EXCLUSIVE About 1,900 Colombian guerrillas operating from Venezuela say Colombian military chief

Commander of the Colombian Military Forces, General Luis Fernando Navarro, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Bogota, Colombia, September 29, 2021. REUTERS / Camilo Cohecha

BOGOTA, September 30 (Reuters) – About 1,900 fighters belonging to Colombian rebels and criminal groups operate from Venezuela, where they plan attacks and participate in drug trafficking, said the head of Colombia’s armed forces.

The Colombian government has long said Venezuela’s leadership is granting safe haven to Colombian armed groups, allowing trade in cocaine in exchange to reduce profits.

But this is the first time the military has given a figure for the number it believes operates from the neighboring country.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has denied that Venezuela has provided a safe haven for drug traffickers. But he has expressed sympathy for the left-wing ideology of the rebels and openly welcomed some guerrilla leaders.

About half of the 2,350 known combatants from the rebel group National Liberation Army (ELN) are in Venezuela, along with about a third of the 2,400 fighters belonging to dissident groups from former FARC guerrillas who reject a 2016 peace agreement, General Luis Fernando Navarro told Reuters late Wednesday.

“In total, in the (Venezuelan) states of Zulia, Tachira, Apure and the Amazon, we estimate that there may be between 1,100 and 1,200 criminals from the ELN and about 700 from the FARC dissidents,” Navarro said.

“It is a factor of instability that the strategic rearguard for these structures is in Venezuelan border states. This obviously makes it difficult to fight them,” Navarro said, accusing the Venezuelan armed forces of not pursuing the groups.

The Venezuelan government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.

Colombia’s internal conflict has stretched for nearly 60 years, leading to more than 260,000 deaths.

Although the demobilization of some 13,000 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) under the 2016 agreement led to a reduction in violence, some areas have experienced renewed fighting such as dissidents, ELNs and crime gangs stemming from right-wing paramilitary fighting for territory .

Violence often crosses the border. In Venezuela’s northwestern Zulia, a local government and a major employer paid villagers, including children, to man drug operations, extortion rackets and illegal gold mines, a Reuters report found earlier this year.

About 80 Venezuelans are fighting for FARC dissident groups, Navarro said, and about 180 for the ELN.

Commanders from the dissident group Segunda Marquetalia, including former peace negotiator Ivan Marquez, Hernan Dario Velasquez and Henry Castellanos live in Venezuela, he said, as did ELN leader Gustavo Anibal Giraldo, known by his alias Pablito.

The groups attack targets in Colombia and then melt across the border to avoid authorities, Navarro said.

A FARC dissident group has claimed responsibility for two incidents in June – a car bomb at a military base in the border town of Cucuta that injured dozens, and the shooting of a helicopter with President Ivan Duque.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

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