ISN Security Watch
Now that Colombia’s crackdown on the FARC has significantly weakened the group, there are signs that it is setting up in neighboring Venezuela and preparing for a rebirth of sorts.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) made an unusual appeal on 23 August to UNASUR, South America's multilateral security forum, to explain its political and strategic goals in Colombia. Within 24 hours, Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera, part of the recently inaugurated administration, announced a clear rebuttal: "[We do not] negotiate with terrorists.”
The seamless move from Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to his successor President Juan Manuel Santos is clear. Santos will pursue the FARC with the same vigor and determination Uribe employed during his eight-year administration. Colombia's military offensive against the region's oldest insurgency has reduced its numbers, broken its hold on Colombian territory in some cases, and, above all, kept enough pressure on the FARC to force the guerrilla group to seek operating space beyond Colombian borders - namely Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.
Against this backdrop, President Santos also inherited a geopolitical chess match with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Uribe's last move came on 15 July when his defense minister announced that the FARC maintained dozens of camps inside Venezuela, operating at any given time over 1,000 men. The announcement sparked off yet another diplomatic freeze, talk of militarizing the border and the near immediate stop of bilateral trade.
Santos quickly rectified the situation with Chavez during a 10 August bilateral summit. As Colombian magazine Semana reported, security was not a top agenda item, but was at the core of private talks. The FARC, however, remain restricted from the table, casting a veil over the group's future of such a large, semi-permanent presence in Venezuela.
The term FARC-V, or FARC in Venezuela, first surfaced in a 22 July blog post written by independent Latin America analyst James Bosworth, who is based in Nicaragua and has long followed the FARC's presence in Colombia and throughout the region.
"Colombia said 87 FARC camps existed in Venezuela with over 1,500 FARC combatants," Bosworth wrote. "That's not a small number. This isn't a single camp with a leader and a dozen bodyguards as many picture. The FARC in Venezuela (FARC-V) is a full-blown insurgency inside of Venezuela's borders."
Compared to Ecuador, the FARC allegedly operates 20 more camps in Venezuela, with a much smaller number of camps likely operated in Panama, Peru and Brazil. Venezuela, however, is different because "the FARC appear to be establishing a larger and more permanent presence in Venezuela," Bosworth told ISN Security Watch, adding, "whether due to Venezuelan support, inaction, or inability, the FARC have been able to operate with relative impunity for several years and establish their presence."
A history of activity
"FARC rest and relaxation camps have existed in Venezuela for the past 20 years," Nicolas Urrutia, director of the Bogota-based security consultancy Grupo Triarius, told ISN Security Watch. He said the FARC have made a "concerted effort to move assets across the border [into Venezuela]," where high-level FARC commanders have evolved from crossing back and forth across the border to simply remaining in Venezuela.
The December 2004 arrest of FARC representative Rodrigo Granda was one of the first high-profile arrests of a FARC member inside Venezuelan territory. This arrest sparked saber rattling in Caracas. Authorities had captured Granda inside the Venezuelan capital city without informing the Chavez administration - a blatant disregard for Venezuelan sovereignty.
Just under two years later, Colombian authorities announced that high-ranking FARC operative Luciano Marin Arango, known as Ivan Marquez, had established a base of operations inside Venezuela. He allegedly remains there still.
Apart from the presence of high-ranking FARC operators, semi-permanent to permanent bases have likely been in operation for years. The FARC has allegedly operated a semi-permanent field hospital in Venezuela's Tachira department since 2006, and the FARC's 33rd Front has allegedly operated a permanent base in Zulia for at least five years.
Ties that bind
"About a sixth of the FARC numbers operate in Venezuela," Adam Isacson, WOLA Regional Security Program Senior Associate, told ISN Security Watch. He added that the presence of German Briceno Suarez, also known as Grannobles and brother of FARC Secretariat member Mono Jojoy, represents a close connection between FARC activities in Colombia and Venezuela. "The FARC in Venezuela represents a bulk of fund raising," Isacson said. "The Grannobles font is a major cash cow."
Urrutia conceded that there were strong ties between the FARC in Colombia and the FARC-V, but added that "there is a certain degree of separation, but it's because of decentralization."
During the Uribe-led offensive against the FARC, the Colombian government scored a number of high-profile victories, including the bombing death of FARC leader Raul Reyes on 1 March 2008, and the 2 July 2008 rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and three US contractors. Information recovered from Reyes’ computer files supported ongoing intelligence efforts that further strained the FARC's supply and communications lines. The collective result forced the old guerrilla unit into a decentralized pattern where messages from high-level commanders to field lieutenants take days or longer to convey.
"Could [the FARC-V] become separate from the FARC in Colombia? Not yet, but maybe in five years," Isacson said.
The future of FARC-V
Any future for the FARC in Venezuela is a problem for Colombia, placing additional importance on the Santos-Chavez relationship. Santos would support any effort to shut down FARC activities inside Venezuela. Yet Chavez's alleged ties and implicit support of the group undermines any meaningful effort the Santos administration may pursue.
Hard evidence of close ties to FARC operating in Venezuela and members of the Chavez administration remain elusive. When the US Treasurysingled-out three of Chavez's officials in 2008, Washington identified a connection between three men who still served in the Chavez administration and their involvement in "materially assisting the narcotics trafficking activities of the FARC."
More recently, the head of US Southern Command waffled in March between testimonies for the US House of Representatives and the US Senate before the SouthCom blog provided the final position of the general, vis-à-vis a public alignment with the US State Department. There are "clear and documented" links between the Venezuelan government and the FARC, the post said.
"The FARC didn't enter Venezuela with the intention of splitting off or creating a separate group," Bosworth said. "Now that they have significant numbers and structure in Venezuela, it's definitely possible that a new, different group will emerge. This is the nightmare scenario for Venezuela and the region."
"Before that shift would occur, we would start to see FARC-V incorporate Venezuelans into their ranks. That should be the warning sign that we look for."