Venezuela’s Maduro Regime Threatens Annexation of Guyanese Territory

Maduro pushed the December 3rd referendum, partially as a distraction from his abysmal poll numbers.


“The Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, ordered the immediate exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mines in the territory of Essequibo, an area in dispute with Guyana, just one day after the ‘yes’ victory was announced in the referendum that claimed sovereignty over the territory.”


In December 2023, the Maduro regime of Venezuela oversaw a referendum about a long-disputed region called the Essequibo, which represents more than two-thirds of neighboring Guyana’s territory.[i] The Essequibo region—roughly the size of the state of Florida—has been administered by Guyana for more than 100 years, according to an arbitral award in Paris in 1899. The Maduro regime announced that 95 percent of Venezuelans who voted approved all five questions on the referendum.  This included an explicit rejection of the recent jurisdiction granted to the International Court of Justice upon referral of the case by the UN’s Secretary General, as well as a commitment by the Venezuelan state to recover the territory by all means necessary “within the law.”[ii] Accordingly, the first excerpted article from Chilean news outlet La Nación reported that Maduro announced the creation of a new Venezuelan state called Guayana Esequiba, constituted by the territory of Essequibo. Maduro followed the announcement by encouraging state-owned enterprises to exploit the natural resources of the Essequibo area, as well as a small mobilization of troops and equipment near the border.[iii] According to La Nación, this has given rise to the possibility of inter-state conflict, a rare worry in Latin America.  However, many countries in the region, as well as Venezuela’s political opposition, have interpreted Maduro’s threats to annex the Essequibo as a domestic ploy aimed at distraction. In the excerpted article from Argentina’s Urgente24, Venezuelan opposition leaders claimed that the referendum was a nationalistic distraction. The outlet says that Maduro is looking for a change in narrative after the recent successes of the country’s opposition, including the election of María Corina Machado, as the unified opposition candidate to face Maduro. Distraction or not, Maduro’s actions have engendered an environment that is rife with possibilities for miscalculation as both sides stake out maximalist positions.[iv]


Sources:

“Maduro propone ley que busca anexar esequibo a Venezuela: Pide explotar recursos naturales (Maduro proposes a law that seeks to annex Essequibo to Venezuela: He asks to exploit natural resources),” La Nación (a Chilean daily with over one hundred years reporting on the region), 6 December 2023. https://www.lanacion.cl/maduro-propone-ley-que-busca-anexar-esequibo-a-venezuela-pide-explotar-recursos-naturales/

The Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, ordered the immediate exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mines in the territory of Essequibo, an area in dispute with Guyana, just one day after the ‘yes’ victory was announced in the referendum that claimed sovereignty over the territory. Through a government act broadcast on radio and television, the president ordered that they immediately proceed ‘to grant operating licenses for the exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mines in the entire area of our Guayana Esequiba.’


“Referéndum y nueva ‘Guyana Esequiba:’ Maduro distrae (Referendum and new ‘Guyana Esequiba:’ Maduro distracts),” Urgente24 (an Argentine outlet with both opinion and news) 6 December 2023. https://urgente24.com/mundo/referendum-y-nueva-guyana-esequiba-maduro-distrae-n564799

For her part, the Venezuelan presidential candidate María Corina Machado, who won the opposition primaries and who could dethrone Maduro if there is no fraud, spoke about it…and described it as a distraction from the success of the opposition primaries. ‘It is a way to distract attention from the monumental success that the primaries were and create cohesion in the different sectors of the ruling party around an element that awakens patriotic sentiment but that had a very low participation rate.’


Notes:

[i] For more information and background on the manufactured crisis and Venezuela’s claims, see: Ryan C. Berg and Christopher Hernandez-Roy, “The Entirely Manufactured and Dangerous Crisis over the Essequibo,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 8 December 2023. https://www.csis.org/analysis/entirely-manufactured-and-dangerous-crisis-over-essequibo

[ii] For more information on the referendum questions and the dispute itself, see: Julia Symmes Cobb, “Explainer: What is the border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana?,” Reuters, 6 December 2023. https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/what-is-border-dispute-between-venezuela-guyana-2023-12-06/

[iii] For more information on troop and equipment deployments to the border with Guyana, bolstered with satellite imagery analysis, see: Christopher Hernandez-Roy et al., “Miscalculation and Escalation over the Essequibo: New Insights Into the Risks of Venezuela’s Compellence Strategy,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 9, 2024, https://www.csis.org/analysis/miscalculation-and-escalation-over-essequibo-new-insights-risks-venezuelas-compellence.

[iv] In response to the possibility of conflict, Brazil brought both parties to the table on the island nation of St. Vincent, negotiating the Argyle Declaration, which commits both sides to a peaceful resolution of the border dispute. However, the Maduro regime abrogates agreements frequently. For more information on the Argyle Declaration, see: “The Joint Declaration of Argyle for Dialogue and Peace between Guyana and Venezuela,” Government of Barbados, 14 December 2023. https://www.foreign.gov.bb/the-joint-declaration-of-argyle-for-dialogue-and-peace-between-guyana-and-venezuela/.


