Caracas, April 16 (OrinocoTribune.com) – On Thursday, April 15, a webinar was hosted by Alliance for Global Justice (AFGJ), in which the special guest was José María Romero, better known as “Chema.” He is the mayor of Páez municipality in Apure state, Venezuela, where is located the small town of La Victoria where clashes between the Venezuelan National Armed Force (FANB) and Colombian narco-paramilitary groups occurred for almost five days towards the end of March.
Due to the frankness, clarity and detailed information provided by the mayor in his statement and his replies to the questions of attendees, Orinoco Tribune considers it relevant to highlight the most important parts of his speech and his replies, in order to provide real and accurate information about this recent incident. It has been a subject to mainstream media smear campaigns and distortions aimed at tarnishing the reputation of the Bolivarian Revolution.
The most important parts of José María Romero’s speech are noted below:
• The problem started around 50 years ago, as six million Colombians displaced by the civil war in Colombia moved into the border zones of Venezuela. At present, close to 40% of the population in the Venezuelan border area of Apure are descendants of those displaced Colombians, and a small minority of them are in Colombian paramilitary and narco-trafficking gangs.
• In 2016, Venezuela played an active role in the signing of the Colombian peace agreements, but it only managed to pacify about 80% of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The remainder of the armed groups, using various arguments, continued to stay in the territories they traditionally occupied. Later, a fraction of the FARC that did participate in the peace agreements split from the original party, blaming the Colombian state for not complying with the peace treaty. This group formed FARC-EP.
• The 20% of FARC guerrilla forces that did not participate in the peace agreements and remained in their traditional territories are now operating like narco-paramilitary gangs, in the same manner as the Mexican drug cartels, occupying regions and utilizing them for drug-trafficking operations. Those groups are responsible for what has been happening in Apure state in recent weeks.
• These dissident FARC groups that operate as drug trafficking cartels are connected to Mexican drug cartels and their modus operandi resembles the story of Robin Hood. Part of the money they make from drugs is invested in helping the community in order to gain their sympathy and support.
• On March 21, they made a wrong move by attacking the Venezuelan Army, which is the legitimate and legal national entity tasked with the responsibility of protecting Venezuelan territory. Now it is evident to the Venezuelan people that these paramilitary groups are being used by the Colombian government and oligarchy, in alliance with the US government, to attack Venezuela.
• Local Venezuelan authorities realized the advance of these groups when they started to get involved in local politics, promoting the non-recognition of the legitimate government of Venezuela in a fashion very similar to right-wingers within and outside Venezuela. This reduced people’s participation in local politics, especially in the border regions of Apure.
• In recent months, local authorities discovered WhatsApp groups, like Urdaneta Activa (La Victoria is in Urdaneta parish of Páez municipality in Apure state), that were pushing the population away from local authorities. The name of that WhatsApp group was similar to a group on the Colombian side of the border called Arauquita Activa (Arauquita is the Colombian town closest to La Victoria). These Whatsapp groups turned into sort of beachheads for political attacks of the paramilitary groups, mostly by not recognizing Venezuelan State.
CLICK HERE to listen to the translation provided by the Alliance for Global Justice in audio format. CLICK HERE
• On discovering these activities, the Venezuelan state decided to act, and the Venezuelan army engaged with paramilitary groups in La Victoria. This has brought some lamentable consequences like deaths on the military side and also in the community, with some others connected to the paramilitary gangs. When the Venezuelan army carried out the operations, the negative reaction of some of the locals was induced by the work of the aforementioned social media platforms.
• This negative reaction was immediately used by Colombian authorities to build their own anti-Venezuela narrative. They are trying to downplay the situation and are not even recognizing to this day the problem of the landmines that these Colombian paramilitary gangs planted in border zones of Apure. The Colombian narrative was then launched on mainstream media to smear Venezuela and to distort the reality about what is really happening on the ground in La Victoria.
• The Páez municipality has approximately 180 thousand inhabitants. However, due to bi-national commercial activity and migration of Venezuelans from other parts of the country, the municipality has become home to approximately 20,000 more people who decided to settle in the area, taking the population to about 200,000. The Urdaneta parish is the most active zone in terms of bi-national exchange with Colombia and has approximately 28,000 inhabitants. The actual area of conflict is populated by approximately 4,000 people, but about 2,000 people in the 28 communes of La Victoria town and about 900 people in the adjacent rural area were directly affected due to the clashes between the Venezuelan military and the criminal gangs.
• During the first few days of the clashes, there was a significant displacement of local residents. To create panic among the population, the criminal groups used their social media platforms and also fake news, like the one “reporting” that the Venezuelan Army was going to enlist 12-year-old children to combat the Colombian paramilitary. Sadly, the clashes also brought deaths among civilian and military sectors that are currently being investigated.
• Only about 3,000 local residents crossed the border during the first five days of the armed clashes. About 1,700 of them have already returned to their homes. This means that around 60-65% of the displaced population has returned.
• Among those who have not yet returned to Venezuela, there are those who have been offered material things by Colombian authorities; others are victims of the media warfare, and finally there is a small group that had links with these Colombian paramilitary gangs. This last group is probably not going to return.
