Keys to Jesús Santrich’s Assassination in Venezuela

Danna Urdaneta

To Jesús Santrich
the neo-baroque poet and communicator admired by the Venezuelan people
the Marxist thinker who gave his life for peace with social justice for Colombia.

Jesús Santrich’s assassination in Venezuela on May 17, 2021, constituted a serious violation of national sovereignty by the United States and Colombia. Despite blankets of silence being imposed by governments on both sides of the Colombo-Venezuelan border, contradictory versions of the events have come to light.

As was to be expected, press outlets associated with [hard-right former Colombian President] Álvaro Uribe claimed that Santrich’s death came as the result of a confrontation between illegal gangs and/or with the [dissident FARC-EP] guerrillas led by Gentil Duarte.

On the other hand, in an official war report, the [remobilized guerrilla movement to which Santrich belonged] FARC-EP Segunda Marquetalia denounced an “ambush carried out by Colombian Army commandos (…) on the direct orders of [Colombian] President Iván Duque” to assassinate a blind man that they were unable to capture alive.

Duque had previously responded to the constitution of the FARC-EP Segunda Marquetalia on August 29, 2019, on the same day offering an almost US $800,000 reward for the capture of [FARC-EP Segunda Marquetalia leaders] Jesús Santrich, Iván Márquez and other guerrilla leaders. On June 18, 2020, then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also offered US $10 million for information that led to the capture of the guerrilla leader. In this way, the true objective of the dispute – the imperialist penetration of Venezuela – can be seen to be disguised by the fight against transnational terrorism discourse.

The excuses are “transnational threats,” the target is oil

On February 8, 2021, Duque announced the creation of a new ‘Commando Unit against Drug Trafficking and Transnational Threats’ (CONAT) from Tolemaida (largest US military base in Colombia). CONAT was to be made up of 7,000 men and women from the Army, a specialized body dedicated to liquidate “any transnational form of terrorism.” That is to say, the top leaders of the communist guerrillas. This elite commando unit began to operate in May.

Duque took advantage of the CONAT’s inauguration to threaten Venezuela for allegedly protecting “terrorists.” In response, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro denounced that five paramilitary camps in Colombia looked to overthrow the Bolivarian government at an international press conference. He added:

I wish there would be an independent investigation one day, because we have given the coordinates, we have revealed the names. And we have much more [evidence], we are going to bring it out at any time (…). Hopefully, Duque will take his role as president seriously and protect the Colombian border. He announces a special commando unit… How many commandos have they created in seventy years? And all have failed.

Santrich’s death in the binational strip of the Sierra de Perijá in Venezuela’s Zulia state constitutes a serious violation of Venezuelan sovereignty by the US and Colombia, who infiltrated an elite commando unit directed by General Eduardo Zapateiro and Duque himself. The commandos were extracted in a yellow helicopter bound for Colombia and apparently entered and left Venezuelan territory without being detected.

The war report presented by the FARC-EP Segunda Marquetalia confirms that the CONAT constitutes the vanguard of an invading army led by the Pentagon to intervene in Venezuela and seize its oil. This comes in addition to its official objective: fighting drug trafficking and persecuting insurgencies.

This military action is yet another escalation by the United States. It looks to test the operational capacity of the Venezuelan Armed Forces against any intervention aiming, for example, to take control of the eastern coast of Maracaibo Lake. This lake is where one of the most productive oil basins in the world in the 20th Century is located and is just a few kilometers from the site where Santrich was murdered. As such, it is impossible to speak of the social and armed conflict from a binational perspective without mentioning the dynamics of displacement and state abandonment on the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

Dynamics of the binational strip

Santrich’s assassination took place in one of the hardest-hit regions of the country in terms of the decline of public services, but also one of the most affected by the migration crisis.

The dynamics of the Catatumbo binational strip, to the south of the Sierra de Perijá, has been described by Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office as follows:

Border transit for campesino and indigenous communities has formed part of the economic, social and cultural dynamics since before the creation of nation-states, as well as being a survival strategy for the population since the incursion of paramilitaries in the region at the end of the 1990s. As the violence intensified, a self-protection mechanism has been to move their villages to Venezuelan territory and then back again.

