Venezuela: Stronghold of FARC Dissidents

Dissidents of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish) have established a presence in Venezuela and work alongside the regime of Nicolás Maduro, engaging in illegal gold mining and controlling a large part of the drug trafficking market, security experts say.
Diálogo | 30 August 2019

Transnational Threats

Former FARC commander Jesús Santrich (seated at center) occupies his seat at the Colombian National Congress next to other members demonstrating against his presence in Bogotá, June 12, 2019. Santrich, wanted for U.S. drug trafficking charges, is believed to have fled to Venezuela soon after. (Juan Barreto, AFP)

“Don’t have any doubts about it,” Rocío San Miguel, director of Venezuelan nongovernmental organization (NGO) Control Ciudadano, which specializes in security, defense, and military issues, told Diálogo, concerning the presence of FARC dissidents in Venezuela.

Venezuelan attorney Fermín Marmol García, a security analyst and director of the Criminal Science and Criminology Institute at Saint Mary University in Caracas, echoed San Miguel’s words and described the country as “porous” with a weak government that not only sustains a corridor of criminal activities, but also harbors irregular armed groups.

“The most important presence of a foreign organized criminal group is the National Liberation Army [ELN, in Spanish],” Marmol García told Diálogo. “The ELN is perhaps the criminal group that has benefited most from our institutional weakness, but FARC dissidents are also present.”

On July 16, Colombian President Iván Duque accused the Maduro regime of protecting FARC dissidents. In an interview with the Colombian television news program Noticias RCN, Duque said missing leaders Luciano Marín, alias Iván Márquez; Hernán Darío Velásco, alias el Paisa; and Henry Castellanos, alias Romaña, were in Venezuela.

“They are not over there playing dolls; they are protected by the Nicolás Maduro dictatorship,” Duque said.

In late July, Maduro offered refuge to two former FARC commanders sought by Colombian judicial authorities: Márquez, who led the negotiations for the peace process with Colombia and whose whereabouts became unknown in August 2018 and Seuxis Pausías Hernández, alias Jesús Santrich, wanted for U.S. drug trafficking charges, who fled Colombia in July after taking his seat in the Colombian Congress under the terms of the peace accords.

Maduro’s move, San Miguel said, “defied the international democratic community and was a confession of protection.”

Several sources, including San Miguel, former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana, and Maduro’s ex-spy chief General Manuel Cristopher Figuera, said they believed both leaders crossed into Venezuela before leaving for Cuba. 

“I have received the following information,” Pastrana wrote on Twitter August 10. “The airplane for the exclusive use of Nicolás Maduro, disguised as a commercial flight from [Venezuelan airline] Conviasa, tail number YV3016, took off from Ramp 4 from Caracas heading for Havana. It transported Iván Márquez, Santrich, and Adán Chávez [Hugo Chávez’s older brother and former ambassador to Cuba] for an emergency meeting in Cuba.”

In an interview with Spanish news agency EFE, Gen. Figuera, in exile in the United States, said local sources confirmed the presence of Santrich in early July in Caracas’ Fort Tiuna military complex.

Criminal enclave

At a United Nations Security Council briefing on the peace process in Colombia on July 19, Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes said that while Colombia is working to reintegrate more than 10,000 former guerillas, 16 percent of the leaders “haven’t told the truth, haven’t attended hearings, and haven’t committed to the guarantees of non-repetition because their current whereabouts are unknown.”

In early 2019, the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes, which conducts research on human rights and democracy, said it identified at least six armed groups led by former FARC leaders carrying out illicit activities in Venezuela, most specifically in the states of Amazonas, Apure, Bolivar, Táchira, and Zulia, which border Colombia.

According to the NGO, FARC dissidents have entered into agreements with the ELN and engage in illegal gold mining in the Orinoco Mining Arc region of Bolivar and Amazonas states. The NGO also says they have strengthened the drug trafficking corridor between Colombia and Venezuela and have ties to several transnational criminal groups, such as Mexico’s Sinaloa and Brazil’s Red Command drug cartels.

U.S. investigative organization InSight Crime, which specializes in security threats in Latin America and the Caribbean, reported that an October 2018 meeting between FARC and ELN leaders took place in Apure state in Venezuela to consolidate their cooperation. According to the organization’s sources, Márquez and El Paisa were said to have attended the meeting.

“The FARC is present through its greatly diminished dissidence, controlling its share of cocaine trafficking, storage, distribution, and collateral issues such as extortion in its area of influence,” Marmol García said. “Between 600 to 1,000 FARC dissidents could be present in Venezuela.”

The presence of FARC rebels on Venezuelan soil and the support they receive from the Chavista regime is longstanding. Between 2008 and 2017, the U.S. government designated at least 10 current and former Venezuelan government officials and military officers who were assisting FARC members in narcotrafficking activities, and facilitating arms sales and security.

Their presence in Venezuela under Maduro’s protection, experts say, puts stability in the region at risk. “The presence of the FARC in Venezuela is expected to increase in the same measure as the peace accords seem to be eroding,” San Miguel said.

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