The school principal told Reuters that shortly after the insurgents in neighboring Colombia arrived in this Venezuelan village, they began to select students from local high schools to harvest coca, the plant used to make cocaine.
According to educators and 14 other residents, four years later, these foreigners from the National Liberation Party (ELN) are both the local government and the main employer in the town of Suria in the northwest. All of them declined to be named and asked not to reveal the names of their communities because they feared retaliation.
People familiar with the matter said that the guerrillas paid salaries to villagers, including children, to engage in drug activities, extortion and wildcat gold mines in both countries. Colombian security officials stated that the proceeds of crime were used to fund the guerrillas’ long-term rebellion against the Colombian government. Residents said that as the coronavirus pandemic has deepened Venezuela’s suffering, the organization’s recruitment has intensified in the past year, and Venezuela’s economy has been shaky due to years of hyperinflation and shortages.
The villagers said that when the armed Colombians first arrived, the leaders of the local socialist community were on either side of them and declared that they had brought safety there under the blessing of President Nicolas Maduro.
But people said that their law and order brand quickly turned into tyranny. The villagers said that Colombians prohibited residents from sharing information about the organization’s activities, instituted a strict 6 pm curfew, banned guns and controlled people entering the town.
The rebels also brought money. The principal said in an interview that when they let students work in the coca field, they offered to “paint the school, fix the lights or whatever we need.” She said that by 2020, as hungry families flee the country, the enrolment rate has dropped, and more than half of the remaining 170 students have left ELN, leaving only 80 children in the classroom.
The Colombian government has long claimed that the Venezuelan leadership provides a safe haven for rebel Colombian rebels, and Caracas allows cocaine to pass through its territory to reduce profits. Maduro denies allegations of drug trafficking, but sympathizes with the left-wing ideology of the rebels and publicly welcomes some guerrilla leaders.
The Venezuelan Ministry of Information did not respond to a request for comment on the activities of the guerrillas in the country.
Pablo Beltran, ELN’s second-in-command, denied that the organization was involved in cocaine production, drug trafficking or other illegal activities, and denied that Venezuelans were recruited to participate in such operations. He told Reuters that the organization did charge a fee for drug criminal groups entering the coca-growing area of Colombia under its control. He admitted that the poor Venezuelans driven by the country’s economic crisis did work in these fields, but he said they were not paid by ELN. Beltran said that ELN did enter Venezuelan territory, but the organization’s policy is not to permanently exist there. He also denied that ELN appeared in Venezuela under Maduro’s blessing.
“I hope we can get his moral support,” Beltran said. “But when they realized that there was a force like ours stationed there, they not only lost their sovereignty, but they also violated their constitution.”
The narrative is based on interviews with more than 60 Venezuelans living in six states near the Colombian border, including pastors, ranchers, and teachers. Reuters also interviewed lawmakers, human rights activists, indigenous leaders, former Venezuelan military officers, two rebel defectors, and US and Colombian authorities familiar with the rebels’ increasing control of the region.
The interview revealed areas that armed Colombians took advantage of Venezuela’s decline and changed. Residents of these areas say that insurgents who once avoided the Colombian army in the Venezuelan jungle have entered population centers and ruled with the Maduro government in some places and replaced it in others.
According to residents and Venezuelan internal intelligence documents seen by Reuters, they are mainly ELN guerrillas and former fighters from another rebel organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. These fighters rejected the landmark peace agreement reached between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Colombian government in 2016. Dissident groups of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia could not be reached for comment.
Colombia’s then Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo told the Organization of American States in 2019 that only the more than 1,000 members of the ELN operate in Venezuela.
Villagers told Reuters that the rebels filled the void in Venezuela’s crumbling institutions, distributed food and medicine, and even approved infrastructure projects in some areas.
Many people say that the presence of rebels reduces street crime. But all the locals who spoke with Reuters said they were afraid of these armed fighters. Another villager in the town of Suria likened living under ELN to “living in a prison with constant eyesight”.
A 16-year-old high school dropout who dropped out of the oil city outside Maracaibo, the once prosperous capital of Zulia, said he worked 12-hour shifts at ELN Coca Farm, picking leaves until his hands bleed. However, the boy said that he eats three meals a day and his monthly income is equivalent to $200, which is a wealth in most parts of Venezuela.