Sierra de Perijá National Park in the white circle. (Researchgate)Sierra de Perijá National Park in the white circle. (Researchgate)

Jesús Santrich found himself in a region where the population is binational: displaced from the conflict and poverty in Colombia and finding a place to live on the Venezuelan side, just as in recent years those displaced by capitalism in Venezuela have made their home in Colombia.

In this remote region of Venezuela, schools are improvised and it is common for rural teachers to be displaced and undocumented Colombian women. There are no local Cuban Medical Mission facilities, babies are born with midwives, often without a birth certificate or identity card. This year I heard an official from the region say “The Bolivarian Revolution has not arrived here.” In this context, government silence persists and stately reasons prevail in Venezuela regarding the death of Santrich.

The silence of the Venezuelan government and peoples’ diplomacy

If the Venezuelan government were to publicly confirm Santrich’s death in Venezuela, it would have been trapped between the following accusations:

a) “It is verified that drug criminals are sheltering in Venezuela” as stated by Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano on May 18, 2021,

b) The [Caracas] government was permissive or complicit in his death,

c) The Venezuelan State is unable to defend its sovereignty.

Uribe, [former Ecuadorian president] Rafael Correa and Hugo Chávez set a precedent for the handling of these war scenarios. On March 1, 2008, in Sucumbíos, Ecuador, FARC-EP commander Raúl Reyes was assassinated defenseless after his camp was bombed (also in a binational zone between Colombia and Ecuador). The event generated a diplomatic crisis that caused the rupture of relations between these countries and the mobilization of Ecuadorian and Venezuelan troops to their respective borders with Colombia.

On March 7, 2008, at the Rio Group’s XX Summit, Chávez took the opportunity to promote a dialogue-based solution to the Reyes conflict and narrated his military experience regarding how the Colombian conflict was understood as a common conflict of both countries in the past. It is worth adding to this that the socioeconomic census of ex-FARC-EP combatants carried out by the National University of Colombia in 2017 showed that Venezuela is the country that has contributed most internationalist fighters to the Colombian guerrilla struggle with a total of 54. This does not include those who died with dignity in combat or were not tallied.

At the crossroads that the murder of Santrich has generated, the international Right intentionally “forgets” that any official admission by the Venezuelan government that the death occurred in its territory would also be confirmation that Colombia violated Venezuelan sovereignty and would force Bogotá to answer serious questions.

Faced with the Apure conflict, the position assumed by Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López has been based on the argument that the presence of Colombian irregular groups in Venezuela is a violation of the country’s sovereignty. This approach completely denies the fact that foreign policy towards Colombia has always been that of a dialogue-based solution to the conflict.

During the Caracas Dialogues (1991), the Simón Bolívar Coordinating Group and Colombian President César Gaviria officially met twice in the Venezuelan capital. In other words, former [Venezuelan] President Carlos Andrés Pérez turned the country into neutral territory to seek a way out of the Colombian war. Likewise, former President Rafael Caldera was also criticized on more than one occasion for having a FARC-EP office in Caracas.

This foreign policy logic has its counterpart in the popular movement and political parties of the Chavista and Venezuelan left. Peoples’ diplomacy paid tribute to the revolutionary leader Santrich via a Twitter storm on May 18, 2021, using the tags #JesúsSantrich and #ColombiaResiste. In Venezuela, these tags trended nationally thanks to the push of the Communist Party (PCV) and all the political forces grouped in the Popular Revolutionary Alternative (APR).

On May 27, Venezuelan organizations also celebrated the International Day of the Peoples’ Right to Armed Rebellion in the Manuel Marulanda Square in Caracas’ 23 de Enero parish. This activity was another tribute to the murdered guerrilla leader. Once again, in the face of the Venezuelan government’s silence over the assassination, the people imposed their diplomacy. Expressions of the rank and file of the United Socialist Party (PSUV), the PCV and the APR that join forces in the Continental Bolivarian Movement came together to express their solidarity and camaraderie with the guerrilla organization.

