It’s been over two months since clashes broke out between the Venezuelan armed forces (Fuerzas Armadas Nacionales Bolivarianas, or FANB) and Colombian FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) dissident groups in the southwestern border state of Apure along the border with Colombia on March 21. The violence has displaced over 5,000 Venezuelans, seen the capture and release of eight soldiers, and heightened tensions between the Maduro and Duque governments.
There has been little reporting on the conflict, due in part to unsafe conditions in the region, and to repression of those who attempt to question the official narrative on the situation. Facing a scarcity of information, and a heated discourse from both Venezuelan and Colombian diplomats, this is an attempt to lay out what we do and do not know about the ongoing conflict.
What’s happening on the border with Colombia?
The conflict began on March 21, when the FANB launched an unprecedented military offensive dubbed by the Maduro government “Operation Bolivarian Shield,” against Colombian rebel groups, sparking confrontations in and around the small town of La Victoria in the state of Apure. The clashes that took place in the weeks following March 21 reportedly involved aerial strikes by the FANB, the use of explosives and landmines, and attacks on state property such as the Tax Administration Service (SENIAT) building by Colombian armed groups.
Nearly one month after the armed conflict began, over a week went by without any confrontations. This led local NGO Fundaredes, one of the only organizations near the border area that puts out regular information on the conflict, to claim that the groups involved had negotiated to reach some kind of agreement. However, any ceasefire did not last for long, as clashes resumed on the night of April 23 with what has been described by military intelligence analyst Andrei Serbin Pont as a series of ambushes by Colombian rebel groups. Javier Tarazona, Director of Fundaredes, claimed that the April 23 clashes were provoked by Colombian groups that shot down two military helicopters holding between 29 and 38 soldiers in La Capilla. Members of the 10th Front are believed to be behind the capture of eight Venezuelan soldiers, which was confirmed by the Maduro government on May 15. They were freed on June 1, but the circumstances that led to their release are unknown.
The Venezuelan Defense Ministry officially confirmed that confrontations had resumed on April 26, and released photos of more than 100 additional soldiers being deployed in Apure. Since the conflict picked up again in late April, confrontations have been ongoing, with Fundaredes reporting further gunfire and explosions in La Victoria on April 26, clashes in Los Cañitos and La Soledad on May 3, and conflict between the 10th Front and the Segunda Marquetalia groups in Bruzual on May 12. The following week, Segunda Marquetalia released a statement claiming that a Colombian military commando ambushed a car transporting Colombian guerrillas on Venezuelan soil in the Serrania del Perijá on May 17, killing peace process defector and rebel leader Jesús Santrich.
Who is the Venezuelan military fighting with? Why?
While the Maduro government has not explicitly stated who it is clashing with in public communications—only referring to “irregular Colombian armed groups” or “terrorists”—experts at International Crisis Group, Insight Crime and Human Rights Watch have reported that the FANB appear to be targeting a dissident faction of the FARC known as the 10th Front.
The presence of dissident factions of the FARC, as well as the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) in Venezuelan territory has been well documented. As Venezuela’s political and humanitarian crisis has continued to deteriorate, armed groups have filled a void left by declining state presence in large swathes of territory in Venezuela, engaging in illicit activities including gold mining, human trafficking, and drug trafficking, and in some cases even establishing security and stability where the state is not present. Insight Crime has documented that illegal mining facilities in Venezuela’s southern Arco Minero region have become a stronghold of the ELN, which is known to operate with impunity and even in coordination with the Venezuelan security forces.
The roots of the current conflict are unclear. In official statements, the Maduro government has stated that the purpose of “Operation Bolivarian Shield” is to “guarantee peace, sovereignty, and national independence” against “transnational crimes of paramilitarism and narcotrafficking.” However, given the well-documented history of cooperation between criminal groups and the elements in the Venezuelan state, some experts such as President of NGO Control Ciudadano Rocío San Miguel have speculated that the disputes are over economic control rather than territorial independence. The most widely-accepted hypothesis at this point seems to be that the current clashes are the result of disputes over control of illicit activities and smuggling routes between FARC dissident groups and the ELN, with the Venezuelan armed forces allying with the ELN and other splinter groups over the 10th Front.
