Why Venezuela is key to quashing the FARC
Colombia is worried that FARC fighters are looking to acquire missiles in Venezuela, which would diminish Colombia's air-power advantage against the rebels.
Both the rebel group's commander-in-chief Rodrigo Londoño, alias "Timochenko," and his second-in-command, Luciano Marin Arango, alias "Ivan Marquez," often reside in Venezuela. The two men are known to move in and out of the country; in Timochenko's case from the Colombian province of Norte De Santander, and for Ivan Marquez, from La Guajira and Cesar. They are probably the last two commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who can hold together the rebel group, preventing its fragmentation and the criminalization of some sections that would likely result.
For three of the FARC's seven fighting divisions or "blocs," Venezuela is essential for logistics, weapons, munitions, medical support, and as a rest and recuperation area. Ivan Marquez's Caribbean Bloc, with some 250 fighters, has almost all its presence along the border, or actually in Venezuelan territory. Timochenko's Magdalena Medio Bloc, which has around 800 fighters, depends on a lifeline into Venezuela for its survival. The Eastern Bloc, with up to 4,000 fighters, relies heavily on Venezuela for its finances and for direct supplies.
Both the Magdalena Medio and Eastern Blocs rely on drug trafficking as a principal source of income. While part of this comes from selling coca base to the new generation paramilitary groups within Colombia, much of their foreign currency comes from moving cocaine into Venezuela. It is no coincidence that Timochenko, and his second-in-command, Felix Antonio Muñoz, alias "Pastor Alape," are both wanted by the US on drug-trafficking charges. Without this pipeline into Venezuela, it is unlikely that the three FARC blocs along the frontier would be able to finance themselves.
Files seized from the computer of Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias "Raul Reyes," which were analyzed and published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) show that Timochenko had a large camp in Venezuela for rebels to conduct not only their basic training but specialized courses. While it is likely that this installation has since been shut down, it is almost certain that the FARC continue to use Venezuela to carry out training, out of reach of the Colombian security forces. It is also certain that a great deal of the planning and meetings of senior FARC commanders are carried out on the relative safety of Venezuelan territory.
The FARC are looking to acquire the one weapon that could help reverse their strategic defeat: ground-to-air missiles, most particularly the "man-portable" variety (known as MANPADS). Air power is the Colombian state's most potent advantage against the rebels. The greatest defeat the rebels have suffered at the hands of the military have been via aerial bombardments, like the killing of Raul Reyes in March 2008, and that of Jorge Suarez, alias "Mono Jojoy," in September 2010. If the rebels were able to neutralize airpower through the use of ground-to-air missiles, it could allow the guerrillas once again to make the strategic leap to a war of positions.
Venezuela has purchased a large number of SA-24 shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles from Russia, raising fears that some of these could end up in the hands of the FARC. The Colombian government claims the rebels have been seeking MANPADS via Venezuelan brokers, looking not only for Venezuelan stockpiles, but at getting hold of Iranian missiles on the black market. There was a case in December 2008 where Colombian intelligence assets insisted FARC negotiators sought to acquire 20 IGLA-SA24 surface-to-air (SAM) missiles via Venezuelan contacts.
Venezuela is home to the FARC's International Front (also known as the International Commission - COMINTER), which is responsible for diplomatic activity and propaganda. It was also here that the Bolivarian Central Committee (CCB) was launched in 2003. The FARC have great influence in this body, which is used to bring together disparate left-wing parties, groups, and interests and promote their agenda on the international arena. Ivan Marquez heads the International Front, aided by senior FARC members like "Rodrigo Granda," who is also resident in Venezuela.
The Venezuelan border is not only host to the FARC senior command, but to their cousins in the National Liberation Army (ELN). Up until 2009, elements of the FARC and ELN were engaged in a bitter dispute for territory. Fighting between the two groups ended under the former FARC commander-in-chief, Guillermo Leon Saenz, alias "Alfonso Cano."
Timochenko, whose Magdalena Medio Bloc has always maintained close relations with the ELN, is keen to move the relationship with the other rebel group towards a fully functioning alliance. He has the advantage that the ELN Central Command (COCE) is also present along the border with Venezuela, providing the two groups with a perfect venue to coordinate strategy and future joint actions. If the FARC and ELN can manage to work more closely together, pooling their resources, their mutual survival is far more likely.
During their last meeting, in Venezuela, Chavez told his Colombian counterpart, Juan Manuel Santos, that "we will do everything in our power to prevent conspiracy or attack against Colombia from Venezuelan territory." However the files from Raul Reyes' computer suggest that Chavez may have met Timochenko as early as 1998, and that elements of his administration have maintained very close contacts with the Colombian rebels ever since. The files show that Chavez has always wanted to keep the Colombian rebels as a bulwark against Colombia, and against any US attempts to invade Venezuela. While relations with Colombia have improved enormously under President Santos, Chavez is unlikely to want to see the destruction of the potentially important strategic weapon that the Colombian guerrillas present.
Jeremy McDermott is a director at Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.
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