Image Information:

Image:  Maduro pushed the December 3rd referendum, partially as a distraction from his abysmal poll numbers.
Source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/125816678@N05/39329361431 
Attribution: Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED


Drug Trafficking a Prime Source of Financing for Venezuela’s Maduro Regime

The Venezuelan armed forces have become critical to the Maduro regime’s ability to move drugs around the world.


“Venezuela is currently an important bridge in global drug trafficking exports, from where between 250 and 350 metric tons per year leave, which has a street value of between 6 and 8 billion dollars.”


The Maduro regime in Venezuela has long maintained links to organized crime groups and drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).[i] However, a recent hack of documents from the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office has revealed the depths of the Maduro regime’s involvement with DTOs. According to the Argentine daily Infobae, the documents allege that Venezuelan Armed Forces are crucial to trafficking drugs through Venezuela. The outlet reports that they cooperate with Colombian guerrillas and are directly involved in the process of moving drugs, as opposed to passively permitting their passage and receiving bribes, as was the case in the past. The second excerpted article from Infobae states that the alleged center of these operations is Catatumbo, a borderland region between Colombia and Venezuela rich in coca production estimated to be 330 tons per year. The article paints a complex picture of rival criminal organizations from Mexico and Venezuela also occupying the same territory. The Maduro regime’s spiral into criminality will likely have meaningful impacts on the operational environment.[ii]Venezuelan Armed Forces’ increased role in Latin America’s drug trafficking operations will have spillover effects for most neighboring countries. At the same time, such activities are likely to deepen the Maduro regime’s staying power.


Sources:

“Un informe reveló cómo el régimen de Maduro hizo del narcotráfico su principal fuente de financiamiento (A report revealed how the Maduro regime made drug trafficking its main source of financing),” Infobae (Argentine daily with excellent regional coverage), 7 November 2023. https://www.infobae.com/venezuela/2023/11/07/un-informe-revelo-como-el-regimen-de-maduro-hizo-del-narcotrafico-su-principal-fuente-de-financiamiento/

Leaked documents from the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office, analyzed and verified through additional interviews and other independent reports, reveal that Venezuelan military personnel, in association with Colombian guerrillas, are directly involved in drug trafficking operations…The epicenter of this network is the mountainous region of Catatumbo, on the border with Venezuela, an area that has a high concentration of coca leaf plantations…More than 330 tons transited through the state of Zulia from the Catatumbo region last year alone, an alarming figure given that experts say that Catatumbo supplies only about 60% of the drugs entering Venezuela. The rest is transported by rivers in the plains region and the jungle region in the south of the country.


“Vínculos del Gobierno venezolano con el narcotráfico en la región del Catatumbo en Colombia revelan filtraciones de documentos de la Fiscalía (Links of the Venezuelan Government with drug trafficking in the Catatumbo region in Colombia revealed by leaks of documents from the Prosecutor’s Office),” Infobae (an Argentine daily with excellent coverage), 8 November 2023. https://www.infobae.com/colombia/2023/11/08/vinculos-del-gobierno-venezolano-con-el-narcotrafico-centran-la-atencion-en-la-region-del-catatumbo-en-colombia/ In the department of Norte de Santander, there is also the presence of the Mexican cartels of Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation, along with the Venezuelan gang known as the Tren de Aragua… The investigation also highlighted the change in the roles of participation of the Venezuelan authorities, which have gone from being bribed by the drug cartels to leading illegal operations themselves, which represents an increase in the complexity and severity of the criminal operations.


Notes:

[i] For information on the Maduro regime’s links to criminal groups, see: Moises Rendón, “Maduro’s Mafia State,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 31 October 2018. https://www.csis.org/analysis/maduros-mafia-state

[ii] For more information on how the Maduro regime uses criminal groups as an instrument of state power and power projection capability, see: Moises Rendón and Arianna Kohan, “Identifying and Responding to Criminal Threats from Venezuela,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 22 July 2019. https://www.csis.org/analysis/identifying-and-responding-criminal-threats-venezuela


Image information:

Image: The Venezuelan armed forces have become critical to the Maduro regime’s ability to move drugs around the world.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ch%C3%A1vez_eyes_-_Venezuelan_armed_forces.png
Attribution: Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0 DEED


Maduro Regime Claims Victory Over Tren de Aragua Criminal Network

The aftermath of a deadly prison riot in Lara state, Venezuela in 2013.


“Its fugitive leader, “El Niño” Guerrero, benefited from complicity and even negotiated with the government to leave the prison before the security operation began, according to the NGO Venezuelan Prison Observatory.”