What has been the human impact of this conflict?
There are conflicting accounts regarding the exact number of individuals killed, displaced, and otherwise affected by the conflict in Apure state, due to a lack of independent reporting and a lack of transparency by the Maduro government. A report published by Human Rights Watch in April documents extensive abuses committed against the civilian population during the present conflict, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, torture, the looting and destruction of homes, and the forced displacement of over 5,000 individuals. While the Maduro government has said little publicly to address the civilian impact of the conflict, in a live update on April 5 Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López reported that 9 “terrorists” had been “neutralized.” Believed to be included in this count are four members of a rural farming family who were allegedly kidnapped and extrajudicially murdered by the FAES on March 25. The bodies of the family members were found a mile away from their home in El Ripial, showing signs of torture and appearing to have been staged to look like guerrillas.
At least 16 Venezuelan soldiers have been killed, and dozens more injured in the ongoing confrontations, though the precise numbers are unknown. In an update on April 5, Defense Minister Padrino López stated that a total of 8 soldiers had been killed in combat and another 34 injured. According to an official communication from the Defense Ministry on April 1, the deaths of two of those soldiers, as well as 9 of the injuries, were caused by anti-personnel mines that detonated along the border in El Ripial. More Venezuelan soldiers were reportedly killed in clashes on April 23, with the Maduro government vaguely stating on April 26 that “unfortunately some members of our troops died, whose bodies are being identified,” followed by the release of a cryptic obituary listing the names of 8 soldiers on the Defense Ministry website. On April 27, Fundaredes director Javier Tarazona published a video on Twitter (warning: graphic content) of civilians moving the bodies of deceased soldiers, in which an individual estimates a total of 12 dead. El Tiempo corroborated this number, reporting that 12 bodies dressed in military fatigues had been delivered to the local hospital in San Cristobal.
On May 10, Tarazona published a letter appearing to be from the 10th Front, in which they claimed to have captured 8 FANB soldiers during the April 23 confrontations, who are being held prisoner. The Venezuelan Defense Ministry officially confirmed the capture of the soldiers in a statement on May 15. On June 3, the Defense Ministry published a statement confirming the safe return of the 8 soldiers, and stating that the search continues for an additional two.
A number of individuals have also been arbitrarily detained by the Venezuelan security forces, many of whom are awaiting trial in military courts. In the most recent official update providing specific numbers on the situation on April 5, Padrino López stated that 33 detained individuals would be tried in the 14th Military Tribunal. The Maduro government has not provided an updated number or further details about the individuals detained in the conflict, but on May 19 Fundaredes documented a total of 32 individuals who had been arbitrarily detained, 26 of whom had been transferred to military prison.
How many Venezuelans have been displaced by this conflict?
Since the armed confrontations began on March 21, the UNHCR says that over 5,800 individuals initially fled to Colombia, with many refugees crossing the natural border of the Arauca river to the small town of Arauquita in Arauca state. Human Rights Watch estimates that another 300 to 400 individuals have been forcibly displaced to other parts of Venezuela. According to the most recent update from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on May 5, there are now an estimated 3,487 displaced individuals still in Arauquita, with 2,215 or 63% of them staying in makeshift shelters along the border. Compared with the previous update on April 26 showing an estimate of 5,409 individuals in Arauquita, these recent numbers suggest that many of the displaced have since returned home to Apure or have moved on to more permanent destinations. The most recent UNHCR situation report also indicates an expanded shelter capacity in Arauca with 28 operational shelters, compared with only 7 reported in the April 26 update. While some have returned home, many who have fled Venezuela may not return in the near future. The May 5 update from UNHCR reported the results of a survey indicating that 52% of migrants in Arauca hope to stay in Colombia permanently, while only 14% plan to return, and 34% were unsure.
