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OPINION The unknown story of Colombia’s campaign of military intervention in Venezuela

Based on the strategy of hybrid warfare, the Colombian state, working with US intelligence, has been carrying out covert military operations and targeted assassinations inside Venezuela, reports OLIVER DODD

LAST year in June I reported the targeted assassination of the communist Jesus Santrich in Venezuelan territory by mercenary commandos sent by the Colombian state.

In addition to being a charismatic spokesman for the Farc during the 2012-2016 peace talks, Santrich developed a reputation for his Marxist writings, poetry, music, and ... cartoons.

Near blind and forced to use a cane, Santrich emerged as one of the leaders of the reformed Farc-EP (Segunda Marquetalia — “Second Marquetalia Republic”) in 2019 after the Colombian state reneged on the 2016 peace agreement and stood indifferent in the face of the slaughter of peace signatories.  

Since the assassination of Santrich in May 2021, at least three more leaders of the Segunda Marquetalia have been assassinated in Venezuela by agents of the Colombian state.

Hernan Velasquez, Henry Castellanos and Miguel Botache were all killed in covert targeted assassinations by mercenaries.  

Like Santrich, each of the assassinated were formerly militants of the Young Communists (JuCo) and on Farc’s leadership for decades.

In addition to these four targeted killings in the space of a year, the current leader of Segunda Marquetalia, Ivan Marquez, survived, with minor wounds, an assassination attempt in Venezuela on June 30.

Marquez was the lead peace negotiator for the Farc during the 2012-2016 peace negotiations, but like Santrich and hundreds of others, he retook guerilla activities in 2019.

The US has placed a £8.9 million bounty on his head.  

In a video released shortly after the failed assassination attempt the son of Farc’s founder — Manuel Marulanda — attributed the attack to the Colombian state and US imperialism.  

Counter-insurgency planners believe that by neutralising the Segunda Marquetalia’s most experienced leadership at an early stage in the regeneration process it can provoke an existential crisis with the ranks of the organisation and prevent it from establishing deeper roots.

To avoid an outright war with Venezuela, they chose a hybrid warfare strategy of using small units of mercenaries to covertly assassinate Farc leaders.  

The Colombian state, including the former president Ivan Duque and his right-wing government, always denied any involvement in the attacks and blamed random criminal gangs.

Having spent time in Colombian guerilla territories and interviewed various communist guerilla fighters for my research, it is clear to me that these heavily protected and experienced guerilla leaders were not targeted by criminal gangs but highly trained commandos benefiting from US intelligence.

To selectively target highly protected guerilla leaders in territories under their control requires real-time information about the area, the entry and exit routes, the make-up of the civilian population. The idea that this was the work of random criminal gangs is fake news.

In early August 2022 this fake news narrative spread by the previous right-wing government of Colombia was conclusively exposed by one of the mercenaries involved.

Disgruntled because of the way he has been treated he came forward to cash in on the story — but only after the inauguration of Colombia’s new left-leaning president, Gustavo Petro.

Verified by Semana, Colombia’s most established and politically connected magazine, the assassin — a European — reveals that he alongside a group of Colombian and US mercenaries neutralised the Farc leaders in Venezuela with the support of the Colombian state and using US intelligence.  

Exactly as the Segunda Marquetalia reported in their official communications following the killing of Santrich in May 2021.

The mercenary also provided audio recording from the mission, unseen images of the camps, and videos of the attacks, including photos of the corpses of their victims, conclusively proving that the militants were indeed killed by agents sent by Colombia.

All the leaders assassinated in Venezuela had multimillion-dollar bounties placed on their heads by Colombia and the US and the mercenary — showing photos of the suitcases of money he received — admitted that the money was delivered by the US embassy in Bogota.

Furthermore, highly classified documents recently leaked anonymously confirm such pervasive covert operations inside Venezuelan territory.

Based on hundreds of classified documents, the Colombian magazine Raya has disclosed information about Colombian destabilisation actions against Venezuela, including invasion of territory and territorial waters and surveillance of political actors in Venezuela, including communist rebels.

As well as being involved in the attempted assassination of Nicolas Maduro in 2018 and the sabotage of electricity grids to foment panic in the lead up to a coup attempt, the Colombian state has a reputation for flouting the sovereignty of neighbouring countries.  

Former Farc leader Rodrigo Granda was drugged and kidnapped in Venezuelan capital Caracas in 2008 and transported to Colombian territory.

Similarly, John 40 — a current leading figure of the Segunda Marquetalia — experienced a similar fate, although in his case he was saved by guerilla units responding to the kidnapping. 

Regardless of results of the recent elections, the military and other repressive institutions still enjoy sweeping autonomy in confronting leftist movements and carrying out a dirty war.  

And with at least seven military bases situated across Colombian territory, including on the Venezuelan border, the US continues to enjoy massive influence within Colombia’s repressive apparatuses.

From these cross-border operations it is clear that, in pursuit of dissidents and guerillas, the Colombian state and their US backers have been willing to risk a full-fledged war with Venezuela. Even with a change of government following the election of Petro in early August, Colombia’s first social democratic president, it is too soon to say if these cross-border operations will cease.

Oliver Dodd is a journalist and doctoral candidate based at the National University in Bogota. He can be followed on Twitter @OliverCDodd.

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