Rastrojos Under Siege at Colombia-Venezuela Border

Latin America

The Colombian criminal group Los Rastrojos is fighting a two-front war: against ELN guerrillas looking to usurp the group’s highly profitable operations along the border with Venezuela, and against Venezuelan security forces that have been targeting them. 

A suspected Los Rastrojos drug processing and contraband fuel operation in Boca de Grita, in the border state of Táchira, was dismantled by Venezuelan authorities in mid-February, the news outlet La FM reported

About the same time, National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and Los Rastrojos engaged in a series of gun battles, including two that were caught on video. That violent conflict led about 1,000 Venezuelan migrants to flee across the border to the Colombian municipality of Puerto Santander, VOA news reported.

SEE ALSO: Los Rastrojos News and Profile

About a month later, on March 8, the bodies of eight suspected members of the Rastojos were found in a village in the border department of Cúcuta. ELN guerrillas allegedly shot dead the gang members in the municipality of Ayacucho in Venezuela, and then tossed their bodies in a ditch on the Colombian side of the border, Semana reported.

Residents had earlier told InSight Crime that they had seen members of the ELN in uniforms who said they were searching for Los Rastrojos members. 

Cúcuta-based news outlet La Opinión reported that efforts to oust Los Rastrojos appear to be led by Freddy Bernal, a leading Venezuelan official named as the “Protector of Táchira” by President Nicolás Maduro.

On March 10, Bernal announced on Twitter that 37 members of the group had been captured. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Los Rastrojos’ entrenchment in the Venezuela-Colombia border has given the gang control over the remote trails through which contraband, drugs, and people are moved. But its grip on the lucrative proceeds from such smuggling has seemingly been weakened as it tries to fend off both the ELN and Venezuelan security forces.

The ELN and Venezuelan security forces have seemingly found a common enemy in Los Rastrojos. Bernal, in particular, has posted regularly on Twitter about operations against the group, calling them “terrorists” and claiming the group is on its last legs.

President Nicolás Maduro has long used the presence of Colombian paramilitary groups as an excuse to crack down on the border.

The ELN’s attacks on the Rastrojos may indicate that the guerrillas are trying to gain favor with the Venezuelan government, while increasing its presence in Táchira state, local opposition party member Karim Vera told InSight Crime

The ELN appears to be moving more fighters to the border region, mobilizing members of the Carlos Germán Velasco Villamizar Front in Cúcuta, under the leadership of alias “Julián” or “Rolo,” a Colombian army source told La Opinión.

The source added that other ELN fronts are supporting this move: The Domingo Laín Sáez Front in the Venezuelan state of Arauca, and the Juan Fernando Porras Martínez Front in the Catatumbo in Colombia.

Though battered, Los Rastrojos say they are not in a fight for their lives. 

Alleged Rastrojos leader alias “Mario” told La Opinión that “we want it to be known that we are not as public security forces say (…) supposedly sandwiched (cornered) by the ELN. Know that we continue to be a force and remain in the fight.” 

SEE ALSO: Crime Groups Win in Colombia – Venezuela Border Closure

During recent visits to Boca de Grita, InSight Crime investigators documented the extent of Los Rastrojos’ control over the border town. Since a partial border shut down in Tachira state in 2015, the group has come to charge for the use of hidden roads and paths.

According to on-the-ground sources at the international bridge in Boca de Grita, the Rastrojos, also known locally as “La Empresa” (The Company), charge each person crossing 1,000 pesos ($0.25).

The groups also charges a toll to cars that arrive at Boca de Grita. Local residents told InSight Crime each car must pay 2,000 Colombian pesos ($0.50), with about 3,000 cars arriving each day. And despite Bernal’s crackdown, this continues to occur “with the knowledge of the GNB, which doesn’t do anything,” said one of the sources interviewed.

While Los Rastrojos have their foothold in Boca de Grita and the neighboring trails, the group will be difficult to dislodge.

The group is in a precarious position, as the ELN continues to gain strength on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border. What’s more, speculation that a massacre in Boca de Grita in July 2019 was caused by a rift between two Rastrojos commanders may only precipitate the group’s fragmentation at a time when it is under siege.

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