Various criminal groups made up of former Colombian paramilitaries, known as BACRIM, are present in Venezuela, using the country to run drug trafficking operations, process cocaine, and stash drugs and arms. Venezuela also serves as a hideout for their leaders, many of whom have been arrested in the country in recent years.
The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) was an alliance between dozens of paramilitary groups that trafficked drugs, terrorized civilians, and waged war with the Colombian rebel groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Despite their right-wing ideology, the AUC originally praised the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, sending him a congratulatory letter, which stated that “as a military man” Chavez would likely “put things in order” in Venezuela. However, the AUC’s rhetoric would soon change completely, and they publicly labeled the Venezuelan president a”defender” of Colombian guerrilla groups.
Paramilitary warlord Salvatore Mancuso has testified that the AUC met with anti-Chavez factions in the Venezuelan military on two occasions to discuss carrying out military actions against the government.
Among the first paramilitaries to run sizable drug trafficking operations in Venezuela were Miguel Angel Mejia Munera and his brother Victor Manuel, known as “Los Mellizos” (The Twins), who controlled cocaine exports from the Venezuelan states of Sucre, Bolivar, and Delta Amacuro. They became formally allied with the AUC in 2001, leading the Vencedores de Arauca Bloc. Los Mellizos were among the first narco-paramilitaries to be targeted by Venezuelan authorities, with the launch of Operation Orinoco in 2000, which was intended to disrupt their drug trafficking operations.
Aside from controlling drug trafficking across certain parts of the border, and the contraband petrol trade, the AUC caused the displacement of tens of thousands of refugees into Venezuela. One faction, the Catatumbo Bloc in Norte de Santander province, would regularly kill civilians on the Colombian side of the border and dump the bodies in Venezuela to delay investigations.
The AUC formally demobilized between 2004 and 2006, but its successor groups, the BACRIMs, remain active in some parts of eastern Venezuela.
The Aguilas Negras were among the first BACRIM whose activity was registered in Venezuela. This BACRIM is not considered to be a centralized criminal organization, but rather networks of former AUC members who use the name “Aguilas Negras” to threaten land and labor activists, and commit other crimes. The name first appeared in Colombia’s Norte de Santander province circa 2006.
As was the case in Colombia, the Aguilas Negras announced their presence in Venezuela via a series of pamphlets distributed in Tachira state in 2008 and 2009, promising a campaign of “social cleansing.” These pamphlets were accompanied by several violent incidents, including the kidnapping and murder of ten amateur Colombian soccer players in October 2009. The case was never solved, but it raised tensions between Colombia and Venezuela about “spillover” violence. The Aguilas Negras then began running extortion networks and kidnapping cells, and established assassins-for-hire in Tachira. In some towns, they even allowed residents to take out a life insurance policy on themselves to avoid assassination.
According to the state police director, the Aguilas Negras, the Rastrojos, and the Urabeños all have a presence in Tachira. Of these, the Rastrojos were once the biggest player, controlling criminal operations along the 2,000 kilometer Venezuela-Colombia border, although they did not have as many operatives deployed there as the ELN and the FARC. According to Colombian think tank Nuevo Arco Iris, the Rastrojos controlled Zulia state, including the city of Maracaibo. In collaboration with Mexican cartel the Zetas, the Rastrojos used Maracaibo port and hidden airstrips for cocaine exports overseas.
However, the Rastrojos’ influence in Venezuela has been in decline as they have lost much of their leadership to captures and arrests, as well as lost ground in their war with Colombia’s other main criminal group, the Urabeños.
Police and locals have reported that the Urabeños have now established camps in Venezuela where they train recruits, use the border region to dispose of murdered Colombians, and have even recruited Venezuelans. Murders in the region have been attributed to a group calling themselves the Urabeños Fronterizos (Border Urabeños).
Numerous former paramilitaries and drug traffickers have found refuge in Venezuela. Ex-AUC leader Hector German Buitrago, alias “Martin Llanos,” who headed powerful paramilitary faction the Autodefensas Campesinas del Casanare, was arrested in Anzoategui state in February 2012. Oscar Ospino Pacheco, alias “Tolemaida,” the former head of the Northern Bloc and the right-hand-man to paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias “Jorge 40,” was arrested in Miranda state in December 2009.
Other Colombian drug traffickers arrested in Venezuela include Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano,” Daniel Barrera, alias “El Loco,” and Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo.”
According to Venezuelan authorities, BACRIM are carrying out kidnappings, extortion, and drug trafficking in the border states of Tachira, Apure, and Zulia.
Allies and Enemies
The Rastrojos and the Urabeños have clashed in a bid for control of the border state of Tachira for the past few years. Since 2013, however, there have been signs that the Urabeños have taken control there and in the neighboring Colombian city of Cucuta, giving them access to a primary route for smuggling not only drugs but also other contraband, including gasoline.
Unlike the FARC and the ELN in Venezuela, the BACRIM are not tolerated by the Venezuelan government and have been blamed for violence in the border region. Venezuelan authorities complain that Colombian BACRIM are destabilizing the country.