War tax, “vaccines” and “rattle”: The drama of living on the Apure-Arauca border under threats from the ELN and Farc dissidents

War tax, “vaccines” and “rattle”: The drama of living on the Apure-Arauca border under threats from the ELN and Farc dissidents

Puente Internacional José Antonio Páez en la frontera colombo-venezolana





The extortion of the Colombian guerrillas “Ejército de Liberación Nacional” (ELN, National Liberation Army) and “Disidencias de las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia” (Dissident FARC, dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has become the most lucrative and common business on the Colombian-Venezuelan border of El Amparo-Arauca.


This is not an isolated event that occurs only to livestock producers on both sides of the Arauca River, which marks the Colombian-Venezuelan border. Between January and July 2023, a team of reporters investigated criminal extortion on the binational border of El Amparo and Arauca, and was able to quantify the estimated income obtained by the ELN and Dissident FARC through this criminal activity.

The income translates into at least 51 million dollars a year only in four productive sectors: livestock, agricultural production of rice, state contractor companies and the retail sector. In these areas, we had access to official and unofficial data and testimonies that made it possible to make the estimated calculations. In all cases it was possible to obtain details of how this crime is carried out.

Talking about this arouses fear and deep mistrust. Is not easy. Before starting the conversation with a group of reporters, the interviewee scans the restaurant where he decided to meet them. We are in Arauca, capital of the Colombian Department of the same name, bordering the Venezuelan state of Apure. He, a rancher in the area, is one of the objectives of the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) to collect the so-called “war tax”, a euphemism for not using the word extortion, the crime they commit.

Every year this rancher, one of the 2,500 in Arauca, must deliver 12 cows to the ELN. He has a hard time recounting the episode that he still remembers, but he retells it in a low voice and almost between his teeth. Cows will not be loaded onto a truck and shipped to a particular location. “I’ll take them with me, but in my pocket,” said the ELN representative with whom he had to settle the extortion amount.

In Arauca, a Colombian city and department that borders the José Antonio Páez Municipality in Apure State, in Venezuela, and where immediate border town is ‘El Amparo’, three out of eight livestock producers -unionized- are extorted by irregular armed groups in the area: the ELN and the Dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The same situation occurs in the Venezuelan towns of El Amparo and Guasdualito, where both Colombian irregular groups operate without any restrictions whatsoever. On the Venezuelan side, extortion practices are even enforced by officials of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB), Bolivarian Police of Apure (PBA), Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin) and the National Service Integrated Customs and Tax Administration (Seniat).

Amidst a conflict

In this border area of Apure and Arauca, specifically between the towns of El Amparo and Arauca, extortion has several nicknames. On the Colombian side, it is known as a “war tax” and is associated with the money that irregular groups (ELN and dissident FARC) must collect to maintain the fight against the ‘oppressive State’.

In Venezuelan territory, on the other hand, it is called “vaccine”, as if it were an immunization that will avoid being a victim of common crime (protection racket). The reality in both countries is that extortion is the fixed delivery of money, calculated based on the monthly, semi-annual or annual production of each productive area according to the parameters established by each Colombian irregular group. Coercion is always present.

Sometimes, extortion is also called ‘collaborations’, when it comes to eventual payments in money, kind (products or merchandise) or logistical support, which have no connection with the production of each sector. These same groups apply them both in El Amparo and in Arauca.

When the extortion occurs on the Venezuelan side, and is carried out by the military or officials of State agencies, they baptize it as “matraca” (rattle), but it is the same extortion, since money or products are requested in exchange for allowing free transit, development of any productive activity or even to avoid any legal procedure that corresponds to an irregularity.

Ranchers on this binational border must deal with these three different concepts. On the Venezuelan side, the extortion of ranchers is greater. “Here they all extort us: the guerrillas, the PNB (Bolivarian National Police) , the Sebin (Bolivarian Intelligence Service), the national guards,” says a landowner from Guasdualito, capital of the José Antonio Páez Municipality, located 25 kilometers from El Amparo.

Livestock unions from Apure maintain that at least 75% of the 8,600 union members in that municipality of Apure (figure for the year 2011, latest available), are currently extorted by the ELN, a group that has exercised territorial control and criminal governance in the area for more than 40 years now.

The scenario was worse in 2022. At least until May of that year, in addition to the ELN, they were intimidated by the dissident FARC and an irregular Venezuelan group known as the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL) or Patriotic National Liberation Forces (FPLN), whose members are called “boliches”.

Both groups were displaced from the area after the “guerrilla war” took place, a ‘blood and fire’ confrontation that began on December 31st, 2021 between the ‘Domingo Laín front of the ELN’ and the 10th and 28th fronts of the ‘Dissidents of the FARC-EP’ (People’s Army), in the town of El Nula, a town located west of the José Antonio Páez Municipality, in Venezuela. This confrontation is still ongoing, and until June 2023, there had been more than 200 murders on the Colombian side alone, according to the Human Rights Observatory of the Colombian Truth Commission.

At least 37 million dollars a year is the amount collected by the ELN for the extortion of ranchers who have their farms in the José Antonio Páez de Apure municipality.

The estimate was calculated based on the number of livestock producers in the municipality (no less than 10,000 producers) and the estimate that at least 75% of them are victims of extortion. The payment required by the ELN ranges between 200 and 400 dollars a month, based on a prior agreement between both parties.

In Guasdualito, a Venezuelan town where the two Colombian groups are present, several sources warned that there the ELN earns less than the FARC-EP dissidents, about 2,000 dollars a year. There the extortion is applied with the visit of a guerrilla in civilian clothes, who the victims call “lavado” (washed) because he does not wear a uniform.

