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Behind The Violence Between Venezuelan Forces And Colombian Guerillas


Venezuela has been lurching from one disaster to the next. Food shortages and hyperinflation have prompted more than 5 million Venezuelans to flee the country. Its once democratic government has turned authoritarian. And in the most recent crisis, the Venezuelan army has been fighting guerrillas from neighboring Colombia. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: In this video posted on social media, people scramble for cover as Venezuelan troops clash with Colombian rebels.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: The fighting broke out in March in the Venezuelan state of Apure that borders Colombia. In a TV address, Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino vowed to expel the guerrillas.


VLADIMIR PADRINO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "We will not tolerate illegal armed groups in our territory," he said. Still, the fighting took many people by surprise because Venezuela's military and Colombia's Marxist rebels have long been ideological soulmates.

JEREMY MCDERMOTT: The toleration of Colombian guerrillas on Venezuelan soil goes all the way back to President Hugo Chavez.

OTIS: That's Jeremy McDermott, co-director of the research group InSight Crime. He says that since 1999, when Hugo Chavez ushered in a socialist revolution, Venezuela allowed the rebels to use its territory in their fight against the Colombian government, which is a U.S. ally. Under Colombia's 2016 peace agreement, most of the rebels disarmed, but some refused. And many of these guerrillas are thought to be smuggling Colombian cocaine through Venezuela in cahoots with the Venezuelan army. McDermott claims the fighting broke out when one guerrilla faction tried to bypass the Venezuelan military and keep most or all of the cocaine profits.

MCDERMOTT: It may have been extorting the wrong person. It may have been refusing to pay off a general. Whatever the cause, the result was a military offensive. The Venezuelans were looking to send a message. If you are on Venezuelan territory, you play by our rules.

OTIS: To escape the fighting, about 7,000 Venezuelan civilians have fled across the border to Colombia. The Venezuelan government, which has expelled some reporters from the conflict zone, has refused to release casualty figures.

TOMAS GUANIPA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But Tomas Guanipa, a Venezuelan opposition leader, says dozens of soldiers have been killed and many more injured by land mines. That would make it the country's worst military defeat in decades. In addition, the guerrillas captured eight Venezuelan soldiers who last month released this proof-of-life video.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In it, one of the troops pleads for freedom and adds that they have learned their lesson. The soldiers were released on May 31. In exchange, the Venezuelan military withdrew most of its troops from the border state of Apure, says Javier Tarazona of the Caracas human rights group Fundaredes.

JAVIER TARAZONA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Tarazona says the cease-fire took hold as soon as the two sides ironed out their differences over the cocaine trade. He says the guerrillas are in Venezuela to stay.

Indeed, Colombian guerrillas are also involved in illegal gold mining in Venezuela, while homegrown criminal groups dominate many areas of Caracas, the capital. That's why Phil Gunson of the International Crisis Group sees the fighting in Apure as a sign of growing anarchy.

PHIL GUNSON: That's ominous for the government's future control of the country as a whole because I think that if they can't hold that part of Apure, then there will be other groups elsewhere begin to challenge them, even in the cities, even in Caracas.

OTIS: He also predicts that fighting on the Colombian border will flare up again as soon as there's another dispute over drug profits. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.