In April 2017, as clashes between protesters against the Venezuelan regime of President Nicolás Maduro and government forces escalated, with hundreds of thousands of protesters, twenty deaths, and hundreds of detentions, I followed events from neighboring Colombia where I was conducting research. Being in a neighboring country gave a different perspective from the casual curiosity with which the collapse of Venezuela is discussed in the U.S.
In terms of history, people, economic interactions and security, the fates of Colombia and Venezuela have been intertwined since the birth of both countries. The region’s independence hero, Simón Bolívar, had to go to Colombia to raise an army and decisively defeat the Spanish in 1819 in the Battle of Boyacá, after his initial attempt at independence in Venezuela failed. From 1819 to 1831, the two nations were part of the unified political entity Gran Colombia, a heritage reflected to this day in the similarity of their national flags. Throughout their history, there has been a high level of economic interchange and inter-migration between the two countries, including many Colombians seeking refuge and economic opportunity in Venezuela during that nation’s better days. Leaders and members of the two principal terrorist organizations fighting against the Colombian state, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), for many years, took refuge inside Venezuela.
As the economic and political chaos in Venezuela deepens, the Colombians in the security sector I spoke to had two principal concerns. The first of these is a possible destabilizing surge of refugees from Venezuela, and associated criminal violence in areas of Colombia currently wrestling with delicate mixture of criminal bands and active and demobilizing terrorists. The second is the possibility of military aggression from Venezuela as a collapsing Venezuelan regime faces its final days and seeks to rally public support and a distraction .
Fleeing the collapse
An estimated 1.5 million Venezuelans have left the country since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. As the crisis of the nation’s “Bolivarian” regime has deepened, 150,000 persons have left Venezuela in the last year alone, mostly driven by severe economic hardship (including severe shortages of food, medicine, and other basic necessities such as toilet paper and feminine hygiene products), compounded by virtually uncontrolled criminal violence that has made Caracas, by some accounts, the most dangerous city in Latin America.
Many of those who have fled Venezuela, ironically, are Colombians who had immigrated there decades ago to escape Colombia’s own civil war when Venezuela, awash in oil dollars, was a relatively peaceful and prosperous place to earn a living. Yet as the crisis in Venezuela has worsened, those born in Venezuela have started to flee as well.
Some Venezuelans have also fled across the Caribbean to nearby islands that they once frequented as tourists such as Aruba, Curacao, and Trinidad and Tobago. Their exodus has led to a range of effects including expanded criminality and even piracy off Venezuela’s coast. But it’s Colombia that has felt and will likely feel the brunt of the crisis and likely collapse of the failed Bolivarian project in Venezuela.
The border between Colombia and Venezuela has always been an area of significant interchange of people with a culture neither fully Colombian nor fully Venezuelan. Even President Maduro has a Colombian mother from Cúcuta, and some say Maduro himself was actually born in Colombia.
Initially, as state controls and government mismanagement distorted the economy, Venezuelans crossed the border to exploit such distortions to earn money, buying gasoline in Venezuela at enormously subsidized prices ($.07/gallon at one point) to sell it in Colombia. As the Venezuela crisis worsened, ironically, the flows increasingly reversed, with thousands of Venezuelans crossing into Colombia to buy goods not available in their own country.
As the Colombia-Venezuelan border was sporadically closed to such traffic by the Maduro regime, opportunities to criminally profit from increasingly desperate populations grew as well, with corrupted Venezuelan border units, as well as FARC, the ELN, and criminal gangs such as the Gulf Clan, Pelusos, and Puntilleros on the Colombian side all extorting the “shoppers” for their safe passage.
An unknown but increasing portion of those crossing the border have opted to stay in Colombia. The roads to Colombia from the Venezuelan capital Caracas (and other important cities such as Puerto Cabello, Maracay, Valencia, Merida, and Barinas), tend to channel refugees toward the Colombian border town in which President Maduro’s mother was born, Cúcuta. The town, and the surrounding Colombian department of Norte de Santander, is already a major focal point of coca growing and other criminal activities by the aforementioned criminal groups the ELN, Gulf Clan Puntilleros, Pelusos—with territorial struggles between those groups made worse by the withdraw of the FARC from the zone area under the terms of the organization’s peace agreement with the government of Colombia. The inflow of tens of thousands of desperate refugees provides these powerful and warring criminal groups a steady flow of potential victims and recruits.
Beyond Cúcuta, the refugees are also crossing into Colombia at other points, near Riohacha and Valledupar in La Guajira, and further to the south at Arauca, Puerto Carreño, and Inírida, where there is an important illegal coltan mining industry, and where controls over the border are weaker.
Where will they go?
Of those currently crossing into Colombia from Venezuela—and the much larger number who could enter if the economic crisis and violence in Venezuela deepens—a portion hold Colombian citizenship, having previously migrated to Venezuela to escape economic hardship or violence in Colombia. Because many of them originated on the Colombian side of the border region in the first place, a large portion will probably return there. Others with Colombian citizenship, however, will pass through the border region, gravitating toward other parts of the country where they have relatives or other contacts.