The Maduro regime in Venezuela recently conducted a military operation in the Tocorón prison, the power center of the transnational Tren de Aragua criminal network.[i] According to the excerpted article from the Argentine outlet Infobae, the regime uncovered a large stockpile of weapons and munitions at the prison, including anti-tank launchers, artillery rockets, and a cache of rifles and pistols. Additionally, the article reports that prisoners controlled a small town where family members lived, replete with amenities such as a pool, baseball stadium, and zoo. This level of criminal control is common in Venezuela, where the Maduro regime has relied on prison gang leaders, called “pranes,” to maintain a semblance of stability and control, and to reduce violent prison uprisings.[ii] In exchange, groups like the Tren de Aragua possess a high degree of autonomy within prison walls to continue criminal activity. In reasserting state control over the Tocorón prison, the Maduro regime claims to have defeated Tren de Aragua, as reported by Colombia’s center-left daily El Espectador. There are many reasons to doubt this claim notably, Tren de Aragua’s leader, Héctor Guerrero Flórez (alias “Niño Guerrero”), escaped before the raid with forewarning about an impending operation. Despite this, the Maduro regime’s military operation is significant for a few reasons. First, it allows the Maduro regime to claim that it is addressing the complaints of its neighbors in the region, who have openly fretted about the regional growth of the Tren de Aragua criminal network. Second, the operation could pay domestic dividends as the Maduro regime seeks to convince voters that it is tackling the country’s security crisis ahead of the anticipated elections in the latter half of 2024. Lastly, the regime’s recent operation serves as an important testing ground for the strength of its security forces, which it may resort to using to suppress any opposition mobilization in 2024.[iii]


Sources:

“El sorprendente interior del penal de Tocorón, el centro de operaciones del Tren de Aragua en Venezuela (The surprising interior of the Tocorón prison, the operations center of the Tren de Aragua in Venezuela),” Infobae (Argentine outlet with excellent regional coverage), 27 September 2023. https://www.infobae.com/venezuela/2023/09/27/el-sorprendente-interior-del-penal-de-tocoron-el-centro-de-operaciones-del-tren-de-aragua-en-venezuela/

More than 11,000 members of the security forces occupied the prison controlled by this gang that has spread its tentacles to several Latin American countries…There was tranquility, there was a swimming pool, a zoo…Its fugitive leader, “El Niño” Guerrero, benefited from complicity and even negotiated with the government to leave the prison before the security operation began, according to the NGO Venezuelan Prison Observatory.


“Gobierno de Maduro dice que el temido Tren de Aragua fue desmantelado ‘totalmente’ (Maduro’s government says that the feared Tren de Aragua was ‘completely’ dismantled),” El Espectador (Colombia’s center-left daily), 23 September 2023. https://www.elespectador.com/mundo/gobierno-de-maduro-dice-que-el-temido-tren-de-aragua-fue-desmantelado-totalmente/

We have total control of this prison, of this penitentiary center, and, in addition to that, we have completely dismantled the self-proclaimed former Tren de Aragua. We have 88 people detained at this moment, providing information of interest, all members of that group, which was abandoned by those who led it,” said the Minister of the Interior of Venezuela, Remigio Ceballos, when presenting a balance of the operation…Ceballos denied that the government had negotiated with the leaders of this gang dedicated to, among other crimes, kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, and human trafficking.


Notes:

[i] For more information on Tren de Aragua, its origin, and its historical evolution from railway construction union to criminal organization, see this excellent and comprehensive profile of the group; “Tren de Aragua,” InSight Crime, 12 May 2020. https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/tren-de-aragua/

[ii] The history of pranes, or leaders of prison gangs in Venezuela, is complex. For a condensed version of this history, see; Marie Metz, “Venezuelan Prisons and the Power of Pranes,” Foreign Policy Association blog, 15 October 2012. https://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2012/10/15/venezuelan-prisons-and-the-power-of-pranes/

[iii] For more information on the idea that the Maduro regime may be testing the security forces in anticipation of the 2024 election season, see; Ryan C. Berg and Henry Ziemer, “The Only Threat of Violence in Venezuela’s Opposition Primaries Comes from the Regime,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 17 October 2023. https://www.csis.org/analysis/only-threat-violence-venezuelas-opposition-primaries-comes-regime


Image Information:

Image: The aftermath of a deadly prison riot in Lara state, Venezuela in 2013.
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/diariocriticove/8422860917
Attribution: CC BY 2.0 DEED


Maduro, With Venezuelan Election Looming, Heads to China for Support

Former President Hugo Chávez receives a Chinese delegation. No Latin American leader traveled more to Beijing than Hugo Chávez during his presidency.


“China is Venezuela’s largest creditor…The restructuring of this enormous amount of money has been one of the headaches in relations between both countries.”


Upcoming elections and increasing pressure at home drove Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro to head to China in September 2023 to reignite relations. In the past, China was Venezuela’s greatest benefactor. During the years of President Hugo Chávez (1998-2013), Venezuela received over $60 billion in loans through a combination of sovereign lending, China’s policy banks, and large development projects.[i] However,  during Nicolás Maduro’s government (2013-present), Venezuela’s economy fell precipitously through a combination of mismanagement and corruption, causing China to withdraw much of its support in 2015 and 2016. Ever since, Maduro has struggled to return to China’s good graces and convince the Chinese Communist Party that he can be a good steward of Venezuela’s economy. While in China, Spanish daily El País reports Maduro had an agenda aimed at finding solutions to Venezuela’s grave economic crisis and rebuilding robust bilateral ties.

