Supporters of President Nicolas Maduro, known as “colectivos,” parade in on their motorbikes while anti-government supporters take part in a walkout against Maduro in Caracas on Jan. 30, 2019. Venezuelans are exiting their homes and workplaces in a walkout organized by the opposition to demand that Maduro leave power. Photo Credit: Rodrigo Abd/AP.
The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq has emerged as a prominent fixture of Baghdad’s national security apparatus. A collection of state-sponsored Shia paramilitary groups, the PMF gained recognition for its role in the war against the Islamic State, but is also known for its ties to Iran, which has used the organization to leverage influence in Iraq. In addition, the PMF has also increased its reach in Iraq’s internal politics and governance. PMF militias have taken control of governance and taxation in local towns, inserted themselves into various economic industries, and seized a significant share of the national revenue through political lobbying. This situation has led to a paradoxical arrangement in which the PMF has received official state endorsement for its national security role in Iraq, but simultaneously participates in activities that undercut Baghdad’s domestic political authority.
I argue that a similar situation exists in Venezuela, where domestic and foreign sub-state groups have exploited state complacency or complicity to establish their own authority in the country’s periphery even while supporting the Bolivarian regime’s security goals. I also argue that the government’s dependence on such groups plays a larger role in the Bolivarian regime’s doctrine of asymmetric war, threatening to undermine internal and regional stability.
Armed sub-state groups in Venezuela range from groups such as the colectivos that enforce the government’s authority in the domestic arena to Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) that use Venezuela as an extraterritorial sanctuary. Domestically, the colectivos are the most recognized of Venezuela’s paramilitary groups and have fervently supported both the governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. These groups mobilize political support for the Bolivarian regime and disperse anti-government protestors. In return for their services, the regime grants the colectivos the power to distribute state aid to local communities and govern these areas, where the paramilitaries have been known to organize criminal enterprises such as drug trafficking.
The Bolivarian regime has also played host to leftist Colombian guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the ELN. These groups consider Venezuela as a safe haven from which to cross over into Colombia and have set up bases, supply routes, and illicit operations in the area. While these cross-border activities occurred even before the rise of Hugo Chávez, the shared leftist ideology between the Bolivarian regime and these guerrillas has provided a firm foundation for both groups’ collaboration. In exchange for these groups’ access to Venezuelan territory for sanctuary and logistics purposes, the guerrillas have allegedly trained local paramilitaries and sworn to defend the Maduro regime. ELN guerrillas have reportedly assumed governance functions in much of Venezuela’s periphery, imposing taxes, controlling radio stations and schools, and influencing local government officials. These activities have caused the guerrillas to become “adjunct” Venezuelan paramilitaries.
A convergence clearly exists between domestic paramilitary groups like the colectivos and external guerrillas such as the FARC and ELN. Regardless of their origins, these sub-state groups have established their own niches of governance in an unstable Venezuela whose government has ceded its own sovereignty in peripheral areas to harness these groups’ services. While the Bolivarian regime may reap certain benefits like tighter internal security, such supposed advantages pale in comparison to the breakdown of rule of law and stability that accompanies these groups’ seizure of power in various regions of the country.
The Bolivarian regime’s reliance on these armed paramilitary groups, however, reflects a security doctrine that extends well beyond the needs of domestic security. From the onset of Chávez’s rule in Venezuela, the socialist strongman advocated a form of revolutionary asymmetric war aimed at a potential foreign invasion that could threaten the Bolivarian regime. Dubbed “4th Generation War,” this doctrine is strikingly similar to the Maoist conception of People’s War and incorporates elements such as the involvement of non-uniformed civilians in combat and the promotion of transnational conflict through extraterritorial havens.
Both the colectivos and the Colombian guerrillas play a role in this 4th Generation War. In the event of a hypothetical U.S. invasion of Venezuela, Venezuelan paramilitary groups would most likely wage a guerrilla war against U.S. forces and try to tie down a larger and more-heavily armed adversary through ambushes, sabotage, and hit-and-run strikes. Given the ELN’s commitment to defend the Maduro regime, it is also highly likely that the ELN and FARC would also join this irregular war.
