María Fernanda Barreto
Mouth of the Catatumbo River with Lake Maracaibo (Photo: Alan Highton / Cordon Press)
The beautiful and strategic Catatumbo River originates in Colombia in the department of Norte de Santander and runs 240 kilometers until it reaches the Venezuelan border. From there it enters the state of Zulia, and flows its last 210 kilometers to empty its waters into Lake Maracaibo. Its basin occupies more than 24,000 km2, most of them in Colombian territory.
By the 17th century, the Catatumbo River was a main route for trade flowing between Bogotá and Maracaibo, since the Zulia and Catatumbo rivers’ course to the Lake was much more expeditious, faster and safer than that of the Magdalena to the Colombian Caribbean ports, and eventually consolidated Cúcuta in the 19th century as the center of the flow of goods that Bogotá imported and exported through the Port of Maracaibo. This also contributed thousands of dollars to the Maracaibo economy in transit duties alone during the first decades of the 20th century.
Thus, since their birth, what we know today as the state of Zulia (Venezuela) and the department of Norte de Santander (Colombia), closer to each other than Caracas and Bogota, strengthened their relationship, linked their culture, their development and also found themselves at the center of disputes. The Catatumbo River and its basin embodies this historic binational relationship, full of complexities.
THE COLOMBIAN CATATUMBO
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the oil industry promoted the “colonization” of the Colombian region of Catatumbo, to the detriment of the indigenous communities that opposed the construction of oil pipelines in their territories, and with the new settlements came the war whose first massacres date back to the euphemistically called “era of violence”.
The Colombian region of Catatumbo is affected by the country’s social and armed conflict and has a long history of massacres and violence throughout the twentieth century, but also of popular struggle and resistance.
Trapped in permanent economic, social and military pressure, the region became one of the main coca and marijuana growing areas in Colombia in the mid-1980s.
As usual, the moral sanction falls hypocritically on the peasantry, which is, in reality, the weakest link in the chain and the only one that continues in poverty, forced to plant what does not feed them and to endure violent repression, while the immense profits that the transnational drug trafficking business provides remain in the hands of those who traffic and those who launder their capital in their financial entities, who put the power of the State at the service of this great business, and of course feed the economic and military center of world capitalism: the United States.
This is one of the reasons why the Colombian Catatumbo population entered the 21st century stigmatized by governments and media corporations, in the midst of a growing militarization as the only response to their demands, and therefore suffer permanent violations of their fundamental rights.
Between 1999 and 2004, coinciding with the beginning of Plan Colombia, the strongest paramilitary incursion into this territory took place, as always, with the collaboration of the security forces. This onslaught of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) had among its objectives to advance along this strategic corridor towards Lake Maracaibo, in principle, to control the entry and exit of goods, including, of course, drugs. During this period, around 11,200 peasants were murdered, 600 people disappeared and more than 100,000 were victims of forced displacement.
THE VENEZUELAN CATATUMBO
It is also in the midst of this onslaught, especially since the first presidency of Álvaro Uribe Vélez in 2002, that the paramilitary advance began in the Venezuelan Catatumbo, which is less populated, but where it is supported by a landowning class that had a long tradition of importing cheap labor of the Colombian peasantry, whom they employed as day laborers, and used to rely on the services of Colombian paramilitaries as guards and watchmen of their farms.
Paramilitary violence began to be felt in the south of Lake Maracaibo and the Venezuelan State, oblivious to the daily war in Colombia, did not know how to confront a phenomenon that it barely understood and could barely identify.
In 2002, the coup d’état against President Hugo Chávez led by the United States took place, and this paramilitary advance over Venezuelan territory became increasingly intertwined with the actions of the Venezuelan opposition against the government and the historical Bolivarian project. In 2004, a camp with 150 Colombian paramilitaries was discovered in the Daktari farm, a few kilometers from Caracas, with the objective of carrying out another similar operation against Venezuela.
The oil and mineral riches of Catatumbo on both sides of the border are also a target. In 2010, for example, the relationship between the oil exploitation in the Colombian Catatumbo by Luis Giusti (former president of PDVSA) and the paramilitary invasion of Venezuela was reported.
This relationship of Colombian paramilitarism with the Venezuelan opposition led by the traditional bourgeoisie, displaced from political power by the Bolivarian Revolution, grew under the guidance of the United States and the deeply conservative Colombian political class, increasingly immersed in drug trafficking. To add to this explosive mix, private military and security companies (CMSP), primarily American and Israeli, also entered the scene to operate throughout Colombia and join in the aggression against Venezuela.
In recent years, coordinated actions between the FANB, the Zulia government and the organized communities of the Venezuelan Catatumbo succeeded in expelling most of the Colombian paramilitary groups that had established themselves in that region from the national territory.
U.S. INTERFERENCE IN THIS BINATIONAL GEO-STRATEGIC TERRITORY
The commercial, mining, energy and even biological value of Catatumbo increased with its geostrategic value to penetrate Venezuelan sovereignty and gain direct access to the coveted Lake Maracaibo.
In 2004, a sustained militarization of the Colombian region began and in 2011 the creation of the Vulcano Task Force was announced in Tibú, a municipality on the border with Venezuela, where U.S. military personnel from Iraq and Afghanistan were immediately deployed.
In 2013 the Ministry of Defense created the Special Operations Centers for the Protection of the Critical and Economic Infrastructure of the Nation, to improve the protection of transnationals and established one of these centers in Tibú.
