Liborio Guarulla, the governor of Venezuela’s massive and remote Amazonas state, says his community is being overrun by an unwanted guest: Colombian guerrillas.
Guarulla estimates there are 4,000 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in his largely indigenous border state. The rebels, he said, are operating gold and coltan mines and are involved in contraband and drug-running.
Colombia’s guerrillas have long used neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador as a temporary refuge, but Guarulla said the FARC presence in his community has been constant and growing since 2012, when guerrillas and the Colombian government began peace talks in Havana aimed at ending the 50-year civil conflict.
“The most serious problem is that the president of Colombia thinks the conflict is ending but it’s just being transferred to the Venezuelan side of the border,” Guarulla told the Miami Herald by phone. “This is turning into a problem that not only violates our national sovereignty but represents an outright invasion of indigenous lands.”
The estimates about FARC manpower in Venezuela may be inflated. (Colombia says there are fewer than 7,000 active guerrillas.) But Colombian authorities do acknowledge that the group, which is considered a terrorist organization, often hides along the porous border.
And there’s evidence that the guerrillas are becoming more reliant on illegal mining as they’ve seen their drug routes squeezed. Organizations that study the conflict estimate that gold mining in Colombia alone might represent 20 percent of FARC income.
Guarulla — one of only three opposition governors in Venezuela — said the police and military there seem unable or unwilling to confront the problem. Most of the troops are based within city limits, he said, and avoid the countryside where the problem exists.
“On the Venezuelan side there seems to be a certain degree of complicity,” he said. “It’s as if they don’t care that our minerals are being robbed.” Coltan is a mineral refined to produce tantalum.
Amazonas, in southern Venezuela, is 110,000 square miles of largely virgin territory bordering Colombia and Brazil. It’s home to 20 indigenous groups — including the isolated Yanomami — and is one of the least-populated swaths of the country.
Remote indigenous communities are suffering the most, Guarulla said, because of environmental damage due to the mining and a spike in contract-killings and prostitution. In addition, they’re increasingly being harassed by the military, which is controlling the flow of food and fuel into the region as a way to limit guerrilla activity.
For decades, Amazonas has avoided the violence and social problems that permeate the capital and other urban areas, Guarulla said. But things are changing.
“What I’m most scared about is that when peace is signed in Colombia those people will stay here and not want to leave Amazonas,” he said. “They have guns, so who’s going to make them leave?”