Venezuelans clashed with members of the Venezuelan national guard near the border with Brazil on Sunday. (Joedson Alves/EPA-EFE)

The risk of war in Venezuela is rising dangerously. For Americans who had come to think of President Trump invading Venezuela as something of a punch line, a rude awakening could be in the works.

On Saturday, Venezuela’s serially appalling regime crossed a number of new red lines in its crusade to keep food and medicine from reaching desperately hungry and sick people, setting fire to trucks carrying humanitarian aid and deploying paramilitary gangs to kill Venezuelans who went to the border to try to force the aid in. The regime allowed those gangs to shoot into the territory of both its big neighbors: Colombia and Brazil. The clashes moved military action to dislodge the Venezuelan regime from fringe speculation to serious policy discussion.

Here’s what Americans need to know about this prospect. Venezuela is, in many ways, a failed state. Much of the territory is lightly governed, if at all. The official Venezuelan state devotes the bulk of its time and energy to stealing the nation’s oil resources and repressing its political opponents, leaving little room to worry about the basics of governance.

As a result, vast swaths of Venezuela are controlled not by President Nicolás Maduro’s government but by a baffling proliferation of armed nonstate actors that include powerful prison gangs, Colombian guerrillas from the ELN or from splinter groups of the disbanded FARC, various ideologically infused “colectivos” — in effect, paramilitary groups subscribing to a vaguely Marxist ideology and allied with the government. These groups make a handsome living from any number of illegal activities: trafficking cocaine, illegal gold mining, extortion, human trafficking, smuggling — you name it.

Travel around Venezuela and you soon realize it’s these groups, and not the official Chavista state, who are effectively in charge of much of the territory. In many places, they live in a sort of uneasy, tacit alliance with the military — they buy weapons from them, passing on kickbacks and handling the dirty work the soldiers would rather not do.

The official armed forces, by contrast, are a mess. Obsessed with the specter of military plots, Maduro spends more time spying on his own troops than leading them. Cuban agents oversee the entire military establishment, running a counterintelligence force that systematically listens in on officers’ communications and will arrest and torture you at any sign of dissent. The actual soldiers, for their part, are mostly an afterthought: There’s often not quite enough to eat in mess halls, and conditions certainly impact readiness and morale. Training has been kept below the bare minimum for years, due to budget problems. It’s not much of a fighting force.

And yet, if the United States does go on the offensive, it’s clear it’s the Venezuelan military they’ll target first. Dysfunctional as it is, the armed forces have fixed installations — radar positions, air force bases, barracks — that could be targeted by a cruise-missile-guidance system.

The paramilitary gangs who actually control the territory, for their part, operate from civilian quarters. No U.S. military plan would be able to target them, even if it set out to do that.

The best hope for Venezuela’s future is that its dysfunctional military forces manage to break free from the Cuban counterintelligence machine and rebel against the dictatorship. If they were better led, the armed forces would have some chance to subdue the lawless nonstate actors who’ve ended up in control of Venezuela. But cowed by the intensive spying they’re subjected to, Venezuela’s generals are unlikely to rebel against Maduro unless they calculate U.S. military action is genuinely imminent.

To break the logjam in Caracas, then, the threat of U.S. military action could be enormously helpful. But here’s the tricky part: Actual U.S. military action to destroy the Venezuelan military would be a catastrophe. It would remove the one actor that might eventually be able to regain control over the country and deliver it instead into the hands of a wild variety of criminal gangs. Libya in the Caribbean.

The best solution now, then, is a strategy designed to convince Venezuela’s generals that, unless they topple Maduro in short order, they’ll be bombed out of existence — a message that should be delivered by people who understand actually bombing them out of existence would be a disaster. What the United States needs to do, in other words, is bluff, by taking further steps that raise Venezuelan generals’ perception of a threat. But it also needs to exercise restraint to prevent the unmitigated disaster an actual war would bring.

It’s a delicate, demanding task. And we need to trust the Trump administration to pull it off without a misstep.

God help us all.

Read more:

Francisco Toro: How Maduro is holding desperate Venezuelans hostage

Anne Applebaum: Venezuela is how ‘illiberal democracy’ ends

Chris Murphy and Ben Rhodes: Democrats should stand for democracy in Venezuela — and democratic values in America