Of those refugees who do not have Colombian citizenship, the immigration patterns are different. As noted previously, some come to work on the Colombian side for a few days or weeks to obtain goods and earn hard currency to sustain their lives in Venezuela. Others seek to remain in Colombia for a longer period, until political and economic conditions in Venezuela change.
Among Venezuelan migrants, there is also a difference between those who come from the country’s Caribbean coast, including the greater Caracas area, and those who come from Venezuela’s interior, particularly areas south of the nation’s principal mountain range, such as Barinas.
Of those originating from the Venezuelan coast, many move southwest along the nation’s principal highway through the states of Lara, Trujillo, Merida, and Tachira, Venezuela, entering into Colombia near Cucuta, then moving toward Colombia’s own Caribbean coast, where the conditions are similar to where they lived in Venezuela. Colombian cities in this region such as Barranquilla, Santa Marta, and Sincelejo have seen a significant increase in the number of Venezuelans living there.
The smaller number of Venezuelans emigrating from Barinas, and Venezuela’s interior, in general, have a generally different culture. While many also enter Colombia in Cucuta, a greater proportion of these Venezuelans are believed to cross over at more southerly portions of the border, including Arauca, Puerto Carreño and Puerto Inírida, and gravitate toward Colombia’s own rural heartland, such as Villavicencio.
Among all Venezuelan migrants, a significant portion also seek opportunities in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, and other major cities. An estimated 300,000 have emigrated to Bogota, creating a noted presence in neighborhoods such as Cedritos, although only 30,000 are officially registered. Medellin has seen a similar explosion of Venezuelans.
While it is difficult to predict the course of the collapse of Venezuela’s socialist regime, the determination of its leadership to hold onto power at any cost makes a violent end an increasingly likely possibility, including the expanding use of firearms and other lethal force against protesters by the paramilitary “collectivos” and other entities supporting the Maduro regime, provoking expanded mobilization and incidents that overwhelm the capacity of the Venezuelan national guard to repress. By the middle of April, protesters, although unarmed, were demonstrating a loss of fear toward government forces, blocking armored vehicles with their bodies in the style of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China.
If there is a sustained escalation of violence in Venezuela expanding the flow of refugees into Colombia, it would likely create an extremely difficult situation for the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, with a hundred thousand or more people crossing into Colombia, mostly in or near Cúcuta, in the weeks in which a potential crisis could unfold.
The Colombian government already has an established system for responding to crises, the “national entity for the management of the risk of disasters.” The system has committees to coordinate governmental and other response resources at the local, departmental, and federal level and established protocols, and was put to the test in the government’s response to the floods which devastated the town of Mocoa in April 2017, as well as during the August 2015 expulsion of Colombians from Venezuela. Nonetheless, the majority of the persons that I spoke to worried that the Colombian government would be severely challenged to respond to a Venezuelan refugee crisis of the magnitude and complexity that could transpire in the coming months.
First, even without an affirmative Colombian government action to establish refugee camps, concentrations of vulnerable displaced persons would almost certainly appear in the border region. Indeed, some such concentrations of displaced Venezuelans around Cúcuta already reportedly exist, with an associated expansion of Venezuelans in the streets of Cúcuta seeking to earn money as street vendors, through prostitution, or whatever other options available, fueling an expansion of insecurity in the area, and local resentment.
As it becomes increasingly difficult for the refugees to integrate themselves into the saturated border economies, the Colombian government will come under increasing pressure to respond to their needs, as well as those of the Colombian population, even as international aid organizations such as the Red Cross seek to enter the zone to assist the refugees. The government will, in turn, face the challenge of both managing and protecting the non-governmental organizations seeking to enter the zone to provide assistance, while also attending to the needs of the refugees and local population, and protecting both from the criminal entities in the region, which will seek to rob and extort them, and to employ those desperate people in illicit activities in advancement of their criminal ends.
Beyond the challenge presented by such an inflow of people, Colombian security professionals are also concerned about a significant increase in the flow of arms from Venezuela, into the hands of criminal and terrorist groups in Colombia. Beyond the 100,000 rifles sold by Russia to the Venezuela, and numerous others on the Venezuelan black market, economic hardship will tempt impoverished and poorly disciplined “collectivos” to sell their FAL rifles and other arms on the black market for basic necessities.
It is almost certain that the Colombian government response to a refugee crisis such as that outlined in the preceding paragraphs would quickly exceed the capability of the local and departmental response committees and be managed by the national level committee, currently chaired by Oscar Ivan Márquez, with the leadership of President Santos, and the participation of the heads of key ministries including Defense, Interior, Health, and Economy, among others.
Yet if the Colombian government response to the crisis in Mocoa, and the August 2015 deportation of 6,000 or more Colombians from Venezuela are indicators, the majority of the actual response and on-the-ground coordination would likely come from the Colombian Armed Forces. Indeed, in both of those cases, significant resources were provided by the battalions of Colombia’s special Accion Integral units, it’s the disaster response battalion within its engineering command, and the capabilities of the local Colombian Army brigades operating in the areas, as well as a minor role for the Ministry of Defense’ “Civil Defense” organization.