Maduro has also claimed that Colombia harbors intentions to invade Venezuela. It is likely that given the partnership between the regime and the ELN, the government could discreetly encourage guerrilla incursions into Colombia to sow chaos and undermine its western neighbor’s attempts to focus on the Venezuela crisis. The guerrillas’ cross-border activities give them access points into Colombia and opportunities to carry out such operations. As a result, the Maduro regime could deny its involvement in such attacks and point to the guerrillas’ preexisting engagement in activities such as abductions, assassinations, and sabotage.
At both the domestic and regional levels, Venezuelan paramilitary groups and their guerrilla partners present considerable challenges for security not just in Venezuela but the surrounding region as a whole. The United States and its partners in Latin America should take several measures to address these threats. They should employ intelligence and military assets to monitor the activities of these paramilitary groups across the Colombian-Venezuelan border, while the U.S. government should work alongside Colombian security forces to counter illicit ELN activity at the border. Given the ELN’s propensity to recruit Venezuelans in the regions it controls, the United States should also ensure that humanitarian aid continues to flow to refugees in the border areas to eliminate the temptation of joining the group. Finally, the United States should adjust its sanctions regime against Venezuela to bar equipment or supplies that could potentially go to paramilitary groups.
 “AP Explains: Who are Iraq’s Iran-backed Militias?” Associated Press, December 31, 2019, https://apnews.com/57a346b17d6da07ae732ba1437520fd2
 Omar Al-Nidawi, “The Growing Economic and Political Role of Iraq’s PMF,” Middle East Institute, May 21, 2019, https://www.mei.edu/publications/growing-economic-and-political-role-iraqs-pmf
 Mary Beth Sheridan and Mariana Zuñiga, “Maduro’s Muscle: Politically backed Motorcycle Gangs Known as ‘Colectivos’ are the Enforcers for Venezuela’s Authoritarian Leader,” The Washington Post, March 14, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/maduros-muscle-politically-backed-motorcycle-gangs-known-as-colectivos-are-the-enforcers-for-venezuelas-authoritarian-leader/2019/03/13/2242068c-4452-11e9-94ab-d2dda3c0df52_story.html
 “Gold and Grief in Venezuela’s Violent South,” International Crisis Group, February 28, 2019, 4, https://www.crisisgroup.org/latin-america-caribbean/andes/venezuela/073-gold-and-grief-venezuelas-violent-south
 Ross Dayton, “Maduro’s Revolutionary Guards: The Rise of Paramilitarism in Venezuela,” CTC Sentinel 12, no. 7 (August 2019): 35.
 “Gold and Grief in Venezuela’s Violent South,” 5-6.
 Dayton, “Maduro’s Revolutionary Guards, 35. The author titles the section on the activities of Colombian guerrillas in Venezuela: “Colombian Guerrillas as Venezuelan Paramilitaries.”
 Max G. Manwaring, Latin America’s New Security Reality: Irregular Asymmetric Conflict and Hugo Chavez (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007), 1-3.
 Jose L. Delgado, “Venezuela, A ‘Black Swan’ Hot Spot: Is a Potential Operation in Venezuela Comparable to Operation Just Cause in Panama?,” Military Review (January-February 2019): 99.
 Luis Jaime Acosta, “Amid Criticism, Colombia Defends Assertions that Venezuela’s Maduro Supports Rebels,” Reuters, September 30, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics-colombia/amid-criticism-colombia-defends-assertions-that-venezuelas-maduro-supports-rebels-idUSKBN1WF1UW
 “Gold and Grief in Venezuela’s Violent South,” 5.
 “A Conversation with U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliot Abrams,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 8, 2020, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/event/200408_Venezuela_Abrams_transcript.pdf?_DKf9ZB7Vwy96rOBTKIMUoEkZJHpGKZX. Abrams mentions that U.S. export controls prevented the sale of police cars to Venezuela, which most likely would have gone to the country’s security services. Similarly, U.S. sanctions policy should move to restrict similar type of equipment that could potentially fall into the hands of paramilitary groups.