Elephants in the Room

Maduro Is Playing a Dangerous Game on the Colombian Border

Tensions and lawlessness could spiral into armed conflict.

National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas train in the jungle in Colombia.
National Liberation Army guerrillas train in the jungles of Colombia on May 26. Raul Arbolada/AFP/Getty Images

The United States and its Latin American allies launched last month a renewed diplomatic offensive against the regime of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, which more than 50 democracies around the world deem illegitimate. It began on Sept. 23 with a meeting between the United States and more than a dozen Latin American parties to the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, during which they agreed to investigate and arrest Maduro regime officials and others suspected of drug trafficking, money laundering, and financing terrorism. It escalated that Friday when a score of diplomats walked out in protest during Maduro’s Vice President Delcy Rodríguez’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly.

But the most concerning moment for the future direction of the Venezuela crisis came when Colombian President Iván Duque took to the U.N. podium to denounce the Maduro regime for providing support to illegal armed groups from Colombia. “My government has irrefutable and conclusive proof that corroborates the support of the dictatorship for criminal and narcoterrorist groups that operate in Venezuela to try and attack Colombia,” he said, holding up a copy of a 128-page dossier. He pledged to turn over the evidence to the secretary-general of the U.N.

Maduro is playing a dangerous game on the Colombian border. His actions could provoke armed conflict—or allow an unplanned confrontation to spiral out of control.

Venezuela’s support for Colombian guerrillas and narcotraffickers is nothing new. But the issue has taken on an added urgency in recent weeks after two leading members of the largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—Jesús Santrich and Iván Márquez, who the United States says were still dealing in drugs in violation of the 2016 peace agreement—disappeared, only to resurface in a video declaring a new chapter in their war against the Colombian state. Colombian authorities say the video was filmed in Venezuela.

This was followed by a blockbuster report in the Bogotá weekly Semana citing a cache of secret Venezuelan documents it obtained to demonstrate how the Maduro regime collaborates with the FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN) to destabilize Colombia. One document reveals the location of personnel and camps of the ELN. Most alarmingly, another reveals the alliance between the Venezuelan military and intelligence services and the guerrillas to share information on Colombia’s strategic infrastructure, including government and military sites, ports, airports, bridges, and roads.

Given the fact that it was only this past January that the ELN claimed responsibility for a bombing at a police academy in Bogotá that killed at least 20 people and injured some 70 others, one can understand the Duque government’s increased consternation. Secretary-General António Guterres needs to speak out about the Maduro regime’s threat to regional peace and warn Russia, China, and Cuba about the repercussions of their unconditional support for Maduro.

Adding to the tensions, soon after the Semana report, the Maduro regime, awash in bad publicity, decided to launch military exercises involving some 150,000 military personnel along the Colombian border, claiming Venezuela was the one under threat of attack.

The Trump administration was quick to react, leaving no question as to where it stands in the matter. “Colombia’s allies will do everything possible to help one of the best allies we’ve had,” Carlos Trujillo, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, told reporters.

U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams was even more blunt. “If there are cross-border attacks from Venezuela to Colombia, we can expect Colombians to react,” he said. “And obviously, we would fully support Colombia in that situation.”

Maduro’s intentional provocations are only part of the problem. The Colombia-Venezuela border has become a lawless zone with so many armed gangs and other illegal groups crossing back and forth and preying on citizens of both nations that it is not difficult to conceive of either an accidental or spontaneous encounter with a Colombian military patrol that could lead to a much larger confrontation, especially if the illegal group attempts to cross into Venezuela seeking safe haven.

What if Colombia receives intelligence that an attack is being planned from Venezuelan territory? Both the FARC and ELN have a bloody history of targeting civilians and strategic infrastructure, including oil pipelines, with devastating consequences for the environment. In 2008, under President Álvaro Uribe, Colombia demonstrated it was willing to attack guerrilla groups finding refuge across the border when he ordered an attack on a FARC camp in Ecuador. If the Duque government believed a terrorist attack was imminent and sought to preempt it with a strike on guerrillas hiding out in Venezuela, it would likely be justified.

For the moment, however, the Duque government is right to present its complaints and evidence to the United Nations. Secretary-General António Guterres needs to speak out about the Maduro regime’s threat to regional peace and warn Russia, China, and Cuba about the repercussions of their unconditional support for Maduro. And the Trump administration must continue to leave no uncertainty that an attack on Colombia will meet an uncompromising response.

War would be a terrible outcome. But Maduro’s reckless support for efforts by illegal armed groups to torment and destabilize Colombia—a U.S. ally—only serves to increase the likelihood of conflict. It would not take a deliberate decision on his part to ignite a shooting war. Because he cannot control all the nefarious groups in the mix, it would only take an inadvertent spark or a brazen act by Colombian guerrilla groups to bring one about.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.