A similar response would likely be used in responding to a new refugee crisis on the border region. Yet given the magnitude of requirements in such a case, the resources already spent in Mocoa, and competing demands to support the Colombian government’s commitments in implementing peace accords with the FARC, it is not clear that the government would be able to compensate the military for their logistics and other expenditures as it has partially done in the past.
Wag the dog?
Beyond the refugee crisis, Colombian security professionals also worry that, confronted with significant divisions within Venezuela’s armed forces, the Maduro regime could attempt to provoke a border conflict to unite the Venezuelan military and population against a manufactured foreign threat, thus temporarily reducing internal pressures on the regime. Indeed, many Colombians view the incursion of Venezuelan soldiers into Colombian territory in March 2017, crossing the Arauca river, as an attempt to provoke a Colombian response. Their fears of Venezuelan intentions is reinforced, for many of them, by a long history of actions by Venezuela’s current government. There is a long list of such events, including evidence of the government’s complicity in supporting the FARC and ELN on Venezuelan territory, the March 2008 call by Venezuela to move 10 armored brigades to the Colombian border, the 2008 Venezuelan military exercise “Guaicaipuro” which contemplated an “anticipatory” Venezuelan invasion of Colombia’s Guajira region, the associated claim to Colombian territory by Venezuela in the latter’s constitution, a significant acquisition of arms by Venezuela from Russia and China in recent years including combat aircraft, combat helicopters, tanks, armored vehicles, multiple rocket launchers, and other assets, as well as a March 2017 national mobilization military exercise by Venezuela, Zamora 200. Colombian concerns have further been heightened by the increasingly bellicose rhetoric of Maduro against the country, calling Colombia a “failed state,” among other insults.
While the Venezuelan armed forces pale in comparison to their Colombian counterparts in training, logistics and combat experience, Venezuela’s large number of main battle tanks and other armored vehicles, attack helicopters and Su-30 combat aircraft pose a non-trivial threat for Colombia’s armed forces, whose structure is more oriented toward defensive missions and internal security. Although Venezuela’s ability to logistically sustain its forces would likely collapse in a matter of days, its Russian-made tanks could potentially break through Colombian defenses in La Guajira, while a portion of its Su-30s could break through Colombian air defenses to strike targets in Bogota, Medellin and other Colombian locations in a matter of minutes. Beyond such attacks by conventional forces, it is possible that organizations such as the ELN, Venezuelan militias, or the Cuban special forces “avispas negras” which may have infiltrated into Colombia with the Venezuelan refugees could deliberately attempt to incite violence in the zone to divert Colombian forces, or as part of a psychological campaign aimed at the international community, seeking to secure its condemnation of Colombia, or the perception of moral equivalence between Venezuelan and Colombian actions.
However counterproductive such attacks might be in strategic military terms, they would likely advance the cynical political objective of temporarily shifting the international discourse from the anti-democratic practices of the Maduro regime and the criminal activities its top leaders, to a focus on resolving the interstate conflict.
With such indications that the Maduro government could seek to provoke Colombia into a fight, in support of its domestic political ends, the Colombian government has been extremely measured in its response to Venezuelan actions, and has sought to involve and leverage the support of the international community wherever possible.
If Colombia is confronted by an expanded humanitarian crisis or military threat as contemplated in this article, it is in the strategic interest of the United States to stand by Colombia with a combination of strong diplomatic support, resources, and the provision of specific assistance identified as appropriate and necessary through ongoing coordination with Colombia.
Working through both the Organization of American States and the United Nations, as well as bilateral engagements, the U.S. should maintain international pressure on Venezuela to restore democratic order and rational economic policies internally, rather than simply calling for peaceful dialogue that imputes a false moral equivalence to the parties involved.
The U.S. should also be prepared to provide financial resources, as well as logistics and other support to Colombian refugee operations, as well as expanded security assistance to help Colombia manage adverse effects on criminality and violence in the border region that such a crisis will almost certainly produce.
In the possible, albeit unlikely case that Venezuela attempts to provoke a war with Colombia, the U.S. should aggressively expose and unequivocally condemn Venezuelan aggression. It should make it clear to our Colombian partners, and the region, that the U.S. will, if Colombia requests, provide military support to protect Colombian territory, sovereignty, and the Colombian people, short of direct military intervention in Venezuela.
Just as the Trump administration has demonstrated U.S. willingness to act in a decisive, but measured fashion in Syria and Afghanistan, it has the opportunity to show Latin America that, even with its stance regarding the Mexico border wall, it can be a trustworthy and prudent friend. The U.S. response to the possible crisis in Colombia and Venezuela will not only affect the lives of those in both countries, but will likely shape the U.S. relation with the region for the rest of the Trump administration, and possibly beyond.
Dr. R. Evan Ellis is Research Professor of Latin American studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed in this article are strictly his own.