Earlier this year the ELN (National Liberation Army of Colombia), a far-left Colombian terrorist group, killed 29 innocent people and wounded 68 more in a vehicle bomb suicide attack on the Police Academy in Bogota, Colombia’s capital. The ELN is a vicious organisation dedicated to perpetuating armed conflict in Colombia, and it is alleged to be backed by Venezuela as part of the Maduro regime’s efforts to use state-sponsored terrorism as a political tool.
The ELN is a Marxist organisation that was founded in 1964 by Colombian rebels trained in Cuba. Today, the ELN leadership is based partly in Cuba, partly in Venezuela. According to Colombian General Luis Fernando Navarro, 45% of the ELN (over 1,000 of the 2,300 ELN guerrillas) is based on Venezuelan soil with the active support and encouragement of the Maduro regime. The Colombian authorities also allege that on Maduro’s orders Venezuelan soldiers have trained the ELN in the use of heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles, specifically the Russian-manufactured IGLA surface-to-air missile system. Such weapons are extremely dangerous in the hands of terrorists, because they are most effective against soft targets like commercial airliners.
Maduro’s support for the rebels goes beyond simply providing haven and training for terrorist activities. The ELN has a strong presence in 12 of Venezuela’s 24 states, and it uses Venezuela as a base for wider criminal operations, including drug smuggling, illegal mining, kidnapping, extortion and petrol smuggling. The ELN actually exercises social control in some parts of Apure State, acting as a de facto state power that maintains some kind of order and charges ‘taxes’. The Maduro regime has even entrusted it with the task of distributing subsidised food boxes. Maduro and his cronies personally benefit from the ELN’s criminality, primarily through co-operation in drug smuggling and illegal mining.
However, outspoken Chavista support for Colombian terrorists is nothing new. It was Hugo Chavez himself who allowed the FARC, then Colombia’s biggest terrorist group, to operate inside Venezuela with impunity. Chavez backed FARC to the hilt: when Venezuelan Lieutenant Colonel José Humberto Quintero captured FARC leader Ricardo González; it was the Lieutenant Colonel whom Chavez jailed. The full details were discovered when Colombian forces raided a FARC safehouse in Ecuador in 2008 and captured the laptop of FARC Deputy Leader Raul Reyes. The laptop contained 37,000 files detailing Chavez’s support, which included a gift of $250m to purchase weapons. Reyes’s emails described secret meetings with Chavez as early as 2000, in which Chavez offered FARC financial support and access to weapons. Moreover, Chavez started the process of Colombian terrorists using Venezuela to smuggle cocaine to the US and Europe. In 2008 the International Crisis Group estimated that between a third to a half of Colombia’s drug production passed through Venezuela.
Chavista sponsorship of terrorist groups has not been limited to Latin America. Chavez’s close partnership with Iran led to support of Middle Eastern terrorists. Already sheltering Hezbollah terrorists, on the 22nd of August 2010 Chavez gathered senior leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) at a secret conference in his military intelligence headquarters at Fuerte Tiuna. Attendees included Islamic Jihad Secretary General Ramadan Abdullah Mohammad Shallah, (on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists); Hamas’s “supreme leader”, Khaled Meshal; and Hezbollah’s “chief of operations”.
A variety of activities followed, including the establishment of terrorist training camps on Venezuela’s Margarita Island, where Iranians trained operatives from a variety of groups. Under Maduro this cooperation has expanded further. In particular, Minister for Industries Tareck El-Aissami has become deeply involved with Hezbollah, according to secret files recently leaked to the New York Times. “Hezbollah maintains facilitation networks throughout the region that cache weapons and raise funds, often via drug trafficking and money laundering", according to the U.S. Southern Command's Admiral Craig Faller.
The Chavista regime’s prolonged support for state-sponsored terrorism undermines the idea on the left that Venezuela is a state is being bullied by outsiders. Instead it suggests it is actively siding with groups which spread misery and strife around the world. The Chavista regime hides behind a shroud of legitimacy, but it is being pulled back and what we find is all too revealing.