Apart from the murder of Santrich, there have been other cases of Colombian revolutionaries and guerrillas captured in Venezuelan territory.

Rodrigo Granda, Joaquín Pérez Becerra and Julián Conrado

This was not the first time that Colombia has carried out military operations violating Venezuelan sovereignty.

The case of the former FARC-EP commander Rodrigo Granda is the most striking. He was captured by Interpol on December 13, 2004, in Caracas before being illegally transferred to Cúcuta [Colombia] where Bogotá legalized his capture, with Uribe’s setup coming to light after the war trophy had been awarded. With the mediation of France and Venezuela, Granda was released by Uribe on June 4, 2007. His capture caused the rupture of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Another emblematic case involving Venezuela, Colombia and the former FARC-EP was the capture of Julián Conrado on June 1, 2011. Conrado was detained by the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) through January 10, 2014. He benefited from a solidarity campaign by the Venezuelan left and Chavista social movements that achieved his transfer to Havana as a member of the FARC-EP peace delegation. On October 27, 2019, he was elected mayor in Turbaco in Colombia, establishing himself as the first former combatant in a popularly elected position.

Also, the Swedish journalist of Colombian origin Joaquín Pérez Becerra, editor of the Nueva Colombia News Agency, was captured on April 22, 2011, at Venezuela’s Maiquetía International Airport and deported to Colombia three days later. His deportation continues to signify the re-victimization of a political refugee. Pérez Becerra’s capture and deportation forced one of the great self-organized marches held by the Chavista popular movement in the history of the Bolivarian Revolution. The mobilization did not have the support of the PSUV and marched to the National Assembly under the slogan “The revolution does not hand over revolutionaries!” Caracas’ response was to disperse the march with tear gas.

What was Santrich doing in Venezuela?

With the capture of Granda in Caracas, the imprisonment of Conrado and the handing over of Pérez Becerra to the Colombian government, it is laughable that imperialism and its allies in the region point to Venezuela as a promoter of “transnational terrorism.”

Paraphrasing Colombia’s National University professor Jairo Estrada in an interview with Semana Magazine, to speak of Jesús Santrich in Venezuela is to speak of the architect of the Havana Peace Accords in a country that, for years, has been a companion and promoter of the peace processes in Colombia. To speak of Jesús Santrich in Venezuelan territory is to speak of a man who returned to the armed struggle to save his life in the absence of political guarantees.

Santrich always made it clear that a new peace process would be possible with a government other than that of Duque. It is virtually impossible to know what the politically persecuted leader was doing in Venezuela, but his murder begs the question: is the social and armed conflict exclusively Colombian, or can we talk about a cross-border conflict in which Venezuela plays a part?

Reflections on this stage of the binational conflict

The hybrid war that we live in Venezuela — an armed conflict where all available means are used, including terror and insurgency — has an imperialist military expression on our borders, with permanent attacks in recent years. Faced by this and an unresolved armed conflict in Apure, it is essential to study the war that started in Colombia but that previous Venezuelan governments and combatants took on as a common conflict.

With this perspective in which Chávez himself confessed to having patrolled Colombian territory with Venezuelan and Colombian troops when he was an army captain, it is essential to remove the political and mental boundaries, and assume the resolution of the conflict in a joint fashion, without double standards or hypocrisies. As part of this, the Colombian oligarchy must assume its responsibility in the hybrid war against Venezuela and in its definitive solution for peace with social justice.

Chávez knew the border as a counterinsurgent who patrolled it, looking for guerrillas to assassinate. From this experience, he concluded that the only solution to war is peace. Santrich was a guerrilla leader and architect of the Havana Peace Accord. From this experience, he concluded that there can be no peace with perfidy and without social justice. In the Venezuelan scenario, it is essential to maintain this Bolivarian perspective.

Danna Urdaneta is a Venezuelan writer, poet and editor. She is a specialist in the Colombian social and armed conflict, on political prisoners, and in the international movement for peace with social justice. Her slogan is: Everything for poetry, nothing for war.

Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.