Colombia: Venezuela Desperately Seeks A Scapegoat


August 29, 2015: The peace talks with FARC continue and are still stalled over the amnesty issue. Now FARC is demanding amnesty for 3,300 FARC members already in prison, and not just for those at large but wanted for specific major crimes. The government has told FARC that time is running out because the majority of Colombian voters will not support amnesty. FARC also demands more prosecutions of soldiers and police for crimes committed in combat. The government position is that they already prosecute and if FARC has specific evidence of crimes they should present it. The government still believes it will have a final peace deal, or officially failed negotiations, by November (when the current FARC ceasefire expires). FARC is trying cope with its growing unpopularity (and popular opposition to amnesty) by calling for more action against corruption and the influence of gangsters in politics. This doesn’t get much traction inside Colombia because most Colombians have personal experience with FARC efforts (often violent) to manipulate elections and force elected officials to cooperate. Rural Colombians are also demanding that FARC stop planting landmines (which FARC promised to do but didn’t comply) and help remove existing mines.

Continued pipeline attacks by FARC on ELN reduced oil production for July to 945,000 barrels a day. Average production for the year to date is still a little over a million barrels a day. The leftist rebels continue these pipeline attacks because they need the money. ELN is often the main offender here because it has concentrated its attacks (and extortion efforts) on the oil industry and electricity producers. FARC is more discreet about it, because of the peace talks. Despite the attacks Colombian oil production has grown from 816,000 barrels a day in 1999 to over a million barrels this year. This was done despite years of energetic FARC and ELN efforts to shut down oil production. By 2005 these attacks had reduced production to 525,000 barrels but after that the government efforts to weaken the leftist rebels turned that around and oil production has doubled and continues to increase despite continued attacks by the leftists.

The Colombian government recently admitted that 80 percent of the gold produced in the country came from illegal mines. New laws are to increase the penalties for this and security forces are going to spend more time policing the mining. The growth in illegal mining is also a side effect of leftist rebels being forced out of areas they have long controlled and prospered in. Many of these guys have sought new hideouts and criminal activities that are not under so much pressure by the security forces. Illegal gold mining has become a favorite, as is smuggling and extortion. The criminal gangs go where the military and police presence is lightest, like rural areas where illegal mining takes place. The sloppy mining practices also cause deforestation and water pollution which has the rural population demanding action. With gold selling for $36 a gram (or $36 million a ton) there has been a gold rush in rural northwestern Colombia. The price has fallen from $48 in 2012 but the mining is still big business. Production more than tripled from 15.5 tons in 2007 to 53.6 tons in 2012 and continued to increase more slowly since then. Colombia has been a source of gold for centuries, but the sharp rise in price between 2006 and 2011 made many old mines worth opening again. All this turned out to be a lucrative source of income for the leftist rebels who regularly extort money from small miners in return for protection from the police and other gangs. These illegal mines have become a major problem for the rural police. The rebels enforcing the extortion operations do not attract much attention from the army special operations troops used to hunt down rebel leaders and rebel groups that threaten major businesses (oil and legal mining) or infrastructure (roads, electricity and such). The plight of the illegal miners won’t be fully addressed until FARC signs the peace deal and frees up lots of soldiers and police commandos.

The economic collapse in Venezuela and the inability of the government there to do anything about it has led to Venezuela blaming Colombia and closing a major border crossing in northeast Colombia. Ambassadors have been recalled and Venezuela is expelling thousands of Colombians who live on the Venezuelan side of the border.  Over 7,000 Colombians have left since the expulsion order on the 21st.  Venezuela also blames its record high murder rate (and most other crime) on Colombian gangs, even though most of this crime occurs far from the border where there are few Colombians and most of the perpetrators who are caught turn out to be Venezuelans.

The reality is different. There is lots of legal trade across the border, much of it involving food. Most of the trade is from Colombia to Venezuela. The primary legal items coming into Colombia from Venezuela are industrial products (steel, iron, chemical products and petroleum products). This trade has been declining because of the collapse of the Venezuelan economy and the shortage of foreign currency to pay for imports. The food is desperately needed, mainly because of the illegal export of subsidized food to Colombia. Closing the border will slow down (because the main roads can no longer be used) but not disappear. It is too lucrative for the smuggling gangs and corrupt Venezuelan officials who make it work.

