Updated: Oct 29, 2018
Venezuela reportedly mobilized military contingents to the Táchira state, near its border with Colombia, starting on September 25. The latest deployments are part of the “Operación Sentinela” which the government launched in August. According to official sources, the operation aims to combat organized crime, drug trafficking, and fuel smuggling in the border area. The government claims that illegal groups operating in the region run large contraband networks, trafficking merchandise and fuel from Venezuela to Colombia. Speaking at the United Nations on September 25, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence described Venezuela’s actions as a deliberate attempt to intimidate Colombia, adding that the U.S. stands with Bogota’s government.
The grievances expressed by the Venezuelan government in regards to criminal activity in its borders are to a great extent legitimate. In 2017 the Colombian military seized at least 100 million USD in contraband fuel from Venezuela. Taking into account the considerable gap between fuel prices in the two countries, trafficking constitutes a highly lucrative business which continues to finance armed groups, including Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) and “Los Pelusos”. That said, elements within the Venezuelan army are suspected of being involved in trafficking rings, hindering prospects of undermining illegal activities in the poorly controlled border at Táchira. Notwithstanding trafficking in the area, it is likely the Venezuelan government also deployed troops near Colombia’s border to display military strength, especially against the backdrop of surmounting tensions between Caracas and Bogota. Notable precedents include deployments to the Guyanese border in September 2015, and to the Colombian border in May 2017. While these actions tend to increase tensions in the region, military conflict is unlikely.