Venezuela seems locked in a downward political and economic spiral. But what happens in Venezuela has far broader implications for international security.
“Here you must not speak badly about Chávez” — this was the message on banners at the Colombia-Venezuela border bridge I crossed recently on a research trip. It was just one of the signs of the exponential jump in authoritarianism in Venezuela, and the continued unraveling of the regime.
Last Saturday, Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega, a critic of the government of President Nicolás Maduro, was dismissed. On Sunday, a military uprising left one dead and several injured, then other military dissidents used social media to call for other soldiers to disobey the president.
By Tuesday, parliament was practically disempowered, overtaken by Maduro’s controversial new Constituent Assembly. Since April more than 124 people have died in protests, while hundreds have been arrested or disappeared.
The international community has reacted with condemnation: The U.N. warned of “widespread and systematic use of excessive force” in Venezuela; South America’s trading bloc MERCOSUR pulled Venezuela’s membership. The United States and other governments labeled the Venezuelan president a ‟dictator,” and the Trump administration levied new sanctions against the Maduro regime.
There is worse news: Venezuela’s crumbling political order could have a spillover effect on regional stability and Colombia’s fragile peace — as well as encourage the global expansion of transnational organized criminal and terrorist networks.
1) Regional instability is on the rise.
Venezuela is seeing a dangerous mix of authoritarianism and widespread violent crime. Both phenomena are no strangers to the region: Until the ‟third wave of democratization” in the 1980s, many Latin American countries had authoritarian governments. Latin America has the world’s highest homicide rates, making violent crime the biggest security concern for many of these countries.
In 2012, shortly before Hugo Chávez was reelected president of Venezuela, I interviewed members of colectivos, pro-government armed groups in Caracas. They proclaimed themselves more “chavista” than Chávez, and boasted that chavismo will win through arms, if not by votes. Under the Maduro presidency such groups have proliferated, and radicalized even further. Alongside state forces, they don’t shy away from violently cracking down on anti-government protests.
This sets troubling precedents. On one hand, criminal groups in countries from Brazil to Mexico see the potential for increased power through politicization, which some argue is already happening in Central America. On the other, unrestrained, politically tinted gangs may “inspire” political leaders to resort to militias to disseminate political messages and oppress dissidents. This could lead to a resurgence of authoritarianism coupled with violent crime in several countries.
The spread of violence may also give rise to a potentially massive refugee crisis, as more Venezuelans seek to flee their homeland. A similar crisis in 2015 disclosed a lack of appropriate contingency plans. This time Venezuela’s neighbors may be even less prepared for a massive influx.
In the Colombian border town of Cúcuta, for example, Venezuelans take buses to move on to Ecuador and Peru. Yet such improvised measures are quickly overstretched, and, due to soaring inflation, tickets are priced beyond the means of ordinary Venezuelans. This forces many to stay precariously along the border, or get to safer places via illicit means.
2) The unrest threatens Colombia’s fragile peace.
Last year, Bogotá signed a historic peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group, which agreed to disarm. However, the ex-FARC’s successful reintegration into civilian life is far from guaranteed. Numerous other armed actors — the National Liberation Army (ELN), the People’s Liberation Army (EPL) and paramilitary successor groups — are also still around. These groups are particularly strong near the Venezuelan border.
While the crisis wreaks havoc in Caracas and other Venezuelan towns, the illicitly governed border territories have become convenient places for these groups to retreat, reorganize, strengthen and eventually cross back to Colombia.
According to local sources in the Venezuelan state of Táchira, it is also increasingly easy for armed Colombian groups to recruit young, desperate Venezuelans. Considering that the EPL, for example, allegedly already has more recruits than the FARC had in the nearby region, such expansion could have disastrous repercussions on the implementation of Colombia’s peace settlement.
And prostitution and crime are rising in border areas, with increasing influxes of people without ways to make a living. Meanwhile, many Colombians in underdeveloped border regions await a “peace dividend” amid continued violence. In the event of a humanitarian crisis triggered by an unmanageable flow of Venezuelans escaping the Maduro regime, large-scale violence could easily flare up in guerrilla strongholds and criminal hubs along the border.
3) Venezuela’s crisis fuels transnational criminal and terrorist groups.
With high-ranking government officials and members of Maduro’s family sanctioned or indicted in connection with drug-trafficking crimes, Venezuela has been dubbed a “narco-state.” Corrupt military officials played their part, as have prominent narco-brokers such as Walid Makled, convicted in 2011.
Colombian and Mexican cartels, present in Venezuela since the 1990s, are now expanding even farther into Venezuela. The country’s political crisis thus may well fuel violent “narco-clashes” — or give the most powerful traffickers free rein to expand operations.
These illicit business deals are not just domestic. Venezuela is a strategic transit zone for drugs, arms and ammunition, gasoline smuggling and human trafficking. Power concentrated in the regime’s hands means fewer possibilities for outside scrutiny to stop such illicit flows, especially of Colombian cocaine. Consequently, drugs may be more easily shipped from Venezuela along the major trafficking routes to European and U.S. markets.
Terrorists also may take advantage of the crisis. The U.S. government sanctioned Venezuela’s Vice President Tareck El Aissami earlier this year for his purported involvement in the drug business. El Aissami allegedly has ties to Hezbollah and was accused of issuing fraudulent passports to individuals from Middle Eastern countries. However truthful these accusations, they indicate the potential for Venezuela to become a safe haven — and new gateway — for unwelcome guests in the Americas.
Overall, the potential knock-on effects of Venezuela’s crisis are alarming: new threats to regional stability, the risk of renewed conflict in Colombia and the danger of unchecked criminal and terrorist networks. These concerns should not distract from the plight and suffering of the Venezuelan people that has been unfolding for many months, without respite. But they should be additional red flags to the international community to urgently consider how to alleviate this suffering — and prevent further escalation.
Annette Idler (@AnnetteIdler) is the director of studies at the Changing Character of War Programme, senior research fellow at Pembroke College and senior research fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. Her work focuses on the links between conflict, organized crime and security, and she has carried out extensive fieldwork in war-torn and crisis-ridden regions of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador.