It is Sunday in Betania Topocho, a community inhabited by 1,200 Indigenous Piaroa people, some 40 kilometers north of the capital of Amazonas, Puerto Ayacucho. It is ten o'clock in the morning and the villagers are dressed and groomed to congregate in the nearby evangelical church.
In recent years, the small village has been given a disproportionate political and strategic value. During the governments of the late Hugo Chávez — years of oil bonanza and waste — Betania Topocho became an unofficial pilot center for the regime's social programs. Its inhabitants were benefited with a pineapple processing plant, a community radio, an ambulatory clinic, a high school, buses, community wifi and credits for economic and social enterprises.
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But since then, once the Venezuelan state had abandoned it, the community became a center of operations for Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN). Up to three large camps of the guerrilla group are located just five kilometers from the community.
Betania Topocho is a crossroads. It is located very close to the mouth of the Apure River in the Orinoco, right at the vertex where the borders of three Venezuelan states, Amazonas, Apure and Bolivar, coincide with the Colombian Vichada. This wedge offers a strategic vantage point to the ELN, whose traditional stronghold was the state of Apure, in the area of Los Llanos, neighboring the Colombian department of Arauca, but which from there moved to the Orinoco jungle to fill the vacuum left by the official FARC when it gave in to the peace process.
From Betania Topocho, the entrances and exits of a closed area controlled by the Colombian guerrillas, the ELN and the new FARC dissidents are controlled. It covers four of the seven municipalities of Amazonas state — Atures, Autana, Manapiare and Atabapo — as well as areas of neighboring Bolivar and Apure states. All are areas where mining activity thrives or drug routes pass through.
J.S.G. has lived all his life in Betania Topocho, a community founded in 1977. He says that the ELN's first contact with the community occurred in 2017. Then, the commander Don Diego met with the villagers to inform that the guerrillas were settling there and that, in compensation, they would offer protection and economic support to the locals.
This Sunday, when he appears before the reporter, J.S.G. is wearing a short-sleeved white shirt, black suit pants and black dress shoes, perfectly polished: it is the attire for going to mass. In fact, he explains that he was not present because he had gone to church. But he has returned with enough courage to affirm: "For nobody it is a secret that the government works with them, for us the government is responsible for all this."
"The majority of the community rejected them (…) but the captain or cacique of the community accepted them, all in exchange for a motorcycle. The irregulars have even gone so far as to say that the land they are on belongs to them, that they bought it from the community," he adds.
With the permission of the local captain, the irregulars stayed and controlled the underground economy in the area. On the other hand, if any aid was granted, its effects are not noticeable.
According to the National Survey of Living Conditions (ENCOVI), conducted by the Institute of Economic and Social Research of the Catholic University Andrés Bello (UCAB) of Caracas and published in 2020, the state of Amazonas is the poorest entity in the country. The study found 71% extreme poverty and 92% general poverty. The precarious environment pushes the inhabitants into the informal economy and into a relationship of dependence, marked by resignation or fear, with those who manage the illicit businesses.
Betania Topocho, which does not escape that reality, is attached to the Atures municipality of Amazonas state, a jurisdiction that also includes Puerto Ayacucho, the state capital.
In 2016, an unprecedented wave of violence shook Puerto Ayacucho. That year there were 214 violent deaths in the small city of just over 100,000 inhabitants. Two years earlier, in 2014, the figure had been just 38 violent deaths.
The explosion of violence that year was nothing more than the gravitational effect with which the recent approach of the ELN made itself felt in the city. For its inhabitants, local authorities and social organizations, it was a campaign of "social prophylaxis" undertaken by the pata'e goma, a nickname the people assigned to the guerrillas because of the rubber boots they usually wear.
Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López spoke of "paramilitary groups that intend to operate in our territory," but did not mention the ELN as responsible.
The elenos, as they are also known, left a bloody trail as a record of their passage, but no one seemed to see them. Until in 2017 they showed themselves openly in Betania Topocho. In November 2018, neighbors in the El Escondido 3 neighborhood of Puerto Ayacucho were surprised to learn that Luis Felipe Ortega Bernal, Garganta, head of the ELN's José Daniel Pérez Front, was staying in a house in the locality. There he was captured by agents of the Bolivarian National Guard.
On the same day in November 2018, a Venezuelan military helicopter landed in the vicinity of the Indigenous community Picatonal, located on the northern road axis, which connects Amazonas state with Bolivar and Apure. The reconnaissance mission, which also included troops transported by land, was following the trail of an ELN camp.
Indeed, the guerrillas had been established in the area since 2013. L.A.R., a teacher at the Picatonal elementary school, recalls with precision that the irregulars held a meeting with the community on December 18, 2013 to announce their arrival. At the meeting, several villagers refused to accept the presence of the guerrillas, an unsuccessful protest, as the guerrillas stayed. However, the ELN dedicated itself to a certain degree of coexistence with the neighbors, buying crops from them, contracting them for some works, and even exercising functions of public order and justice that the absent State denied them.
During the patrol conducted in November 2018, the military contingent was ambushed by guerrillas. In the skirmish, three Venezuelan military personnel were killed and ten others were wounded.
Following the two events of the day, General Vladimir Padrino López, Minister of Defense in Nicolás Maduro's cabinet since 2014, bellowed from Caracas: "Paramilitary groups that intend to operate in our territory (…) armed groups, whatever they call themselves (...) get out of Venezuela."
But the ELN did not seem to feel alluded to by Padrino López's warning. In fact, the Venezuelan military officer did not explicitly name the group in his statements.
Nor did the fact that Garganta, the guerrilla leader captured in Puerto Ayacucho, was released on December 20, 2020 after two years of confinement in the Military Police headquarters in Fuerte Tiuna, Caracas, help to dissuade the ELN.
This is how the stain spread
Like an oil slick, the perimeter of control of the Colombian guerrilla groups has been extending throughout the state of Amazonas until reaching its northern border. It was a gradual and stealthy advance from its first positions, which took years. While the ELN took the northern road axis, which connects Puerto Ayacucho with Apure state, the FARC, since they had not been demobilized, penetrated from the south.
With all the secrecy they could muster, however, they knew they were going to run into the native communities. Faced with them, both the ELN and the FARC adopted a similar tactic that they often implemented in a coordinated manner. They would send emissaries as a vanguard to agree as far as possible with the Indigenous inhabitants, to whom they offered protection and security.
The Organización Indígena Piaroas Unidos del Sipapo (Oipus) presented a copy of an invitation signed by members of the FARC-EP, dated May 14, 2013, in which they called for a meeting with the Indigenous communities to discuss their presence in Autana, a municipality in the south of Atures and bordering the Colombian department of Vichada.
"On date [sic], 15/05/2013, was when for the first time an invitation was received claiming to be FARC guerrillas, who requested in the meeting, authorization in the Alto Sipapo sector, which was rejected from its first moment, they never left the place," read the communiqué signed by Oipus.
It was one of the first documentary records of the guerrilla advance.
Since then, the Colombian guerrillas have completely occupied the Autana municipality, where they control illegal mining and drug trafficking. The discovery of two clandestine airstrips confirms this on the ground today: one in the Baquiro hamlet, located on the banks of the Sipapo River, and another between the communities of San Pedro and Caño Grulla, on the banks of the Orinoco River.
Isla del Carmen de Ratón, a river island in the Orinoco, is the capital of the Autana municipality. On the left bank of the river, already in Colombian territory, is Carlos Lata, historical fief of the FARC's 16th Front and of one of its most renowned leaders, Tomás Medina Caracas, alias El Negro Acacio, killed in 2007 during a bombing. Not only Carlos Lata, but the entire surrounding municipality of Cumaribo in the department of Vichada, became a guerrilla stronghold, while coca cultivation and drug trafficking developed in the region.
Although Colombia's internal conflict ended in 2016, that did not put an end to the rule of irregulars in Vichada. According to Indigenous organizations, cocaine still enters from the Carlos Lata sector, which is guarded by the so-called FARC dissidents, through a route that follows Isla del Carmen de Ratón, and crosses the municipality from southwest to northeast, up the Cuao River, to the sector known as Janacome, on the border with Manapiare, a municipality in Amazonas state that in turn borders with Bolivar state.
Near Janacome, using satellite images, this journalistic project was able to detect a clandestine airstrip and three emerging mines.