Maduro’s efforts were in vain. As one of Mexico’s main daily newspapers La Jornada states, the two partners signed dozens of agreements, but none of them involved the depth of investment Venezuela received during the Chávez years. Maduro’s trip failed to yield the kind of agreement he needed to reset his economy. The agreements reveal that China no longer sees Venezuela as its principal partner in Latin America to challenge the United States geopolitically. To assuage Maduro, China and Venezuela upgraded their bilateral ties to an “all weather relationship.” While this represents an upgrade in the hierarchy of China’s foreign relations, Maduro’s trip revealed the fundamental distrust that persists in Beijing about its ability to support Caracas monetarily and get a return on its investment.[ii] Lack of Chinese financial support and a presidential election likely upcoming in 2024 suggest Maduro will have to rely on greater repression to hold onto power. Additionally, Maduro’s largely empty-handed return from China may be seen by Russia as an opening to deepen their strategic ties to Venezuala, given Moscow’s desire to use Latin America as a counterpoint to U.S. policy in Europe, and specifically, support for Ukraine.[iii]


Sources:

“Nicolás Maduro visita China para tratar de paliar la crisis económica de Venezuela (Nicolás Maduro visits China to try to alleviate the economic crisis in Venezuela),” El País (Spanish daily with excellent regional coverage of Latin America), 12 September 2023. https://elpais.com/internacional/2023-09-12/nicolas-maduro-visita-china-para-tratar-de-paliar-la-crisis-economica-de-venezuela.html

Maduro arrived with an eminently economic agenda and the intention of finding solutions to the crisis that is shaking the country… The intention is to strengthen ties that have been diluted in recent years and realign interests in an international theater polarized by the tense relationship between the United States and Beijing… China is Venezuela’s largest creditor, the Latin American country that has the largest debt with Beijing: since 2007, it has received about 60 billion dollars in Chinese state loans… The restructuring of this enormous amount of money has been one of the headaches in relations between both countries and was the driver behind Maduro’s last visit to Beijing in 2018.


“Relación China-Venezuela será elevada a su máximo nivel: Xi Jinping (China-Venezuela relationship will be raised to its highest level: Xi Jinping),” La Jornada (one of Mexico’s daily newspapers), 13 September 2023. https://www.jornada.com.mx/notas/2023/09/13/mundo/relacion-china-venezuela-sera-elevada-a-su-maximo-nivel-xi-jinping/  Chinese President Xi Jinping announced this Wednesday in a meeting with his counterpart Nicolás Maduro in Beijing the strengthening of relations with Venezuela, which will be raised to their highest level… “All weather relations” are the highest level of Chinese diplomatic relations. Only a handful of countries (Pakistan, Russia, Belarus) have this status.


Notes:

[i] For more information about China’s role in supporting Hugo Chávez’s government, see: Stephen B. Kaplan and Michael A. Penfold, “China-Venezuela Economic Relations: Hedging Venezuelan Bets with Chinese Characteristics,” Wilson Center for International Scholars. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/china-venezuela-economic-relations-hedging-venezuelan-bets-chinese-characteristics

[ii] For additional analysis on the bind China finds itself in with Venezuela—too important to cut relations, yet too untrustworthy to deepen them—see: “The Future of Sino-Venezuelan Relationship: Make or Break?,” Harvard International Review, December 22, 2021. https://hir.harvard.edu/the-future-of-the-sino-venezuelan-relationship-make-or-break/

[iii] For more information on how Russia views its relations with Latin America as a counterpoint to U.S. policy in Europe, see: Ryan C. Berg, “What Does Russia’s War in Ukraine Mean for Latin America and the Caribbean?,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 1, 2022. https://www.csis.org/analysis/what-does-russias-war-ukraine-mean-latin-america-and-caribbean


Image Information:

Image: Former President Hugo Chávez receives a Chinese delegation. No Latin American leader traveled more to Beijing than Hugo Chávez during his presidency.
Source: https ://www.flickr.com/photos/chavezcandanga/6396096677
Attribution: Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Venezuela’s Dictatorship Strengthens While Opposition Is in Disarray

Then Venezuelan Interim President Juan Guaidó with Secretary General of the Organization of American States Luis Almagro during a trip to Washington, D.C.

Then Venezuelan Interim President Juan Guaidó with Secretary General of the Organization of American States Luis Almagro during a trip to Washington, D.C.


“A few hours after the fragmented Venezuelan opposition put an end to the figure of the interim government of Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, launched a diplomatic and political offensive.”


Venezuela’s long struggle against the Maduro dictatorship began 2023 with yet another setback. In 2019, the opposition established an interim government structure to push for a democratic transition in Venezuela, replete with an interim president (Juan Guaidó) who was recognized by nearly 60 countries. That experiment was recently terminated when three of the country’s four main opposition parties voted to dissolve the interim government structure, a move that had been rumored for several months.[i] Since voting to dissolve its own constitutional arrangement, the opposition to Maduro’s regime has fractured.[ii] According to an article from Peruvian media conglomerate Redacción RPP, three of the opposition parties voted to dissolve the structure because it had failed to achieve its objective of a democratic transition away from Maduro’s dictatorship. The article also notes that opacity in the financing and management of international assets had made some opposition legislators uneasy about extending the arrangement. The second excerpted article from Spanish daily La Voz de Galicia reports that the Maduro regime has transitioned to a more offensive posture after several years of being on the back foot, rattled by the opposition’s interim government structure that had been recognized by dozens of countries. Maduro is looking to reassert himself diplomatically and shore up key allies. The Maduro regime’s survival and strengthening serves as a conduit for Chinese, Russian, and Iranian influence in South America and the Caribbean because of their support for Maduro during the regime’s darkest days.[iii] Close security relationships with other authoritarian states mean that Venezuela will continue to represent a hemispheric security threat and an important staging ground for countries like Russia and Iran.