More and more new military installations are flooding the Colombian Catatumbo, always under the Pentagon’s watchful eye and with paramilitary support, as well as that of the CMSP.
In June 2020, a specialized unit of the United States Army that had acted in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan arrived in Colombia, and according to the announcements, part of this brigade was installed specifically in the Vulcano Task Force. The foreign troops in that region carry out, above all, intelligence work and planning of offensive operations.
In April of this year it was also reported that 400 paramilitaries arrived in groups of 40 in light aircraft from Urabá in Antioquia to support the paramilitary organization Los Rastrojos after, according to the journalist who made this information public, they were expelled from Venezuela and in Colombia were defeated by the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Catatumbo and the rural area of Cúcuta.
This battalion of paramilitaries would be under the orders of the Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) that arrived in Colombia in May 2020 and that, contrary to the initial announcements of the Colombian government, is still in the Vulcano Joint Task Force located in Tibú.
THE CARROT AND THE STICK
Almost three years after the imperialist attempt to overthrow the government of President Maduro and impose an “interim president”, the failure would have been almost total if it had not served to execute a great theft of Venezuelan state resources abroad. In the end, the reality of the situation has finally prevailed and the interim president figure is slowly disappearing from international screens and plans.
Even so, while some countries are deciding on a more realistic policy towards Venezuela and are recovering their diplomatic sense, the last Uribista president is hanging on Uncle Sam’s beard and is one of the few leaders who still play president with the former deputy Juan Guaidó. The government is willing to drag Colombia into the ravine that the United States determines. Obviously because they have also found economic gains thanks to the unilateral coercive measures imposed against Venezuela and the theft of its assets, and because Uribism knows that only with more war drums can it have any hope of politically surviving the predictable electoral defeat.
Juan Guaidó is not interested in dialogue, but in torpedoing any possibility of building ways of understanding because he knows that in Venezuela he has no representation for a democratic triumph at the ballot box.
The continuous failures of these and other interference operations in Venezuela, as well as a complicated national and international situation in its own country, lead the Biden administration to resume the old imperialist tactic of the carrot and the stick against the Bolivarian Revolution.
Only in this way can it be understood that while it authorizes that sector of the Venezuelan opposition that is most subordinate to it to dialogue with the Venezuelan government, it is pressing forward with military pressures and high-sounding declarations through its own spokesmen and lackeys.
Craig Faller returned to Colombia in September for the second time this year, at least as far as it is known, while Duque is traveling to the United States. In his previous visit he toured the Venezuelan border and in this one he is meeting directly with military leaders.
Right after that, Story, representative of the United States in cyberspace to talk about Venezuela from Bogota, issued statements against the dialogues taking place between representatives of the Bolivarian Government and the opposition linked to Guaidó in Mexico, as did Iván Duque first from Spain and then from Washington on the same date.
But also that same week that Craig Faller arrived in Colombia, the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) denounced the incursion of a drone of the Colombian Air Force in the Venezuelan Catatumbo, specifically in the Semprun municipality, although some sources point out that this was not the first one seen in that territory.
In the context of a presidential activity in the department of Norte de Santander for the 200th anniversary of the constitution of Cúcuta, which had the virtual presence of Juan Guaidó, an announcement was made of the formation of a new Specific Command of Norte de Santander, which brings together 14 thousand troops belonging to Brigade 30, Task Force Vulcano, Fudra 3 and the Specific Command N.1 which, according to the statements of its Commander, will operate primarily in the Catatumbo Region, intensifying offensive operations.
In Colombia this means, as history has shown, that militarization, paramilitarization, political violence and the judicialization of indigenous, peasant and popular movements in that region will increase in the coming months.
The murder of a Venezuelan child and a teenager in Tibú has made evident the legitimization of paramilitary action among the merchants of the area, it is just a sad window to see the advance of these forces defending drug trafficking and the establishment, which not by chance are the same ones that conspire against Venezuelan sovereignty.
The reopening of the border is a sign of goodwill from the Venezuelan government that in principle will serve to recover the important economic relations between Táchira and Norte de Santander and has a positive impact for both peoples, deeply united by past and present history.
Days later, Borrell, the highest representative of the European Union, evidenced his intention to replace Luis Almagro, by stating to the media his intention to reissue the tactic of not endorsing the elections in order to delegitimize the legitimate government, as the representative of the Organization of American States (OAS) did in Bolivia. And from Colombia, war drums continue to sound.
In fact, the cover of a well-known political magazine of the Colombian right wing shows again Venezuela as a dangerous military threat for Colombia, because the only lifeline to the Uribism debacle are those drumbeats, terror and ghosts. And because the economic interests in issues such as the ownership of Monomeros, the benefits it has obtained indirectly from the unilateral coercive measures against Venezuela, and those it may obtain if it manages to consolidate a route for drug trafficking to the Caribbean as appetizing as the one of Lake Maracaibo, are what motivate the Colombian political class and in particular the current government.
Although we now know that in the multidimensional war against Venezuela many of the threats only propose to exert a permanent psychological and communicational pressure, it is essential to look towards Zulia, and specifically towards Catatumbo, with a vision that would break the centralism of Caracas and aim at supporting the efforts of the government of Zulia, the local powers, but much more importantly, that would focus on strengthening the Popular Power and the brotherhood between the peoples on both sides of the border, and in this case, of Catatumbo.
Translation by Internationalist 360°