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Opinion Armed conflict between Venezuela and Colombia is now a real, and terrifying, possibility

Venezuelan soldiers took part in military exercises on the Colombian border on Sept. 10. (Johnny Parra/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Thinking up ways our all-encompassing crisis could get even worse has become a grimly popular parlor game for Venezuelans. For years, the go-to worst-case scenario was civil war between the political factions in our country. These days, an even scarier prospect has begun to displace that in the pantheon of Venezuelan nightmares: armed conflict with Colombia.

The reason? Venezuela’s increasingly tight alliance with the drug-running guerrilla armies waging war on the Colombian state, which has rattled Bogota so hard it’s now seeking a hemispheric response.

On Wednesday, Colombia, the United States and nine other countries invoked the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR), signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1947, which commits the countries of the Western Hemisphere to respond to military aggression against any one of them. The move came after Nicolás Maduro said he would deploy 150,000 troops to the border with Colombia. Invoking TIAR is an extreme measure in the region and an unmistakable sign that armed conflict is now a real possibility.

For some time, security analysts in Bogota have been alarmed by Caracas’s embrace of ELN — the Cuban-backed National Liberation Army that for decades played second fiddle to the Soviet-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But the recent announcement by top FARC leaders that they are returning to war made a tense situation much worse, creating the prospect of multiple forces within Colombia acting as Venezuelan proxies.

For more than a decade, Venezuela has served as a friendly safe space for Colombia’s various leftist rebel guerrillas. Colombian rebels used Venezuela as a rear-guard, a place where their soldiers could go for R & R, for medical treatment or for training. Gradually, they expanded their operations in the country, using it as a conduit for drugs for export and running extortion rackets in Venezuelan territory.

But the depth of cooperation between Venezuela and Colombian rebels seems to have ballooned this year, as the Venezuelan state shifts from tolerating them to treating them as allies in a common fight.

Venezuelan intelligence documents leaked to Colombian newsweekly Semana recently paint the most troubling picture yet, portraying Venezuela’s relationship to Colombian “red groups” as something close to Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah. Colombia’s rebels aren’t just tolerated in Venezuela; they’re actively trained and armed there, including in the use of enormously dangerous weapons such as high-tech Russian shoulder-mounted antiaircraft missiles.

The documents leaked to Semana imply Venezuela is mainstreaming ELN and the resurgent FARC into its intelligence systems, relying on the groups to help identify high-value military targets inside Colombia. Pointedly, Colombia said FARC’s video announcing a return to violence was shot inside Venezuela.

For a Venezuelan leadership that’s increasingly paranoid about outside threats, this alliance with Colombia’s rebels offers obvious benefits, strengthening its negotiating hand by enabling it to make credible threats to destabilize Colombia. For the rebel groups themselves, the benefits are just as obvious. Venezuela provides everything they need to become impossible for Colombia to defeat: territory, extortion opportunities, drug routes, training, weapons.

For Colombia, this state of affairs threatens to become simply intolerable. Some of the grimmest scenarios hardly stretch the imagination. Say, for instance, Colombia’s intelligence learns of a guerrilla cell in Venezuela training for a major attack in Bogota: The case for a preemptive strike could quickly prove overwhelming. To be sure, it wouldn’t be the first time Colombia has struck guerrillas in a neighbor’s territory.

For years, Venezuela watchers have been muttering that the country’s collapse was bound to destabilize the region one way or another. Now, the shape that destabilization is likely to take is beginning to come into focus.

To be sure, no sane Venezuelan leader could want an armed conflict that pits Venezuela’s shambolic, underfed recruits against Colombia’s much-better-armed, trained and battle-hardened fighters. It’s not a winnable proposition.

But the presence of the guerrillas complicate any calculation: Venezuela wouldn’t have to launch an invasion to get its forces into Colombia — its guerrilla allies are already there. Those same guerrillas multiply the potential for mistakes, miscalculations and accidents that could easily set off an escalation none of the players can bring under control.

Latin America isn’t prepared for the dynamic taking shape along the Venezuela-Colombia border. The region hasn’t witnessed serious interstate conflict since the 1930s. Venezuela’s wholehearted embrace of Colombia’s narco-revolutionaries is creating conditions for a kind of clash the region has no memory of.

With luck, it’s a scenario that will remain confined to the nightmares of reality-scarred Venezuelans. Except if there’s one thing the past few years have made clear, it’s that reality-scarred Venezuelans can’t rely on luck.

Read more:

Francisco Toro: Venezuela’s implosion is becoming Colombia’s security nightmare

Jackson Diehl: The Venezuela crisis is going to get much worse — and Trump will get the blame

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

Anne Applebaum: Venezuela is how ‘illiberal democracy’ ends