Admiral Craig Faller, the head of the US military's Southern Command, said that the US had sharpened its focus on the rebels and increased intelligence data sharing with Colombian officials. Faller also noted that no US allies in the region were seeking a military solution to the crisis in Venezuela.
The groups of concern include Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN) and some factions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that refused to adhere to the 2016 peace agreement. Colombia's ambassador to Washington, former Vice President Francisco Santos, said that the groups had long been present in Venezuela but had grown stronger and more integrated into the country in recent months. Several US officials, cited by Reuters, said they believed senior leaders of both the ELN and FARC who did not adhere to the peace agreement were now located inside of Venezuela.
Sputnik discussed this with Dr. Bruce Bagley, professor of the department of international studies at the University of Miami.
Sputnik: Let's try and figure out where the truth here is and what's propaganda in the claims by the US military that Colombia's rebels have been boosting their presence in Venezuela, what will be your take on this?
Dr. Bruce Bagley: Venezuela since President Chavez and certainly during President Maduro has tolerated the presence of first the FARC, now FARC dissident groups and the ELN in Venezuelan territory across the border from Colombia, it's sort of a safe zone or retreat, recreation area, so there is considerable truth to the idea that both the FARC dissidents and the ELN are taking advantage of Venezuelan territory in order to restock and resupply to carry out operations in Colombia.
Dr. Bruce Bagley: No, there hasn't been any spike in their activity. The border areas are contested zones, there's been conflict in the Catatumbo area in the Santander region of Colombia near the Venezuelan border. Certainly the ELN, which has had any negotiations with the Duque government suspended has continued and intensified operations over the last months, but their operations do not register much activity in Venezuela, it's coming across the border from Venezuela into Colombia that has been there target. And they certainly have carried out raids against the pipeline Cano Limon and other areas, so there is considerable activity in the ELN. Perhaps the biggest operation was the attack carried out by the ELN on the police station in South Bogotá about a month and a half ago which killed several dozen of Colombian policeman and injured a number of others. So there has been activity, the spike rate has not been in recent days, but it's been occurring throughout 2019 as a result of the Duque government's decision to suspend all negotiations with the ELN.
Sputnik: How would you asses the state of affairs in Colombia currently and its relationship with United States? Is it undergoing a certain transformation? Is it being boosted? What's your take?
Dr. Bruce Bagley: No question that it's being boosted and the Duque government has sought to firm up and deepen relations with the United States. They are exploring the possibilities of aerial spraying of glyphosate or Roundup Ultra against the coco crop in Colombia, which was suspended in 2015 by the Santos government, the previous president of Colombia. This is in response to the pressure from the United States to do more against the coco crop and the Duque government have worked closely with the United States to ratchet up sanctions against the Maduro government.
Levels of hostility between Colombia and Venezuela have certainly grown a piece since Colombia recognised the Guaido government after the January election of President Maduro. So there are clear pieces of evidence indicating that Colombia is moving to work as closely as possible with the United States, the US military, which has a permanent military group in Colombia, which has been welcomed by the Duque government, is increasing its surveillance activities, its gathering of intelligence, its use of aerial overflights along the border area, its use of human intelligence as well, in order to complement the US government's decision to ratchet up economic sanctions against the Maduro government which have been very intense.
The United States has tried to encourage the Colombians to increase their military presence along the border, but the Colombians, just like the Brazilians and the Bolsonaro government have both expressed no interest at all in military ventures in Venezuela.
The levels of hostility are certainly quite high, there's no question about that. The Colombians have strengthened their military presence on the Colombian side along the border and they have welcomed US military presence and assistance.
Sputnik: Can we actually say that the United States is to blame for the deteriorating relations between Venezuela and Colombia, because there are other factors as well that you've just mentioned?
Dr. Bruce Bagley: No, I don't think you can say it's only the United States. Certainly the United Stated has taken the lead in sanctioning the Maduro government in seeking to holt all of its economic activities around PDVSA, it's put pressure on Citgo which has now been separated by PDVSA from its mother company in Venezuela, but the Colombians have been deeply resentful of the mass exodus of Venezuelans coming across the border. There are more than 1.2 million Venezuelans that have taken refuge in Colombian territory after crossing over from Venezuela because of the desperate economic situation that Venezuela is leading, but certainly the United States sanctions have further increased the pressures on the Maduro government and intensified the growing frictions that are occurring between Colombia and Venezuela.
So the United States is part of the equation, but it's certainly not the only element. The failures of the Maduro government to deal with the owner internal problems, to feed its people, to provide medicine, to provide daily necessities to the Venezuelan people, the rampant inflation of the bolivar, counterband is coming across the border from Venezuela into Colombia which is part of the smuggling operations, foodstamps, live stock and other things are all part of it. From Colombia cocaine is going out through Venezuela. So Venezuelans also have some complaints what the Colombians have done or not done and the situation between two countries has gotten worse and will continue to get worse for the foreseeable future. The United States is not the only factor, but it's certainly one of them.
Sputnik: Professor, there have been reports that a group of Colombians living abroad want the International Criminal Court to investigate the alleged mass killing of 100 social leaders in Colombia, what do we know about this case? Is it getting publicity in the US?
Dr. Bruce Bagley: It's gotten some minor publicity, but the Trump administration has said almost nothing about it. The Trump administration is trying to maintain a good working relationship with the Duque government and has basically overlooked the problem of the systematic killing of social leaders in Colombia, and including some of the demobilised FARC people. The human rights situation in Colombia has deteriorated as a result of the policies that have been pursued by the Duque government, which is backed, of course, by the conservative political figure, dominant leader Alvaro Uribe Velez who is former president and served two terms in Colombia. So there has been consistent and systematic deterioration of the human rights situation in Colombia, attacks by the Duque government on the special judicial process set up during the peace accords that were established by Santos with the FARC, and there has been very little done by the Duque government to protect either in the FARC demobilised combatants that we have gone into the concentration zones, or more broadly the social leaders. There has been very limited response and various growing international concern among NGOs in the United States and in Europe about the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in Colombia, there's no question about it.
The views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.