Sources: 

“Venezuela: El ‘Gobierno interino’ de Juan Guaidó se extinguió sin claridad en sus cuentas (Venezuela: The ‘interim government’ of Juan Guaidó was extinguished without clarity in its accounts),” Redacción RPP (the largest radio and television broadcasting company in Peru), 10 January 2023. https://rpp.pe/mundo/actualidad/venezuela-el-gobierno-interino-de-juan-guaido-se-extinguio-sin-claridad-en-sus-cuentas-noticia-1459150?ref=rpp

The ‘interim government’ of Juan Guaidó, eliminated… by the majority of the former deputies who supported him in 2019, leaves a shadow in Venezuela due to poor accountability. No one knows how much money he managed or what this sort of parallel power that had the support of foreign powers spent it on… in the next 45 days, Guaidó is obliged to account for the period given to him by the former anti-Chavista deputies who abolished the interim government, considering that the structure did not achieve its objectives, not to mention that they do not know the status of the resources managed under this arrangement.

“Maduro pasa a la ofensiva tras la disolución del Gobierno interino de Guaidó (Maduro goes on the offensive after the dissolution of the interim government of Guaidó),” La Voz de Galicia (a Spanish daily newspaper with good coverage of Latin America), 2 January 2023. https://www.lavozdegalicia.es/noticia/internacional/2023/01/03/maduro-pasa-ofensiva-tras-disolucion-gobierno-interino-guaido/0003_202301G3P18993.htm 

A few hours after the fragmented Venezuelan opposition put an end to the figure of the interim government of Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, launched a diplomatic and political offensive… Maduro also stated in the interview that he awaits the release of the country’s resources frozen in the United States and the United Kingdom.


Notes:

[i] For more information on some of the international legal implications of this decision to dissolve Venezuela’s interim government, see: Ryan C. Berg and Alexandra Winkler, “The Interim Government of Venezuela was Dissolved by its Own Promoters,” CSIS Commentary, 12 January 2023. https://www.csis.org/analysis/interim-government-venezuela-was-dissolved-its-own-promoters

[ii] For information on infighting in the opposition and its impact on the Venezuelan opposition’s standing among voters, see: Luis González Morales, “Knives Out: Venezuelan Opposition Edition,” Caracas Chronicles, 29 December 2022. https://www.caracaschronicles.com/2022/12/29/knives-out-venezuelan-opposition-edition/

[iii] For more information about Venezuela’s deep security relationship with Russia, in particular, see: Vladimir Rouvinski, “Russia’s Continued Engagement with Venezuela in 2019 and Beyond,” Wilson Center, February 2020. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/russias-continuing-engagement-venezuela-2019-and-beyond-update


Image Information:

Image: Then Venezuelan Interim President Juan Guaidó with Secretary General of the Organization of American States Luis Almagro during a trip to Washington, D.C.
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/oasoea/49499293397
Attribution: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Colombia’s New Government Quickly Reestablishes Relations With Maduro’s Venezuela

The Colombia-Venezuela border, which has witnessed millions of migrants in recent years.

The Colombia-Venezuela border, which has witnessed millions of migrants in recent years.


The first and most important step in this new phase of bilateral relations is to restore diplomacy between the two countries.


Mere weeks after taking office in August 2022, Colombia’s new president, Gustavo Petro, has reestablished relations with Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela. This is noteworthy as relations between the two countries ruptured in 2019, when Columbia’s then-president Iván Duque recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, thus prompting Maduro to end formal diplomatic ties. Under president Duque, Colombia was a staunch opponent of Maduro, seeking to isolate him on the international stage, while itself seeking to play a lead role in Latin America.

Presidents Petro and Maduro celebrated the resumption of relations with the exchange of ambassadors, CNN en Español reports. The article notes that the exchange of ambassadors, the reopening of their shared border, the resumption of trade, and eventually, a meeting between Petro and Maduro, signals a changing strategic environment in Latin America toward Venezuela’s dictatorship.  Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also changed the region’s appetite for isolating Venezuela and demanding domestic changes. In an interview with Colombia’s leading weekly magazine Semana, Colombia’s new ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, announced Colombia’s intention to buy Venezuelan oil and gas, previously sanctioned to press Maduro over links to organized crime and gross human rights abuses.  Ambassador Benedetti also spoke of a proposal to establish special economic zones along the Colombia-Venezuela border, which immediately generated concern about the potential for drug trafficking organizations and Colombian guerrillas using these zones to launder money. Collectively these moves give the Maduro regime more space to maneuver.


