On April 23, 2021, two Venezuelan military helicopters landed near the town of La Victoria in the border state of Apure filled with soldiers dispatched to hunt dissident Colombian guerrillas. The hunters quickly became prey.
Oct 13, 2021
Two days later, the guerrillas of the 10th Front of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) called on a local priest to come and collect the bodies of the soldiers they had slain in their ambush. They recorded the priest and his assistants retching from the stench as they loaded corpses into a truck. The video was then published on the internet.
Human rights observers talked of 12 bodies recovered, but the final death toll may have been higher. Two days later the guerrillas again contacted the priest to ask him to look for yet more bodies. Another priest from a nearby town, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, told InSight Crime: “He called me to ask what to do and I told him ‘don’t get involved because you are going to get ill from this.”
There was no official report on the number of dead. The Venezuelan authorities did not even acknowledge the ambush had taken place.
“This was completely silenced, a lot more died,” said the priest.
But there was one thing they could not deny: The guerrillas had also captured eight soldiers. Two weeks after the attack, the ex-FARC first sent out a letter to the Red Cross naming the soldiers and calling on international agencies to facilitate their release. Then they began publishing proof of life videos.
“We have been captured by the FARC, we have been treated well, we have received food, medicine and at this time we are fine,” Lieutenant Colonel Jhancarlo Bemón says in the first of the messages. “I believe this situation can be resolved with dialogue.”
It would prove a turning point in the fighting between the Venezuelan military and the 10th Front, which by that point had been ongoing for three months. In the wake of the attack, reports of dissension and desertion in the ranks of the armed forces grew. And the guerrillas, after withstanding the biggest military campaign in Venezuela’s recent history, now held hostages they could use as bargaining chips.
Venezuela Tastes Guerrilla Warfare
The first military mission against the 10th Front in Apure was launched in September 2020, with the objective of capturing or killing Fabián Guevara Carrascal, alias “Ferley,” the 10th Front’s finance chief. Although the military claimed to have killed 15 guerrillas and destroyed three ex-FARC camps, four soldiers were killed and Ferley escaped.
Hostilities resumed in late January 2021, and throughout February there were sporadic clashes between the security forces and the ex-FARC, while the authorities staged raids targeting the guerrillas’ drug trafficking networks. But it wasn’t until late March that the conflict intensified.
On March 21, the military launched “Operation Bolivarian Shield 2021” with a major offensive in the municipality of Páez. According to the Ministry of Defense, the military confronted the guerrillas, capturing 32 people, destroying six camps, and killing an ex-FARC commander, while losing two soldiers in the fighting.
While it was presented as a victory by the military, residents, community leaders and journalists in Páez told InSight Crime that the operation was a failure. By the time the military arrived, the guerrillas had already slipped away. Even the arrests were not what they appeared, with human rights organizations immediately denouncing the military for arbitrarily detaining farmers and agricultural workers.
The 10th Front began to fight back. On the night of March 23, a guerrilla cell attacked a customs base in the town of La Victoria with explosives. In the days that followed, there were firefights, aerial bombardments by the military, and guerrilla attacks against security forces positions.
The number of security agencies deployed to the region multiplied. Residents of the town of Guasdualito, where the security forces set up their operating base for the campaign, told InSight Crime that in addition to the army, the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional – SEBIN), the police Criminal Investigations Unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC), the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), and the police Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES) all had operatives in the camp. In mid-April, the military even announced the deployment of 1,000 members of the civilian volunteer force, the Bolivarian militias, to the region.
The deployment of soldiers, police, special forces, intelligence agencies and militias gave the security forces a huge numerical advantage. With their jets, helicopters, and armored vehicles, they also enjoyed a huge advantage in firepower. Yet the 10th Front, with its estimated 300 fighters did not present conventional targets: hidden amid the civilian population and moving freely across the border.
“They thought they were going to destroy [the 10th Front quickly], but it was the opposite. When the government attacked them, it made them furious,” said a religious leader in Guasdualito, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
Decades of armed struggle in Colombia had left the ex-FARC fighters skilled in asymmetrical warfare, while their years operating out of Apure meant they knew the local terrain and had close ties to the communities. This gave them the intelligence that kept them a step ahead of the security forces.
“These people have spent years working [in Apure], and they are friends of all the local farmers,” said a rancher in Apure, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “The guerrillas know every last thing that happens here.”
It was not only the communities, though. The military stationed in the region was accustomed to cooperating with, not combatting the 10th Front. Locals even describe the two sides patrolling together.
“In trucks, on foot, they did the rounds together, because they worked together. They didn’t fight,” said the religious leader.
After it became evident the 10th Front had received advanced warnings of coming military operations, military intelligence launched an investigation into information leaks and connections between military officials and the ex-FARC, according to a report in El Nacional. So far, two colonels have been arrested and accused of colluding with the 10th Front, while the brigadier general in charge of the military base of Guasdualito was also removed from his position under mysterious circumstances.
The Price of Defeat
Official reports recognize 12 deaths between the initial operation in September and the military withdrawal in late May, while media reports talk about at least 20 dead. However, the true death toll remains a mystery.
In some cases, not even the families of the soldiers sent to fight in Apure know if their sons are dead or alive. For some, the first time they became aware their family members had gone missing was when they did not come home with the rest of their unit after the conflict died down.
InSight Crime spoke to family members of two soldiers who disappeared in the conflict, First Sergeant Abraham Belisario and Sergeant Major Danny Vásquez, both of whom were sent to Apure from the Turiamo naval base in the state of Aragua.