Lissa Pérez, president of the Indigenous women's organization Cherejume of the Manapiare municipality, witnessed the arrival of the guerrillas in 2016. According to her account, she saw the guerrilla camps in the neighboring Cedeño municipality of Bolívar state when she traveled to Sabana Cardoza, an Indigenous town located on the borders of the Orinoco Mining Arc. In fact, with his family he traveled through the same trail used by the irregulars. "The road was opened and adapted for four-wheel drive vehicles," he said. Nearby are the remains of a road inaugurated in the 1970s but later abandoned, which runs from San Juan de Manapiare, in Amazonas state, to Caicara del Orinoco, in Bolivar state. Now miners and guerrillas use the asphalt thread.
The FARC clamp
In August 2021, south of Puerto Ayacucho, in the hamlet of Límón de Parhueña, Piaroa delegations gather to compete in a soccer championship. Football is the favorite sport of the Piaroa nation. The occasion is propitious to talk to B.C. He does not live in the locality, but came to visit from San Pablo, in the Cataniapo river basin, not far from Puerto Ayacucho, where the Huöttöja people, a division of the Piaroa, live. He is a member of the United Huöttöja People's Organization of Cataniapo (OPUHC) and, perhaps more importantly, he carries on his laptop a video that proves how a group of FARC dissident guerrillas occupied the region in December 2020.
Upon their arrival, the guerrillas requested a meeting with the inhabitants, which was held in the community of Las Pavas, on the banks of the Cataniapo. The recording captures part of that meeting.
"A commander who identified herself as Yuleinis said that they are there to help us solve the problems we had, not to use drugs, but most of us rejected them, some said they wanted to plant coca," B.C. recounts.
There was a second meeting in the same community, but led by another commander, apparently of higher rank, who called himself Chachi. He explained that they were in Venezuelan territory with the objective of "defending them from North American imperialism that comes to steal their wealth," as well as to carry out community projects such as schools.
Despite the peaceful nature of the Piaroa, their resistance to the guerrilla presence was firm. A group of 700 inhabitants marched against the invaders, but this only served to make the irregulars move their camp some 22 kilometers further, to the Culebra sector. According to what the Indigenous people have been able to learn, there are about 100 people living in the camp, who have a radio transmitter, antennas, two cars, several motorcycles and a small liquor store.
B.T. points to José Bolívar, councilman and Indigenous representative before the Municipal Chamber of the Atures municipality, as the authority who gave explicit permission to the guerrillas to stay in that zone of the Cataniapo basin. He also assures that some members of the Merey Indigenous community agreed to work with the outsiders.
"It also happens that there is no transportation here, so the guerrillas pass by and offer to take you, so they go about convincing people; buying the harvest, giving away footballs," he laments.
Somewhat further south, but still in the Atures municipality, the irregulars also came to the communities of Platanillal and Rueda. First, to buy the cassava, plantain and pineapple crops; then, to camp; finally, around 2018, they summoned both communities to a meeting to announce that they were settling in the territory. E.R., a teacher in the area, says that, however, "they only stayed for two weeks and then withdrew."
The Ye'kwana, too
It has not been just the Piaroa. The Ye'kwana people, formerly known as Makiritare, are also on the front line of the guerrilla incursion.
In 2017, alias Ruperto, a commander of FARC dissidents, arrived with five other fighters in the community of Puerto Union, in Ye'kwana territory in Amazonas state.
A member of the Kuyunu Indigenous organization — who requested to keep his identity confidential — recalls the meeting: "They told us that they had a supposed agreement with Chávez, they showed us a paper with a supposed authorization from Chávez, of course, we have no way of knowing if it was true or false."
During those days, and according to the records of the Kuyunu organization, the guerrillas also visited the communities of Sabanita and Cacurí, both also located in the municipality of Manapiare in the northern part of the State of Amazonas.
The insurgents requested space to build camps and use a route that passes through Valle Guanay and connects Manapiare with Caura National Park, in Bolivar State. Not by chance, a couple of years later, between 2020 and 2021, dissident FARC troops appeared on the banks of the Caura River and evicted the representatives of the criminal gangs known as syndicates to take over the gold mines in the area, as described in the second installment of this series.
The presence of the irregulars in the municipality of Manapiare, a historic Ye'kwana territory, is notorious between the Orinoco and Atabapo rivers, a super water highway that borders the Yapacana National Park, where the largest gold mining center in Amazonas is concentrated. There, the guerrillas control the territory and impose their law.