Sources:

Source: “Colombia y Venezuela restablecen relaciones bilaterales con la llegada de embajadores a Bogotá y Caracas (Colombia and Venezuela reestablish bilateral relations with the arrival of ambassadors to Bogotá and Caracas),” CNN en Español (the Spanish-language version of the popular American outlet), 29 August 2022.

https://cnnespanol.cnn.com/2022/08/29/armando-benedetti-embajador-de-colombia-en-venezuela-llega-a-caracas-orix/

Benedetti told journalists in Caracas that the first and most important step in this new phase of bilateral relations is to restore diplomacy between the two countries.  That includes both the diplomatic issue and trade relations, one of the priorities of the two governments.  “We are going to reestablish relations with Venezuela, we are going to reestablish trade from which more than 8 million Colombians live, we are going to look for an economic zone, tax exemptions and legislation that allows the Colombian government to invest in works that have an impact on the development of the region,” said Benedetti…Upon his arrival in Caracas, Benedetti told reporters that “there are several ideas” to restore trade relations…among them, creating a special economic zone on both sides.  “And in my country legislation would have to be passed so that it can invest in hospitals, in bridges, in works, infrastructure, that really have an impact on development.”

Source: “‘Es necesario que Colombia le compre gas a Venezuela:’ Armando Benedetti (‘It is necessary for Colombia to buy gas from Venezuela:’ Armando Benedetti),” Semana (Colombia’s leading weekly magazine), 9 September 2022. https://www.semana.com/politica/articulo/es-necesario-que-colombia-le-compre-gas-a-venezuela-armando-benedetti/202247/

The purchase of gas from Colombia to Venezuela “is necessary because our country will run out of gas in the next seven years.  They already have the gas pipeline that comes out of the Gulf of Maracaibo itself.  They already have the exploitation, a gas pipeline, it would only be necessary to look for about 30, 40 kilometers so that they can begin to commercialize from Colombia.”


Image Information:

Image: The Colombia-Venezuela border, which has witnessed millions of migrants in recent years.
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cidh/49534798383
Attribution: CC BY 2.0

Venezuela Plays Host to China, Russia, and Iran in International Military Games

Venezuelan tanks during a military parade.

Venezuelan tanks during a military parade.


 “This week, Venezuela will become the first country in the Americas to host military competitions organized by Russia, known as the Army Games.” 


For the first time, the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela played host to Russia’s International Army Games.  The event, held in the city of Barquisimeto in Lara state, was a kind of “Olympics” of war games, according to an article in U.S. government-operated Spanish- language Voz de América.  While the Venezuelan armed forces have participated six times in Russia’s International Army Games, the list of participating countries coupled with the location in the Western Hemisphere presents a direct challenge to the United States, according to the article.  Furthermore, an article in left-leaning Argentine daily Clarín notes that the International Army Games began just one day after annual military exercises sponsored by the U.S. Southern Command.  The newspaper highlights Russia’s traditional role as a security provider to Venezuela, as well as its desire to show strength in the Western Hemisphere.  The International Army Games demonstrate Venezuela’s continuing desire to be considered a serious power and U.S. adversary in the Western Hemisphere.  They also demonstrate Russia’s enduring interest in projecting power in Latin America and the Caribbean and to blunt diplomatic isolation on the world stage.  Lastly, these military exercises are likely to further the interoperability of participating militaries with principal adversaries such as Russia, China, and Iran.  


Source:

“Olimpíadas de la Guerra’ en Venezuela pueden  generar ‘celo y vigilancia’ en la region (War Olympics’ in Venezuela can generate ‘zeal and vigilance’ in the region),” Voz de América (the Spanish-language version of the state-owned media outlet), 9 August 2022.  https://www.vozdeamerica.com/a/olimpiadas-guerra-venezuela-celo-vigilancia-region/6694410.html   

This week, Venezuela will become the first country in the Americas to host military competitions organized by Russia, known as the Army Games… The Russian Ministry of Defense… has organized these military sports annually since August 2015.  They usually last a couple of weeks and spokesmen close to the Kremlin refer them as the “Olympics of War”…The Army Games 2022 are being held in a context of worldwide condemnation of the Vladimir Putin government for its armed attack on Ukraine. 

Source“Rusia, China e Irán lanzan sus ‘juegos de guerra’ para desafiar a Estados Unidos en Venezuela (Russia, China and Iran launch their ‘war games’ to challenge the United States in Venezuela),” Clarín (left leaning daily in Argentina), 10 August 2022. https://www.clarin.com/mundo/rusia-china-iran-lanzan-juegos-guerra-desafiar-unidos-venezuela_0_HyifirkIYK.html  

The war and hunger games come together in Venezuela.  Live and direct military competitions with Russia, China, and Iran will be held from August 13 to 27 to challenge the United States in the city of Barquisimeto, Lara state, in the northwest of the country, while the streets have been heating up with the protests of the teachers affected by “starvation wages”…Vladimir Putin, whose armed invasion of Ukraine is in its sixth month, aims to demonstrate Russia’s military strength in the Latin America and Caribbean area.  


Image Information:

Image caption:  Venezuelan tanks during a military parade 
Source:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BTR-80A[RG1] _VEN.jpg 
Attribution: CCA-SA 2.0

Venezuela’s Mystery Plane Shows Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America

A Venezuelan plane from the state-owned airline Conviasa at Simón Bolivar Airport in Caracas.

A Venezuelan plane from the state-owned airline Conviasa at Simón Bolivar Airport in Caracas.


