The soldiers came at night on motorbikes, in armoured cars and on the flatbeds of trucks, descending on La Victoria dressed in all black to “liberate” the humid jungle border town.
When they left, bodies of civilians were left strewn in the streets, in front yards and on rural scrubland – victims of a clumsy crackdown ordered by Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro.
The assault, carried out by Venezuela‘s shadowy special forces, was designed to halt the rise of a new Colombian militia muscling in on lucrative drug smuggling routes on Venezuelan soil.
Rising demand for cocaine in Europe is fuelling conflict – and apparent state-sponsored murder – here, more than 5,500 miles away from the bars and clubs in London, Madrid and Paris.
The Venezuelan military operation is its largest in decades and risks destabilising a region teeming with illegal armed groups and state security forces. It has also caught the eye of Joe Biden’s administration, with US spy planes circling.
One survivor of the Venezuelan attack told The Telegraph that armed men came in groups of ten, dressed in black uniforms in the dead of the night.
“One of them told us ‘we’ve come from Caracas and we’re bad b——-‘, then they started to push me and punch me,” the young man, who did not want to give his name, told The Telegraph.
He was one of the lucky ones, escaping with his life.
The next morning he joined thousands of residents who abandoned their homes and crossed the river to the Colombian town of Arauquita, where the UN is now dealing with a refugee crisis.
Mr Maduro sent his troops in to crush the Farc 10th Front, a splinter group that rejected the 2016 peace accord with the Colombian government.
For decades the Venezuelan government has tolerated the presence of Colombian guerrilla groups in its territory, with local security forces taking their cut of drug trafficking revenues.
But analysts believe the Farc 10th Front have refused to pay their dues, infuriating Mr Maduro.
In recent years the drugs corridor through Venezuela has become an increasingly lucrative option for narco-trafficking gangs.
“Increased cocaine production in Colombia and soaring street prices in Europe make Venezuela more attractive as a transit point, from which product can be shipped onwards to Europe through Guyana, Suriname or Brazil,” says Bram Ebus, a consultant for International Crisis Group.
According to research by Insight Crime, the wholesale price of a kilo of cocaine in Europe varies between £28,000 and £58,000 compared to up to £20,000 in the US.
Three weeks after the first attack the nearly 6,000 Apure residents who fled to the Arauquita region can still hear the sound of artillery fire and military helicopters on the other side of the river.
Most are scared to return to Venezuela and will not speak to the press for fear of reprisals. In Apure two local journalists and two NGO workers were detained for 24 hours before Diosdado Cabello, a prominent member of Maduro’s government, said media reporting from Apure would be considered “enemies”.
This apparently clumsy attempt to portray the dead as combatants serves to mask the real intention: to sow fear among civilians tempted to cooperate with the new guerilla group.
The Venezuelan military, unaccustomed to this type of guerilla operation, say they have lost eight soldiers to mines and ambushes and arrested dozens of suspected combatants including members of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.
UN anti-drugs agencies have confirmed the presence of the Mexican group as well as the Farc 10th Front in the border region normally dominated by the ELN guerrilla, a separate and rival group to the Farc.
The crisis threatens to escalate tensions between Colombia and Venezuela, who severed diplomatic ties in February 2019.
On an April 5 telephone call with Colombian president Ivan Duque, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised him for his “commitment to the reestablishment of democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela,” but steered clear of discussing Apure. Flight data shows that a US Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft took off from Lincoln, Nebraska, on 12 April and made several sweeps of the Colombian side of the border.
In Arauquita residents hoped that the signing of the 2016 peace accord with the Farc and the prospect of a similar process with the ELN might bring some respite after decades of conflicts between guerrilla, paramilitary and security forces.
“I have covered the conflict in Arauca for many years and have lost many friends during that time,” says Carmen Rosa Pabón, an award-winning local journalist, “now it seems it’s all repeating, there’s no exit, we’re living the same thing all over again.”
The conflict, meanwhile, shows little sign of abating.
“Tacit regional alliances between the Venezuelan military and the Colombian guerrillas are profit based,” says Ebus.
“That makes these partnerships very fragile. Frictions between the 10th Front and the Venezuelan army are not new, but the current armed encounter has got out of hand.
“There is no turning back and it is hard to see a possibility for both parties to reconcile.”