Venezuelan Troops Trained Rebels to Fire Rockets, Colombia Says

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuelan soldiers loyal to embattled President Nicolas Maduro have trained members of South America’s most dangerous guerrilla force to use heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles, according to Colombian authorities.

National Liberation Army fighters were instructed in how to use the Russian-manufactured IGLA surface-to-air missile system, according to General Luis Navarro, Colombia’s top-ranking soldier. The Marxist force known as the ELN has long used Venezuelan territory as a refuge and has a close ideological affinity with Maduro’s socialist government, which the U.S. is trying to topple.

Colombia’s intelligence services don’t know whether the ELN actually has acquired its own missile launchers, nor do they know whether the training was organized by a faction within Venezuela’s military or sanctioned at the highest levels in Caracas. The ELN received training clandestinely rather than at Venezuelan army bases, Navarro said.

“These are weapons used by the Venezuelan armed forces,” he said in an interview at a Bogota air base. “We have the clear evidence and the necessary intelligence to affirm that the ELN is considered as part of the defense of the revolution of the Maduro regime.”

Digging In

Maduro is mobilizing everything he can in his struggle to cling to power as the U.S. and its allies openly call for a military rebellion while simultaneously trying to cripple the government’s finances with sanctions. After the most recent uprising failed last week, violent protests erupted across the country, and at least four people died in the crackdown that followed. Washington backed the uprising, and President Donald Trump refuses to rule out armed intervention.

After Maduro’s intelligence services broke up several previous plots, he took steps to reduce his dependence on the armed forces, increasingly turning to gangs of armed civilian supporters, as well as Cuban and Russian advisers. The ELN, which has spread beyond the Colombian border region deep into Venezuela, frequently defends the Maduro government in its statements.

Information Warfare

Israel Ramirez, a senior ELN commander who is widely known by the nom de guerre Pablo Beltran, said in a recorded message from Havana that “there is no military agreement of any kind between the armed forces of Venezuela and the ELN.”

One version of the weapon, called the IGLA 9K38, has a range of 3.2 miles and a flight ceiling of 11,000 feet (3,400 meters), according to the CIA’s website. It costs $60,000 to $80,000 each, though it’s available much more cheaply on the black market, according to the CIA. It can be shoulder-fired and home in on the heat from an aircraft’s engine.

“At the moment, we don’t have this type of anti-aircraft weapon,” Ramirez said in the recorded message.

The ELN nevertheless managed to bring down two Colombian military helicopters in the past two years, one with rifle fire and one with explosives, he said.

The Colombian army didn’t provide documents or pictures that would definitively prove its claim. Venezuela’s information ministry didn’t reply to an email seeking comment.

Venezuelan Troops Trained Rebels to Fire Rockets, Colombia Says

Fatted Calf

The ELN’s senior leaders discussed the Russian missiles at a meeting last year, according to one demobilized mid-level ELN commander who said he was present. Many top commanders gathered near the town of El Nula, in Apure state on the Venezuelan side of the border. There, they slaughtered and ate two calves and discussed strategy, said the man, who asked not to be named because he’s trying to start a new life in the government’s rehabilitation program.

At this meeting, a member of the ELN’s ruling council told the group the Venezuelan government was going to provide machine guns and Russian-made rocket launchers, the man said in a March interview. If Maduro’s situation erodes, he can count on the ELN to fight on his side, the man added.

“For the Maduro government, the ELN is like an armed rearguard, which in case of a major conflict could help them a lot,” said Ariel Avila, a Bogota political analyst who wrote the book “The Hot Border Between Colombia and Venezuela.”

Illegal Mining

The ELN is present in 12, or roughly half, of Venezuela’s states, according to InSight Crime, a Washington-based research organization that monitors Latin America. The force gets revenue from illegal mining in both countries, as well as from kidnapping and extortion. It also levies a tax on cocaine production and legitimate businesses.

The insurgents stepped up their presence in Venezuela’s gold-mining region last year, according to Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst at the International Crisis Group, which campaigns against conflict.

Inspired by the communist revolution in Cuba, the ELN was founded at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. It also was influenced by so-called liberation theology, and some of its most influential members have been Catholic priests. It has become more powerful in recent years as it expanded into areas abandoned by its larger rival, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which handed in its weapons following a 2016 peace deal.

Bomb Attacks

The ELN recently stepped up bomb attacks on oil pipelines in Colombia, and in January slaughtered more than 20 people with a car bomb at a police academy, in Bogota’s deadliest terror attack in more than a decade.

Weapons belonging to Venezuela’s armed forces have for years been sold on the black market to guerrillas and drug cartels, because the authorities don’t do serious inventory checks, Avila said. Ammunition traceable to the Venezuelan military has been found in the corpses of murder victims in Medellin, Colombia’s Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martinez told reporters in the city in March.

Zair Mundaray, the exiled former director of Venezuela’s state prosecutor’s office, said the regime is arming people indiscriminately, citing as a source a high-ranking member of a colectivo, an armed civilian gang that supports Maduro.

“The government’s objective is to have at least 1,600 armed men in every state of the country, armed and ready to confront whatever aggression there might be,” Mundaray said.

Insurgent forces in other conflicts have acquired anti-aircraft weapons, including guerrillas in the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s and early 1990s, said Evan Ellis, a research professor with the U.S. Army War College. The weapons often have proved to be devastating.

“The situation in Venezuela, with the explicit collaboration with armed groups in combination with the chaos, the economic need and the lack of control, significantly expands that risk,” Ellis said.

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