Origin of a current conflict
Colombia's oldest guerrilla group, the FARC, is also the Colombian subversive group with the longest continuous presence in the territory of the Venezuelan state of Amazonas. It has been there for at least 20 years. This presence was not a product of chance: it corresponded to an even earlier strategic decision, adopted at the eighth conference of the organization, held in April 1993 in the Colombian department of Guaviare. There, the high command designed a war economy plan to diversify its finances and a possible tactical withdrawal to other countries, including Venezuela.
The structure that was officially charged with consolidating the insurgents' presence in Amazonas state was the Acacio Medina Front, founded in 2012 on the banks of the San Miguel river, in the Maroa municipality in the southwest of the state. It was named in homage to Negro Acacio, and it was actually organized on the basis of the former 16th Front — part of the FARC's Eastern Bloc — that the legendary guerrilla commanded.
Since the creation of this unit, Géner García Molina, John 40, has been its commander. A ward of El Negro Acacio, grandson of Roque Molina, alias El Diablo — one of the peasants who in the 1960s took up arms alongside Manual Marulanda Velez, Tirofijo, to give birth to the FARC in Marquetalia, in the Department of Tolima — was key to the financial support of the guerrillas through cocaine trafficking.
In 2016, as part of the discussions that led to the peace agreement between the guerrillas and the Colombian government, Garcia Molina left the negotiating table along with Miguel Santanilla Botache, alias Gentil Duarte, Ernesto Orjuela Tovar, alias Giovanni Chuspas, and Nestor Gregorio Vera Fernandez, alias Ivan Mordisco. The breakup marked the birth of the so-called FARC dissidents, a nomenclature that groups together the archipelago of factions that decided to continue the struggle.
Subsequently, in 2019, once the peace agreement was signed and the consequent demobilization of the insurgent troops consummated, three of its most conspicuous leaders, Luciano Martín or alias Iván Márquez, until then number two of the FARC and who had been a member of the negotiating team of the treaty in Havana, together with Seuxis Paucias Hernández, alias Jesús Santrich, and Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias El Paisa, announced in a video "the continuation of the guerrilla struggle," and their decision to "return to the bush." Intelligence agencies and the media understood that by "the bush" the guerrilla leaders were alluding to Venezuela, where they could count on the consent, if not the support, of Maduro's regime.
Since then, Jesús Santrich and El Paisa have been assassinated in Venezuela, in circumstances not yet fully clarified.
But Iván Márquez is still active. He appeared in videos together with John 40. Both are presented as leaders of the Second Marquetalia, one of the factions grouped with the FARC dissidents, which inherited and even expanded the domains of the former Acacio Medina Front, especially in Venezuela.
Another former Acacio Medina commander, Miguel Santanilla Botache, alias Gentil Duarte, leads a group within the string of dissident gangs that has been fighting the Second Marquetalia for months to take over their territories and rents. The internal dispute unleashed open hostilities that reached Apure state and involved the Venezuelan Armed Forces, claiming dozens of lives.
There was also a bombing in Amazonas. The attack was not only an irrefutable proof, the most recent one, of the Colombian guerrilla presence in the Venezuelan Orinoco, but also of the fact that, after years of advances in their incursions and generally coordinated actions, these armed groups bring to Venezuela their territorial and commercial, rather than ideological, quarrels.
(*) This is the third installment of the "Corredor Furtivo" series, researched and published simultaneously by Armando.info and El País, with the support of the Pulitzer Center's Rainforest Investigations Network and the Norwegian organization EarthRise Media.
Jorge Luis Cortés, Cristian Hernández, Cristian Hernández, Javier Lafuente, Ewald Scharfenberg, Guiomar del Ser, Fernando Hernández, Ana Fernández, Eliezer Budasoff, Alejandro Gallardo, Luis Sevillano, Ignacio Catalán, Vanessa Pan, Yeilys Márquez and Pablo Rodríguez participated in the design, programming and assembly of the algorithm, map, research and editing.
(**) This report quotes testimonies from personal sources whose names are transcribed only as initials, even if they did not explicitly request the confidentiality of their names. The editorial staff of Armando.info decided to do so in order to avoid possible reprisals from the armed groups against these sources. When the names are not presented in this way, they are sources who have already been identified in previous publications.