Venezuelan Government Blames Colombian Paramilitaries for Violence, Contraband and Protests

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde

On August 19, following an attack that left three military wounded and which the government attributed to paramilitaries, President Maduro ordered the closing of the border with Colombia in the frontier state of Táchira for 72 hours. “Enough of this terrorism, of paramilitarism, of these attacks on the dignity of the people of Táchira!” said Maduro. 

Two days later the president extended the closing of the border indefinitely, decreed a “state of exception” in five border municipalities, and called for an emergency meeting between the Venezuelan and Colombian foreign ministers. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said closing the border is not the solution. Rather, Venezuela should seek to collaborate with Colombia in addressing illicit activities in the border region. The opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) has issued a press release criticizing the government’s decree and the closing of the border in Táchira.

This is only the most recent case in which the Maduro government blames Colombian paramilitaries for problems of governance in Venezuela.

According to the government the local opposition is in cahoots with Colombian ex-president Álvaro Uribe, and the United States, in bringing into Venezuela right-wing paramilitaries who it says have been involved in opposition street barricades protest or guarimbas (here, here, and here), selective killings of revolutionary political leaders and intellectuals (here and here), common crime (here and here), smuggling of basic products in what it claims is an “economic war” against the country, and coup d’état attempts

In another important recent case, Maduro has quoted the confessions of the main suspect in the murder of a woman, Liliana Hergueta, who was found dismembered inside her car earlier this month. According to Maduro, the men were “trained in the paramilitary arts of assassination and the dismemberment of people. Like this group we have detected others trained and financed by the paramilitaries of [Colombian ex-president] Uribe.”

Maduro furthermore said that Hergueta’s murderers had direct links with opposition leaders who were responsible for giving the order to kill her. He hinted that committing random crimes was part of a destabilization plot by the opposition against his government. He also said that a sector of the opposition was planning to use these paramilitary assassins to murder the imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López and that his government had “saved López’s life.”

Days before Maduro’s declarations the Minister of Interior, Justice, and Peace, Gustavo González López had also linked the murder of Hergueta to “paramilitaries trained in Colombia.” PSUV leader, Jorge Rodríguez, showed pictures of opposition leaders, including Herique Capriles, Maria Corina Machado, and Leopoldo López, posing in public meetings with the alleged assassins as evidence of the relation between the opposition and the crime. Even the Ombudsman Tareck William Saab said that the links had been established and that the opposition should recognize involvement in the crime. He also declared that the crime is “evidence of the use of military practices as means of political destabilization.” 

The most important evidence in the government’s case is a video that shows José Pérez Venta, the main suspect in the case, confessing to have received paramilitary training in Colombia and to having links to Colombia’s ex-President Álavaro Uribe, several opposition leaders and figures, and US officials.

However, an investigation by anti-government news portal Runrun.es suggests that Hergueta’s alleged murderers were part of the network of government anonymous informants called patriotas cooperantes and that their task was to “infiltrate opposition parties.” The murder of Hergueta, says the web page, was the result of a quarrel related to a failed money transfer deal. More recently Runrun.es has also said that Pérez Venta, and his main accomplice Carlos Trejo, were part of an extortion and kidnaping ring that targeted women. 

Runrun.es has not shown evidence of these claims other than quotes from a lawyer of one of Pérez Venta’s alleged victims. The lawyer says that he has had contacts with at least seven victims of the gang. 

Yet other issues in which the government has consistently been claiming that paramilitaries are involved are in common crime and small-scale basic goods smuggling (bachaqueo). Last month the Minister of Interior González López explained the same day the “Operation Liberation and Protection of the People” (OLP) started, that the military and police raids were necessary to free urban areas called “peace zones” from the control of “Colombian paramilitarism, criminal gangs, and kidnappings.” 

President Maduro informed that the OLP will continue until the government defeats “Colombian paramilitarism, Colombian drug trafficking, and all that conspiracy that has come here to take over, to hire, to control, to establish the model from Colombia. I am firmly committed to dismantling it, to facing it, defeating it, with the People, with the civic-military union, with the union of all of our people,” he added.

When opposition media criticized the OLP, Maduro retorted that the critics were themselves involved in paramilitarism. “They came out like crazy, for what?…they came out like crazy because they are fully involved [metidos hasta los teque-teques] with Colombian paramilitary groups, of the so called bacrim [from bandas criminales, criminal gangs],” said the President about editorial comments made by the newspaper El Nacional.

However, critics of stories of “paramilitary infiltration” allege that they are not only being used to smear opposition leaders but to “criminalize the poor.” In a recent interview criminologist Andrés Antillano, who is doing ethnographic research in a Caracas neighborhood supposedly infiltrated by paramilitaries, said the “violence has nothing to do with paramilitaries, but instead with excluded young men that lack employment and education and that get together with other young men from neighboring barrios and go into violence in order to receive recognition from their peers.”

Keymer Ávila, a criminologist at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, is also concerned about the “war logic in this permanent construction of the enemies.” He adds that “the [government’s] discourse about this has not been very consistent: at time they speak of Colombian paramilitaries, at others of organized crime, mafias, and even maras from El Salvador. Recently they have democratized these categories to use them against the bachaqueros [small-scale resellers of basic goods] which amounts to using them against the poor. They have even used a fascist rhetoric by calling them ‘a plague’ that needs to be dealt with”

In its latest international newsletter PROVEA argues that the use of the term “paramilitary” amounts to a discursive justification of the OLP that “amplifies a vision of an internal and external enemy which is characteristic of national security doctrines.”

An additional concern is that by insisting that the “paramilitary threat” comes from neighboring Colombia the government is stoking xenophobic feelings against Colombia residents in Venezuela. 

This past week Maduro announced he is preparing a “special plan” to stop what he called the “exodus” of Colombians into Venezuela, which he claimed via twitter (@PresidencialVen) is “only comparable to the exodus of Africans into Europe.” The President also said that “most of the Colombians that migrate to Venezuela arrive without education, without money to subsists, running away from misery and looking for the protection and free social security we offer here.” 

PROVEA has accused Maduro of leading a “dangerous xenophobic campaign.” According to the government 185 Colombians have been deported during the OLP in Táchira in the last two days. The PSUV governor of Táchira, José Vielma Mora, said that 791 Colombian citizens that “were illegally in Venezuelan territory [have been] handed over to the Colombian authorities.”

Opposition leaders have denied the government’s accusations that they have ties with paramilitary groups and that they are “importing” them to destabilize the government. The MUD claims that the measures are a rehearsal for the possible suspension of the December legislative elections. Constitutional expert José Ignacio Henández says however that electoral processes cannot be suspended under a “state of exception” decree.

The President of the National Assembly and PSUV leader Diosdado Cabello responded the MUD’s press release stating that the organization’s critique of the decree is evidence that they “are backing smuggling, bachaquerismo, drug trafficking, and the proven paramilitary [participation] in the case of the murder of Lilian Hergueta.”