The shelters serving displaced individuals in Arauquita are coordinated by a coalition of international and local humanitarian NGOs including UNHCR, IOM, Red Cross Colombia, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and UNICEF. Given the makeshift nature of many of the shelters in Arauca and the difficulty of maintaining social distancing guidelines in this setting, the spread of COVID-19 has also been a major concern. The most recent UNHCR situation update documented a total of 108 positive COVID-19 cases in the migrant shelters in Arauquita, up from 76 on April 26 and 22 on April 9.
What has the Maduro government said about the dispute?
While public statements from the Maduro government have confirmed the presence of an armed conflict on the border, for the most part official communications have been vague and ideologically charged, without offering specific details about the nature of the confrontations, the group(s) being targeted, or the number of lives lost. On March 21, when the FANB first launched its offensive against armed groups in Apure, the Maduro government announced the deployment of “Operation Bolivarian Shield” and declared a “zero tolerance” policy against armed groups operating in Venezuelan territory.
The Maduro government has largely used the crisis to feed its anti-imperialist narrative, accusing both the Colombian government and the U.S. Southern Command of “bringing war to the Venezuelan border,” and claiming that the Duque government has “abandoned” both the border region and the 2016 Peace Accords. Following the death of two FANB soldiers as a result of anti-personnel mines, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza sent a letter to Ilene Cohn, head of the UN Mine Action Service, requesting the UN’s technical assistance in deactivating mines on the Venezuelan side of the border. In the official announcement about the request, Arreaza regarded Colombia as a “threat to the security of Venezuela and the region” and a “failed state.” On April 15, Arreaza confirmed that the Maduro government was in communication with the UN for the purpose of deactivating anti-personnel mines in Venezuela.
Save for the statement on May 15 confirming the capture of Venezuelan soldiers by “terrorist organizations,” updates on the border conflict have been scarce since early April and few details have been confirmed about how the situation has developed. In response to reports of abuses committed by the Venezuelan security forces during the conflict in Apure, in late March Attorney General Tarek William Saab launched an investigation into potential human rights violations committed in La Victoria, and announced that the government had sent 12 experts to investigate abuses committed in El Ripial, where four members of a civilian family were killed. The Public Ministry has yet to provide an update on the status of either investigation.
How has the Colombian government reacted?
The Colombian Foreign Ministry first commented on the border conflict on March 24, expressing concern over Twitter about the impact of the conflict on the humanitarian situation and civil society, and calling on the international community to assist the response to those who had fled to Colombia. The comments sparked a diplomatic feud between the Duque and Maduro governments, which have not had diplomatic relations since January 2019, when Duque recognized Juan Guaidó as Interim President. Maduro’s Foreign Ministry swiftly issued a statement that same day accusing the Colombian government of “abandoning its borders,” and colluding with the U.S. Southern Command to “install a corridor of illegal activities” along the border.
Following the April 6 announcement that the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry had requested the UN’s assistance in coordinating with the Duque government and in investigating the activities of Colombian armed groups, then-Foreign Minister Claudia Blum (who has since resigned amid domestic political turmoil) stated in a video conference that “The illegitimate Maduro government, as is habitual, seeks to distract international attention from the dictatorship’s complicit relationship with narcotrafficking and terrorist groups.” The next day, Colombian Vice President Marta Lucia Ramírez published a Twitter thread regarding the Maduro government as a “threat to the entire hemisphere,” and claiming that the Chavez and Maduro regimes “have deliberately been complacent and complicit with narcotrafficking because they take part in this illicit activity.” Claudia Blum echoed this message in an April 14 video statement to the UN, blaming the ongoing confrontations on “support that the Maduro government has given to armed groups.” Further statements from the Colombian government regarding the border conflict have been sparse since protests broke out across the country in mid-April, sparking a political and human rights crisis that is still ongoing.