Venezuela border conflict mixes drug trafficking and regime-change ambitions
Colombian navy soldiers watch as Venezuelan migrants cross near the Arauca River, the natural border with Venezuela, in Arauquita, Colombia, March 26, 2021. | Fernando Vergara / AP

Since mid-March, Venezuelan army units have been attacking and expelling Colombian operatives active in Apure state, in western Venezuela. Colombians have long used the border regions to prepare cocaine arriving from Colombia and ship it to the United States and Europe. Fighting has subsided; eight Venezuelan troops were killed. Seeking safety, 3,500 Venezuelans crossed the Meta River, an Orinoco tributary, to Arauca in Colombia.

The bi-national border is porous and long enough, at 1,367 miles, to encourage smuggling and the undocumented passage of cross-border travelers like the narcotraffickers in Apure. These include paramilitaries, bands of former FARC-EP insurgents, and drug-trade workers—pilots, truckers, laboratory workers, and more. Also involved are Colombia’s Army, Mexican drug cartels, officials in Washington, and DEA functionaries in Colombia.

The paramilitaries in Apure represent Colombia’s largest drug cartel, “Los Rastrojos.” Colombia’s paramilitaries in general are the products of advice given Colombia’s government by U.S. Army consultants in the 1960s. They claimed paramilitaries were essential for defeating leftist guerrillas. The Colombian military controls the paramilitaries’ actions, as verified recently by the prototypic paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso. He was testifying before a Colombian judge virtually from a U.S. prison.

The former FARC-EP insurgents active in Apure are known by the name of their leader, Gentil Duarte. In 2016, they rejected the forthcoming peace agreement that the FARC-EP would be signing with the Colombian government. They’ve taken up narcotrafficking. Other dissenting ex-FARC fighters took up arms again in 2019. Calling themselves the “Second Marquetalia,” they are not present in Apure.

In March, the Colombian Army transferred 2,000 troops to the Colombian side of the border. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke with Colombian President Iván Duque by telephone on April 5; they discussed “their shared commitment to the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Venezuela.” U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela James Story, stationed in Bogota, held meetings from Feb. 19 to 26 with Venezuelan opposition leaders Leopoldo López, Julio Borges, and Manuel Rosales. They style themselves the “Venezuelan Presidential Commission.”

The U.S. Air Force on March 30 and 31 flew four C-17 “Globemaster” troop and equipment-carrying planes to airports in Colombia. Colombia’s Semana newspaper anticipates that the U.S. Congress will soon authorize the sale to Colombia of fighter aircraft worth $4.5 billion. The report laments the “worrisome picture” of air force capabilities in comparison with those of Venezuela.

Colombian President Iván Duque in late February announced the creation of the “Special Command against Narcotrafficking and Transnational Threats.” This will be a 7,000-person elite military force with air assault capabilities. Its “certain objective,” according to the Communist Party’s website, is war against Venezuela.

During the tenure of left-leaning Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and that of his successor, President Nicolás Maduro, Colombian paramilitaries repeatedly crossed the border on destabilization missions.  Organizers for a 2,000-troop seaborne anti-Maduro assault called Operation Gedeon were based in Colombia, as were some of the plotters who mounted a drone attack against Maduro in 2018. The U.S. and Colombian governments in February 2019 failed in their attempt to deliver humanitarian aid across the border at Cucuta, Colombia. Their idea had been to divide Venezuela’s military.

The outcome of the fighting in Apure is unclear. The Colombian and U.S. governments undoubtedly would utilize any humanitarian crisis as an opening to further destabilize Venezuela’s government.

It’s certain that the U.S. government in the Biden era continues to seek the overthrow of Venezuela’s government. Without question, the reactionary Colombian government is at the beck and call of the U.S. government. The U.S. capitalist hierarchy, of course, has its eye on Venezuela’s massive reserves of crude oil, in excess of 550 billion barrels.

What is underappreciated is the role of drug trafficking in serving interventionist purposes, as in Apure. U.S. military aid under Plan Colombia, which began in 2000, was supposed to have reduced narcotrafficking. The same was to have happened after the FARC-EP insurgency gave up arms in 2016. Nevertheless, Colombia afterwards continued to produce 70% of the cocaine consumed in the world, according to a 2019 United Nations report. Production has increased since.

Some 70% of Colombia’s cocaine heads to the United States—the world’s leading consumer—via the Pacific Ocean route. But much of the remainder does pass through Venezuela, and Washington officials pay attention.

The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission is “an independent, bipartisan entity” serving U.S. policymakers. Its December 2020 report noted that: “Traffickers operate freely in large swaths of the country s territory [and] the US State Department is offering rewards of $15 million for information leading to [President] Maduro’s arrest and $10 million for information on four other top officials.”

The U.S. Fourth Naval Fleet monitors Venezuelan waters and air space for supposed Venezuelan drug trafficking.

The assumption here is that Colombian narcotrafficking has great appeal to Washington deciders on Latin America. Nobody likes drug dependency. The United States suffered some 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2019. In short, to trumpet the war on drugs has great public-relations value. It’s an easy sell to promise to stem the flow of drugs into the United States in return for free rein for harsh policies in Latin America.

Therefore, the United States uses the presence in Venezuela of Colombian narcotrafficking to serve regime change purposes. Public support for U.S. Plan Colombia told a similar story. After 2000, U.S. taxpayer money readily flowed into what was billed as the war on narcotics. The real purpose was assistance to the Colombian military as it attempted to defeat leftist FARC-EP guerrillas.

Jaime Caycedo, secretary-general of the Colombian Communist Party, outlined these dynamics in writing about Plan Colombia in 2007:

“For the purposes of strategy, it’s essential to have it understood through continued propaganda that the guerrillas are associated with narcotrafficking and understood too that the war is being fought precisely because of that characteristic.” Drugs become a “demonic phenomenon [and] imperialist military intervention figures as something ‘natural.’” The imperialists offer “no tie to history or realities that might explain things,” with the result that, “violence in the form of daily manifestations of repression and super-exploitation of workers appears simple as a consequence of narco-trafficking.” (Colombia en la Hora Latinoamericana, Ediciones Izquierda Viva)

Capitalists taking a broad view accommodate drug trafficking for another reason. Selling cocaine yields vast amounts of money; laundered, cocaine becomes a source of liquidity for their financial system.

Former director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Antonio Maria Costa, writing in 2009, claimed that, “In many instances, drug money is currently the only liquid investment capital.” According to the Samuel Robinson Institute, “the events in Apure show off Venezuela … as a threat, but only in what has to do with allowing the (narco)metabolism of the West to continue functioning.”

He cited journalist Roberto Saviano who notes that “Cocaine is a safe asset … an anticyclical asset…. Cocaine becomes a product like gold or oil, but more economically potent than gold or oil. [Without] access to mines or wells, it’s hard to break into the market. With cocaine, no.”


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.