“Argentina’s Justice Ministry is trying to establish why Iranians came among the crew of the Venezuelan airline that was officially supposed to transport auto parts from Mexico to Argentina, and to see if there are elements that support the hypothesis that the Iranian pilot is indeed linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard.”


On 8 June, a large Boeing 747 of suspicious origin was grounded in Buenos Aires, where Argentine authorities seized the crew’s passports.  The plane belongs to Venezuela’s state-owned Emtrasur Cargo airline, a subsidiary of Conviasa, which Iran’s sanctioned Mahan Air sold to Venezuela one year ago.  The mystery surrounding the cargo plane hints at Iran’s strategic penetration of Latin America through a mix of commercial and military activities.  According to one of Argentina’s leading media outlets Infobae, the aircraft stopped in Mexico to load auto parts, then made several trips throughout South America, including Venezuela, Paraguay, and eventually Argentina before authorities grounded it.  Cordoba’s leading newspaper, Diario Cordoba, posits that the passenger manifest, which was exceptionally large, holds clues as to the plane’s true purpose.  The paperwork shows that the pilot of the plane was a known member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Qud’s Force, Captain Gholamreza Ghasemi.  Further, speculation is rife that at least one passenger departed the plane before it arrived in Argentina, when the plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Cordoba after bad weather in Buenos Aires caused it to avert its landing there. If Iran is ferrying security operatives and sanctioned individuals from its elite security forces to Latin America by cargo and civilian airliners, posing as either passengers or crew members, this represents a grave security threat. In 1992 and 1994, Argentina suffered devastating terrorist attacks on a Jewish community center and the Israeli Embassy. In Argentina, it has been suspected for years that Iran and Hezbollah have a connection to these attacks.


Source:

“El avión con tripulantes iraníes encendió las alarmas de toda la región hace cuatro semanas (The plane with Iranian crew set off alarms throughout the region four weeks ago),” Diario Cordoba (Cordoba’s leading daily newspaper), 14 June 2022.  https://titulares.ar/el-avion-con-tripulantes-iranies-encendio-las-alarmas-de-toda-la-region-hace-cuatro-semanas/ 

The international alarms over the flights of a plane manned by Iranians and Venezuelans in the Southern Cone began to ignite four weeks ago throughout the region…[Argentina] received a notice that it is a company and therefore an aircraft that was sanctioned by the United States Department of the Treasury and that its crew members were members of the Al-Quds Force, the revolutionary force of Iran, whom the United States has been on a terrorism list.

Source:  “EMTRASUR: la empresa fantasma venezolana que vuela con un solo avión bajo la sombra iraní (EMTRASUR: the Venezuelan ghost company that flies with a single plane under the Iranian shadow),” Infobae (one of Argentina’s leading outlets, generally viewed as center-left politically), 19 June 2022.  https://www.infobae.com/politica/2022/06/19/emtrasur-la-empresa-fantasma-venezolana-que-vuela-con-un-solo-avion-bajo-la-sombra-irani/ 

Paraguayan Intelligence Minister Esteban Aquino assured this Friday that Gholamreza Ghasemi, the pilot of the plane held in Buenos Aires, has ties to the Quds Force.  Argentina’s Justice Ministry is trying to establish why Iranians came among the crew of the Venezuelan airline that was officially supposed to transport auto parts from Mexico to Argentina, and to see if there are elements that support the hypothesis that the Iranian pilot is indeed linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard.


Image Information:

Image: A Venezuelan plane from the state-owned airline Conviasa at Simón Bolivar Airport in Caracas.
Source: Wilfredor via Wikimedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Conviasa_plane_in_Maiquetia_Airport.jpg
Attribution:  Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Mexican Cartels Buying Land on Colombia-Venezuela Border

A coca plantation of the kind found on the Colombia-Venezuela border.


“The first thing the cartels ask is if the farm has a landing strip because that gives the property a very high price.”


Mexican criminal organizations have ambitions to transform much of South America’s drug trade through a robust physical presence in Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador.  Previously, emissaries of Mexican criminal organizations had arrived at the Colombia-Venezuela border in an attempt to mediate disputes between local drug gangs (see “Colombian Military Continues to Forcefully Dismantle FARC Dissident Structures,” OE Watch, #4, 2022).  However, according to one of Argentina’s leading news sites, Infobae, the presence of Mexican cartels extends well beyond mediation.  Under the guise of oil exploration, Infobae reports how Mexican criminal organizations are driving a real estate frenzy on the Colombia-Venezuela border.  Farmland with a landing strip is especially valued, since it gives drug flights the ability to land and take off near production and storage facilities.  Large farms with landing strips are common because the roads are blocked during the rainy season and prevent farmers from getting their harvest to market.  Another Infobae report indicates that Mexican cartels in the borderland have started to transform Colombia’s drug production as well.  Specifically, Mexican cartels have introduced coca plants that yield greater harvests while requiring fewer hectares under cultivation.  Mexican cartels that used to work with local criminal organizations are becoming more globally minded in an effort to cut out middlemen and other major players.