Finally, the mayor described the community actions that are being carried out at present:
• I will say that we—politically speaking—are seeing a Phoenix effect from our perspective. 20 days ago, when we first arrived, we received insults and complaints from all sides, and it seemed then that everything was lost. But today I can say that we have risen again from the ashes with a lot of strength, and now we have a higher commitment from the local population.
• We have been able to achieve this in such a complex circumstance because we have the right arguments. We have realized that an important part of the struggle is between what the people see in reality and what is being peddled by the media. In that struggle, social media, alternative media, and social movements are key to success. For this reason we express our appreciation for the work of the organizers of this webinar.
• When you go to the communities and talk to the people, you neutralize the war, not only the military one but also the media warfare. It is not an easy task under the present circumstances because you will receive harsh attacks and criticism, but we have been able to do it because we have a great team.
In the Q&A section, the mayor spoke on the following topics:
• Regarding the detention of individuals involved in the incidents, he mentioned that among the detainees that are suspects, there may be a small percentage of people with no connection to the illegal groups, and the rule of law is being followed to determine whether they are culpable or not. Apart from them, there are members of the narco-paramilitary gangs, and also some Venezuelan military officers or agents who are facing treason charges because they might have allowed or helped the Colombian criminal gangs in their illegal acts in Venezuelan territory. President Maduro will announce the details of the detainees at the right moment, and will also inform on the complexity of the criminal operation directed by the terrorist organizations.
• In relation to the situation of the anti-personnel landmines planted by the criminal groups, the mayor said that as these devices are unknown to most people in Venezuela, they are causing panic among local residents and affecting their willingness to return. In addition, some of these mines exploded during the military operations, killing Venezuelan military personnel. This situation has limited the advance of the Venezuelan Army on the ground in order to safeguard the life of the personnel, and the United Nations has been requested for assistance in deactivating these mines.
• Regarding the people’s assemblies held by the military and civil authorities with the local inhabitants, the mayor informed that they have been very effective to regain the political presence of the regional authorities in the area. They have also provided information to identify areas where landmines have been planted. Most importantly, the assemblies have allowed the people to express their legitimate complaints about the actions of a few military agents who have committed excesses.
• The mayor described the plan of work consisting of seven axes that has been designed for the conflict area, that will be applied after successfully completing the catharsis phase, the dialogue with the community through the assemblies:
1- The organizational work, related to the activation of social and political life through the communes.
2- The media warfare, as the media is key to consolidate the victory, taking into consideration the following five elements. First, with the assemblies and direct communication with the people, informing them about the plan, the solutions that are being provided to solve the problems.
3- The right to the city, meaning services like roads, healthcare, street lights, water supply, garbage collection, among others.
4- Social action, meaning strengthening local soup kitchens (comedores populares), prioritizing the most vulnerable inhabitants to help them receive double rations of CLAP food boxes and also helping in a more proactive way those who are suffering from chronic illnesses.
5- Culture, meaning how to win back local cultural values against the countercultural values promoted by Colombian media (TV, radio, etc.) that glorify the culture of drug and crime.
6- Production, meaning how to reactivate the local economy.
7- COVID-19, meaning strengthening the fight against the pandemic in the area. He said that from the Colombian side, COVID-19-related restrictions are also currently affecting the return of displaced Venezuelans.
• In response to a question comparing the civic-military union during Operation Gideon and how effective the Militia reactions are being perceived, the mayor said that the case of La Victoria is different because of the complexity that he already explained, with several decades of interconnection and exchanges among Venezuelan and Colombian communities in the area. For that reason the two cases are not comparable, but the Militia is active in the area, and President Maduro authorized the deployment of more Militia units.
• In response to another question related to the US presence in the area, the mayor said that it has been there for a long time, and that only in the Colombian department of Arauca adjacent to the Urdaneta parish there are three US bases, including the Saravena Air Base and Cano Limon, which are just 4 and 13 kilometers respectively from the border. He added that the US presence is evident, however, he feels that at least locally the strategy of bringing the US army into the conflict has been neutralized.
Orinoco Tribune and Alliance for Global Justice (AFGJ) are working on a video with a voiceover translation in English to make it easy for our readers to listen to this important webinar that shows first hand the nature of the Bolivarian Revolution and how it is possible to defeat the attacks coming from abroad, in spite of all the limitations that Venezuela is facing due to the US and European blockade.
We will add the video with English translation to this post immediately after we get access to it, meanwhile enjoy the original version in Spanish posted by the AFGJ on its YouTube channel on April 19.
This webinar was made possible by the hard work of William Camacaro of the Alberto Lovera Bolivarian Circle New York, Alliance for Global Justice, Council of Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), Frente Hugo Chávez para la Defensa de los Pueblos (Vancouver), Task Force on the Americas, OrinocoTribune, and Chicago ALBA Solidarity.
Featured image: The mayor of the Páez municipality, Apure state (Venezuela), José María Romero, popularly known as Chema, provided important information to international audiences about current events in the area afflicted by armed clashes during the last two weeks of March, 2021. File photo.
Special for Orinoco Tribune by Jesús Rodríguez-Espinoza
Initially posted on April 17, 2021.
Updated on April 30, 2021 adding audio translation to English.