Along the 2,850 kilometers long Venezuelan border there are hundreds of heavily used smuggling trails. This smuggling of cheaper, subsidized Venezuelan goods into Colombia is very profitable for the Colombian traders and smugglers and the Venezuelans providing the goods (often stolen) or taking bribes to not interfere.  The Venezuelan border is also dangerous because corrupt Venezuelan officers and officials have long allowed Colombian drug gangs and leftist rebels to operate on the Venezuelan side. Colombia and the United States also accuse Venezuela of becoming a major transit point for illegal drugs coming out of Colombia and then onto world markets (especially the U.S. and Europe). Leftist (FARC) rebels have about half their forces operating along the Venezuelan border (most of the rest use the Panama or Ecuador borders).

The Colombians living in Venezuela are the remaining refugees from the half century of leftist violence in Colombia. The end to that violence is being negotiated and some 10,000 armed FARC and ELN leftists are still in business. There are even more gangs of apolitical criminals. These gangs have flourished during the decades of leftist violence. For most of the last half century Venezuela was more prosperous and much more peaceful than Colombia. In 1999 Venezuelans elected a former army officer (Hugo Chavez) who proposed to solve all existing economic and social problems via radical socialism. This did not work. Chavez died in 2013 and was succeeded by a less charismatic aide who has made matter worse. Now Venezuela is on the verge of economic collapse, revolution, dictatorship or worse. The Venezuelan government blames the chronic (and growing) shortages (of food and consumer goods in general) on the smuggling of subsidized items to Colombia for resale. The reality is that Venezuela has wrecked its own economy by trying to impose a communist style planned (by the state) economy. For over 70 years these ideas failed spectacularly in Russia, East Europe, China and several other countries. Cuba and North Korea currently create privation not prosperity by continuing to pursue the dream of more efficient state control. Neighboring Colombia has much less oil, but a free economy and is much more prosperous. More Venezuelans are noticing that and the Venezuelan government needs to invent new distractions to keep the peace at home.

August 28, 2015: Venezuela ordered border crossings at another six towns in Tachira state (opposite northeastern Colombia) be closed. In addition another 3,000 troops were sent to Tachira state to aid in the anti-smuggling effort.

August 27, 2015: Colombia and Venezuela recalled their ambassadors because of the tensions caused by Venezuela closing the border. Venezuela is trying to blame their economic and political problems on Colombia and the United States but Colombia is not cooperating and the Americans are largely ignoring the mess in Venezuela.

The U.S. announced sanctions on four Colombians running a business in Switzerland that launders cash for FARC. The four are accused of being members of FARC.

August 23, 2015: Venezuela ordered an indefinite closure of the Colombian border.

August 21, 2015: Venezuela declared a 60 day State of Emergency (martial law) along the Colombian border.

August 20, 2015: FARC extended its 30 day unilateral ceasefire. The length of the extension was not specified. During the 30 day ceasefire there were a few clashes which left two soldiers and four leftist rebels dead. Continuing operations by the security forces led to 47 FARC members being captured. In addition another 36 FARC members voluntarily surrendered. Since FARC began these ceasefires in 2014 casualties related to fighting FARC have declined by about half. FARC wants the security forces to abide by a ceasefire but the government refuses, pointing out that FARC is engaged in many criminal activities and these must be addressed. Moreover earlier total ceasefires led to more FARC crime as the left rebels used the inactivity of the security forces to extend their control. FARC seems to realize this reality and that popular opinion is very much opposed to a total ceasefire. But many FARC members are unhappy with the declining prospects of the organization and want some

Venezuela declared a temporary (72 hour) closure of the Colombian border crossing in Tachira state (opposite northeastern Colombia). This was in response to the shooting yesterday in Tachira. This is a major border crossing and believed to be the area where much (over a third) of the illegal smuggling into Colombia takes place.

August 19, 2015:  Just across the border in Venezuela two men on motorcycles opened fire on a Venezuelan military convoy, wounding three soldiers and a civilian. Without any proof Venezuela blamed the shooting on Colombian smuggling gangs.





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