Source:

“Alarma por el crecimiento de la compra y venta de ganado del narcotráfico y la guerrilla en Venezuela con participación de militares y políticos (Alarm over the growth of the purchase and sale of property from drug trafficking in Venezuela with the participation of the military and politicians),” Infobae (one of Argentina’s leading news sites), 28 April 2022.  https://www.infobae.com/america/venezuela/2022/04/28/alarma-por-el-crecimiento-de-la-compra-y-venta-de-ganado-del-narcotrafico-y-la-guerrilla-en-venezuela-con-participacion-de-militares-y-politicos/

There is a boom in the acquisition of properties by…Mexicans in the states of Apure, Guárico, Anzoátegui and Bolívar, with money of unknown origin…The first thing the cartels ask is if the farm has a landing strip because that gives the property a very high price.  The presence of Mexicans…has the excuse that they are interested in oil exploitation…For years, farmers have had airplanes mainly because in the rainy season, the roads are obstructed…Now, there are landing strips everywhere and aircraft landing and taking off at any time.

Source:  “Cómo el Cártel de Sinaloa y el CJNG han innovado la producción de cocaína en Colombia (How the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG have innovated cocaine production in Colombia),” Infobae (one of Argentina’s leading news sites), 11 May 2022.   https://www.infobae.com/america/mexico/2022/05/11/como-el-cartel-de-sinaloa-y-el-cjng-han-innovado-la-produccion-de-cocaina-en-colombia/ 

As if they were administrators of legal companies, the Mexican drug traffickers participate directly in the cultivation of the coca leaf with the introduction of adapted seeds…Lieutenants sent to the South American country not only supervise the planting, but also coordinate the shipment that guarantees the quality of the drug exported via Central America and its passage through Mexico to the streets of the United States, where the product increases its value exponentially…Despite the limited planting area, they have also implemented strategies to increase the crop yields of plantations.


Image Information:

Image caption:  A coca plantation of the kind found on the Colombia-Venezuela border.
Source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/ciat/4387014624
Attribution:  CC BY-SA 2.0

Guerrilla Groups Continue To Threaten Colombia Along Border with Venezuela

Members of Colombia’s National Liberation Army, which operates along the border area between Colombia and Venezuela, pose with their weapons.

Members of Colombia’s National Liberation Army, which operates along the border area between Colombia and Venezuela, pose with their weapons.


“Very early in 2022, the horror of the war showed its face again in Arauca, where not only have the effects of peace with the FARC not been seen, but, on the contrary, violence has reached levels of the crudest stages of the armed conflict.”


The border region between Colombia and Venezuela is experiencing some of its worst violence in years.  Since 2 January 2022, several dozen have died in what could be a series of contract killings, according to center-left Colombian daily El Espectador.  The daily states that originally, Colombian prosecutors suspected the dead were members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a guerrilla group operating along the border, contesting territory with the National Liberation Army (ELN), another prominent guerrilla group.  According to an article in the politically centrist Colombian daily El Tiempo, Colombian President Iván Duque has increased the troop presence in the border region to combat drug trafficking and establish greater state presence in these remote stretches. 

Violence along the border between Colombia and Venezuela is certainly nothing new.  However, this flare-up is a reminder of the criminal sanctuary provided to Colombia’s FARC and ELN by the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and the instability fomented throughout Latin America by the actions of these groups.  Unlike previous flare-ups in Apure state in Venezuela, these incidents have not led to migratory flows but underscore that Colombia has yet to realize fully the fruits of its demobilization efforts with guerrilla groups.  Lastly, with Colombia’s presidential election slated for May 2022, guerrilla groups and demobilization efforts will be key issues in the campaign.


Source:

“No hubo Combate:” Fiscalía elevó a 27 los muertos en Arauca y dio nueva hipótesis (There was no combat:” Prosecutor’s Office raised the dead in Arauca to 27 and gave a new hypothesis),” El Espectador (Colombian daily generally considered to be center-left in its political orientation), 5 January 2022.  https://www.elespectador.com/judicial/no-hubo-combate-fiscalia-elevo-a-27-los-muertos-en-arauca-y-dio-nueva-hipotesis/   

Since January 2, 27 dead have been found in different rural areas of Arauca, the Prosecutor’s Office reported on Wednesday.  The attorney general, Francisco Barbosa, provided a new hypothesis based on what investigators have found in the field and in the autopsies of the deceased: apparently, there were no combats, but the people were murdered in the form of contract killers.

Source:  “Muerte en la frontera (Death on the Border),” El Tiempo (one of Colombia’s oldest dailies generally described as politically-centrist), 4 January 2022.  https://www.eltiempo.com/opinion/editorial/muerte-en-la-frontera-editorial-el-tiempo-643053 

Early in 2022, the horror of the war showed its face again in Arauca, where not only have the effects of peace with the FARC not been seen, but, on the contrary, violence has reached levels of the crudest stages of the armed conflict…All this within the framework of the complicity, when not open participation in the crime, of the authorities of the Nicolás Maduro regime…Understanding the challenge posed by the natural conditions of the border and the lack of collaboration from the authorities on the other side to curb crime, it is clear that more efficient efforts and strategies are still needed.


Image Information:

Image:  Members of Colombia’s National Liberation Army, which operates along the border area between Colombia and Venezuela, pose with their weapons.
Source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/brasildefato/32317009638
Attribution:  Flickr