Speaking to a pro-government women’s conference Thursday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro confirmed Venezuelan authorities had captured three heads of paramilitary organizations as part of a border security operation that began this month.
“We captured two heads of paramilitary organizations in El Tigre in the state of Anzoategui,” Maduro told the crowd.
The Venezuelan leader mentioned another incident, where Venezuelan security forces were involved in an altercation with armed groups. “In (the state of) Tachira, there was a clash between soldiers and paramilitaries and a paramilitary head was captured,” Maduro added.
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In August, Venezuelan authorities launched Operation of Liberation and Protection of the People, which looks to crack down on smuggling and paramilitary activity, particularly along Venezuela’s border with Colombia. President Nicolas Maduro has warned as many as 30 paramilitary groups are operating in Venezuela, and has vowed to take a hard line on armed groups.
The operation has also lead to the deportation of roughly 1,000 undocumented Colombians.
President Maduro also hit back at his Colombian counterpart, Juan Manuel Santos, who criticized Venezuela’s move to tackle criminal groups and smuggling through the border.
“They have tricked you President Santos … everything you have said is false, I have the videos, the testimonies and they have tricked you, President Santos,” Maduro said.
The presence of Colombian paramilitaries in Venezuela has become an increasing concern in the country. The armed groups, who are accused of widespread human rights abuses in Colombia, are alleged to be operating human and drug smuggling rings and are also said to be behind a number of armed attacks on Venezuelan officials, including the assassination of socialist lawmaker Robert Serra in October.
The Venezuelan president underscored the huge number of Colombians living in the country – over 5,600,000 – adding that the vast majority fled violence and poverty in their native Colombia.
“Why do they leave Colombia and come here? Because here there is work, there is solidarity, the oligarchy doesn’t govern here,” Maduro said.
According to President Maduro, more than 800,000 Colombians have arrived in Venezuela during the last 8 years, with 121,000 entering over the last year.