According to former Venezuelan officials, residents, analysts, U.S. and Colombian authorities, and former guerrillas, after Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, the FARC and the National Liberation Army were allowed in Venezuela Operate more openly.
Bram Ebus, who has reported on the activities of the Colombian guerrillas, said that what was originally a common enemy of the coalition of like-minded revolutionaries and the Colombian and American governments has evolved into drug and gold trafficking and other illegal schemes. Centered criminal partnership. Venezuela of the International Crisis Group, a think tank in Brussels. These companies have become the financial lifeline for guerrillas and Venezuelans, extending from small villages to power corridors in Caracas, Ebbs, eight former Venezuelan military officers and two former FARC dissident members told Reuters.
In March 2020, the US Department of Justice sued Maduro, accusing him of leading a drug trafficking organization that cooperated with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to flood the United States with cocaine and offered a reward of $15 million for information that led to his arrest.
Venezuela’s then Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza called the accusations baseless. The Ministry of Information did not respond to a request for comment on the alleged financial relationship between government officials and Colombian guerrilla groups.
The US authorities, who asked not to be named, said they are increasingly worried about the deep-rooted Colombian rebels in Venezuela.
Manuel Christopher Figuera, the former general and head of the Venezuelan National Intelligence Agency, who fled the country in 2019, said that Venezuela has also tracked the expansion of Colombian armed groups on its territory. Figuera showed Reuters the map he said. In 2018, one of the country’s intelligence agencies announced the alleged location of ELN and the dissident FARC agents in Venezuela and the scope of their suspected activities, including drug and weapons trafficking. , Extortion, kidnapping and murder.
Reuters was unable to verify the authenticity of these maps, which bear the logo of the Center for Homeland Security and Protection Strategy. The Venezuelan Ministry of Information did not respond to a request for comment, and calls to numbers listed by the intelligence agency were also unanswered.
If the Maduro government aligns with the Colombian rebels, the relationship is not always friendly. In March of this year, after Maduro stated that Colombia had sent the organization to destabilize the country, the Venezuelan military launched an offensive against a group of FARC dissidents in the border country of Apure.
Colombian Defense Minister Diego Morano denied Maduro’s claims, calling the dispute a conflict over control of drug trafficking routes.
Thousands of locals in Apley who fled the fighting told Reuters that they have seen the guerrillas steadily consolidate their power over the past five years, expand their illegal business activities, and at the same time have largely taken on the role of law enforcement. . A local rancher said that they even got involved in economic regulation-telling farmers how much they can charge for cheese and beef.
“They are the government,” the rancher said of the rebels. The governor of Apure did not respond to a request for comment.
The indigenous people of Venezuela said that their lives were also overturned by the guerrillas because they wore tall black shoes. They called the guerrillas “rubber boots.” In the mineral-rich Amazonian state, more than a dozen tribal leaders told Reuters that the rebels had intensified their illegal mining of gold and coltan, a mineral found in mobile phones, in recent years.
In March, the leaders of the three tribes lodged a complaint with the National Human Rights Office, stating that “a large number” of indigenous Venezuelans were “enslaved and extorted by informal Colombian groups.” These Colombians were identified as dissidents in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Force them to work in Colombia. Gold mine.
The Amazon Human Rights Office admitted that it had received the complaint, but did not comment further.
‘You are ashamed’
Some Venezuelans believe that the insurgents have allowed their families to make ends meet.
A 42-year-old corn farmer in Apley declined to be named for fear of retaliation. He said that he has not seen his brother since the FARC forcibly recruited him eight years ago. But he said that his brother would call their mother every month and send $120, which is the money he and his elderly parents depend on for survival.
In Suria, a teacher who asked for only the name of Armando said that there were very few boys in his high school because many people worked for ELN at coca farms or border crossings, extorting bribes from immigrants and traders.
Armando understands the temptation of poison money. He said that he also started harvesting coca for ELN in 2017 to supplement his monthly teaching salary of $3. He has no plans to stop.
“You are ashamed,” he said, “but you can see food for your children from every leaf you pluck.”