Another dynamic in Arauca

The armed confrontation between the ELN and the dissident FARC-EP, still active, changed the extortion dynamics for the ranchers of Arauca, in the Colombian department of the same name, bordering El Amparo de Apure.

The dispersion and mobility of the armed groups to flee justice and the kill zone, as well as the direct contact between the producer and the irregular group to agree on the amount and type of payment (they stopped having a fixed rate of “war tax”), make the extortion of ranchers in this town unquantifiable.

Nowadays the payments are constant and apply to the mobilization of animals, use of machinery, inputs or anything that the irregular group wants, requested in Colombian currency, cattle or other options. The guerrillas show up armed at the farms or intercept the ranchers on the highways of Arauca. Even common crime also takes advantage of the current climate of hostility, making extortion calls in which they threaten to harm a family member if they refuse to deliver what they ask for.

The ranchers stated that, although the current extortion can be negotiated according to the payment capacity of the victim, it still represents a significant loss because they apply it to everything, even when the producer sells a cow, he knows that he must deliver a percentage of the transaction to the irregular groups, and if common crime finds out, they too want a cut.

Government contracting companies: more loot

The extortion of these contractor companies is carried out according to the ELN’s “financial” accountability method. Failure to comply with the contribution entails sanctions that range from withholdings (temporary kidnapping/retention), restriction of the transport mobility of workers and supplies needed for production, to more extreme ‘consequences’ such as the blowing up of the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline, which transports Araucanian crude oil to the Puerto Coveñas refinery, on the Colombian Caribbean coast.

The arrest of ‘alias Bigote’ (means: aka mustache), responsible for extortion by the ELN in this Colombian plains region, reveals that he collected annually between 5% and 10% of his income from state contractor companies. The merchants and transporters had to pay between 500,000 pesos (122 dollars) and 3,000,000 pesos (732 dollars), while the members of the union of rice producers had to pay an average of 2,500,000 pesos (610 U.S. dollars) per cultivated hectare (2.47 acres).

In 2022, the funds invested by the Colombian State through the contractor companies of Arauca amounted to $63,715,814 U.S. dollars. If it is taken into account that the ELN charged between 5% and 10% of the amounts of the contracts, it means that this irregular group collected between 3 million and 6 million U.S. dollars a year for these extortions.

Money that rains like rice

According to the census of the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) of Colombia, in the year 2022, 9,231 hectares of rice (about 22,800 acres) were planted in the Arauca municipality. Taking into account the ELN tabulator for this sector, it is estimated that the income from extortion obtained by the guerrilla group, only during that year, could have been close to 5,628,658 dollars.

Commerce is another of the productive sectors that are within the objectives of extortion throughout the binational border areas although in different ways on each side. According to the information provided by formal and informal merchants, some active and others retired from the activity interviewed for this research.

In Arauca, the extortion amounts applied by the guerrillas vary according to the financial capacity of the business. The sources consulted reported the existence of a monthly average tabulator of between $250 and $500. According to data published by the Chamber of Commerce of Arauca, the capital of the Colombian department has more than 7,000 affiliated businessmen, this could generate between $1,750,000 and $3,500,000 per month. Every year, this ‘income’ could exceed 20 million dollars if they managed to extort 100% of the Araucanian merchants.

The ELN also has total control of this productive sector. This group has to authorize everything from the creation of an establishment, the amount to be charged each month and up to the amount of interest that they request for the loans that they give to some business owners. The ELN even claims to be a bona fide lender, offering “capital” to start a business or enterprise, or to keep it afloat. These are loans outside of any banking dynamics, but with the same principles.

When they grant this type of irregular credit, they charge an interest rate of 10%. The beneficiary must deliver all accounts to the organization, in this case to the ELN, about the money received, otherwise the debtor is assassinated in different border areas. They especially choose places in the center of the Colombian city of Arauca, on the river that bears the same name that borders Apure State, or in rural border areas. In general, the perpetrators of the crime move on motorcycles. This is the risk of accepting a loan and then not being able to pay off that debt.

Mixed extortion on the Venezuelan side

In the José Antonio Páez Municipality of Apure State, Venezuelan side, the extortion of merchants is carried out by irregular Colombian armed groups and Venezuelan State officials, both civilian and military, who in addition to imposing fixed rates on production or income per month, demand frequent personal ‘collaboration’.

According to the union members of the sector, there are 2,000 formal businesses in this municipality. Each one must pay the guerrillas between 5% and 10% of the local monthly net production. However, it is not possible to calculate how much extortion amounts to in this sector on the Venezuelan side, due to the lack of data on the monthly production and the variety of the businesses. Instead, the dynamics are described based on the information provided by those consulted.

In ‘El Amparo’ (Venezuela) and Arauca (Colombia) it is impossible to start a business without the authorization of the ELN or to maintain one without contributions to this guerrilla group. If the merchant does not comply, he receives a visit from ELN militiamen or a phone call to establish agreements on the payment of the extortion.

Until May 2022, when the FARC-EP dissidents shared territorial control of the municipality with the ELN and the Venezuelan FBL, the average monthly “vaccine” in some sectors did not fall below 500 U.S. dollars and in other areas it reached up to $3,000 per month. Although the dynamics have changed, extortion continues to be a crime that marks the lives of the inhabitants of both towns.

* This report is part of the cross-border project “Apure-Arauca, Sociedad Anónima”, a journalistic investigation sponsored by the Consortium to Support Independent Journalism in the Latin American Region (CAPIR)