “gives Maduro the perfect pretext to ask for and receive more military support from Russia or Iran, and in the process increase his military presence on the border with Colombia. He tries to say they are fighting against narco-terrorism, when we know very well that the narco-terrorists are within his regime,” he added.
On a trip on the Arauca River aboard a Colombia Navy assault vessel in September 2021, the SFS observed how the Russian P-18 mobile radar system was tapping phone signals on the Venezuelan side, in Táchira and Zulia states.
Colombian Minister of Defense Diego Molano said that “for Colombia, there is no threat if there is a Russian military deployment in Venezuela; however, there is a strong military presence of the [Colombian] public force at several border locations to guarantee security in the country.”
More than 6,800 Colombian soldiers are currently conducting military operations in Arauca, covering nearly 450 kilometers of the border, the Colombian Army said on January 6.
However, the Russian presence in the region has consequences, Humire warns. “Russia has a geopolitical strategy that is larger than just military sales transactions,” he said.
Venezuela has spent billions of dollars building its defense with the help of Moscow, from fighter jets and assault helicopters to sophisticated radars and missile launchers, the U.S. newspaper San Diego Union Tribune reported on January 22. Moscow gave Maduro unmanned aerial vehicles of the Orlan 10 type and P-18 radars, equipment that Russia used in border areas in Syria, Libya, and Ukraine, Humire said.
In light of criminal and terrorist activities in Arauca department, Molano announced on January 20 that “the public force will strengthen intelligence and operations. A special intelligence group will reinforce the work to dismantle the criminal structures of the FARC dissident groups and the ELN, and anti-terrorist mechanisms will be permanently activated in the municipalities of Arauca.”