What if there was a shooting war less than three hours flight time from the U.S. and nobody heard about it?

For two months now, Venezuela has been locked in a nasty conflict along a portion of its vast border with Colombia. The tiny war is already generating the kinds of refugee flows and human rights abuses you associate with much bigger conflicts. There are reports of Venezuelan soldiers being taken hostage by Colombian rebels. And on Tuesday, the fighting appears to have claimed the life of one of Colombia’s most powerful rebel commanders, the dissident FARC leader Jesús Santrich, who was reportedly killed in murky circumstances in the area. Details are scarce, but the outlook is grim.

Let’s back up here. Who’s fighting whom, exactly? And why? It’s complicated. But here’s what we know.

For many years now, a wide constellation of Colombian rebel groups have been crossing the border into Venezuela. At first, they would set up makeshift camps to seek shelter from Colombian military operations. Little by little, those camps became permanent. Venezuela’s leftist government barely concealed its sympathy for many of the Colombian rebels, partly because they still use the phraseology of Marxist revolution even if they spend the bulk of their time trafficking in cocaine (and also gold, coltan, diamonds, fuel and weapons,) rather than creating socialist utopias.

These groups have been operating largely unhindered in Venezuela for two decades. It’s so entrenched now that some analysts don’t think the word “Colombian” really describes them anymore. They have become binational, Colombo-Venezuelan rebel groups. The ELN, for instance — the Cuban-backed rebel group that became Colombia’s largest following the peace deal with FARC — appears to have operations at least as large in Venezuela as in Colombia.

But it’s not just ELN. It’s a whole slew of armed groups attracted by the retreat of the Venezuelan state. Dissident offshoots of FARC that did not join or broke away from the 2015 peace agreement in Colombia are out there. So are the remnants of some right-wing self-defense groups now devoting themselves entirely to the drug business. Some criminal organizations are also active near the border with Brazil. Various branches of Venezuela’s notoriously corrupt security forces strike deals with many of the criminal groups and sometimes operate as their own drug trafficking and extortion cartels as well. There are a lot of guys with guns down there, so it was only a matter of time until someone started to use them.

Bear in mind that the border with Colombia is long: more than 1,300 miles. It’s also varied, ranging from the desert scrub lands off the Caribbean to Andean mountain sierras, cattle-ranching plains and down into the Amazon rainforest. The exact geometry of relations between different armed outfits shifts every 20 or 30 miles, making it tough to make a blanket statement that will hold for the whole border region. In some areas, Colombian rebels provide the rudiments of government authority to earn the goodwill of the locals; in others they are ruthlessly extractive and violent. Relationships between them are stabilized, for the most part, by everyone’s realization that open violence is bad for business.

But with a long, ungoverned border and profitable trafficking routes at stake, understandings are bound to break down now and again.

In late March, the Venezuelan military launched an offensive around the border town of La Victoria, in the Andes foothills of Venezuela’s Apure state. Attack planes dropped bombs on rebel positions and soldiers went house to house hunting down the enemy, or anyone suspected of aiding them.

According to locals fleeing the violence, the main enemy is one of the bigger FARC dissident groups, the 10th Front, Tamara Taraciuk Broner of Human Rights Watch told me in an interview. To be clear, she said, there’s nothing new about 10th Front activity at the border between Venezuela’s Apure state and Colombia’s Arauca department: They’ve been there for years. Another FARC offshoot, known as Nueva Marquetalia, also operates in the region, and may have been vying with the 10th Front for control of key trafficking routes.

One fine morning in early March, the shooting started. Why? Nobody knows for sure. There’s plenty of speculation that 10th Front leaders refused to pay the customary kickbacks to the Venezuelan military to be allowed to continue trafficking undisturbed. Others think that Nueva Marquetalia decided to make a play for their turf. Or perhaps it was something else altogether.

All the subsistence farmers who live on either side of the border know is that one day aircraft turned up dropping bombs and soldiers started going house to house roughing up people suspected of collaborating with the 10th Front. Now that Santrich, one of Nueva Marquetalia’s top leaders, is reportedly dead, violence is bound to intensify.

Human Rights Watch has documented murders of Venezuelan civilians that bear all the hallmarks of the types of human rights abuses the Venezuelan security forces are already being investigated for at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Reports of farmsteads being torched by Venezuelan soldiers and people being terrorized for suspected 10th Front links proliferate among the more than 5,800 Venezuelan refugees who bolted for the Colombian border, afraid for their lives.

Back in Caracas, President Nicolás Maduro is once again trying to entice the international community into mediating a dialogue with his domestic opponents to try to ease the sanctions pressure against his regime. That these offers are taking place as his government is actively committing massive human rights abuses on the Colombian borders should be on everyone’s mind.

It’s easy to forget that, before it became Washington political shorthand, the phrase “draining the swamp” referred precisely to the brutal counterinsurgency strategy the Venezuelan government is pursuing in Apure: terrorizing local civilians for the purpose of making them flee, making it impossible for guerrillas to shelter among them. It’s a crime against humanity.

Security analysts are obsessed with “ungoverned territories” — remote areas where no one government is clearly in charge. The war on the Apure-Arauca border is a case study in why. Authority abhors a vacuum. Where the state forfeits its role, irregular groups soon follow. But that solution isn’t stable. And when their rule breaks down, it’s regular people who pay the price.

Source: Washington Post