Venezuela: Successful Counterstrike Unlikely, but Violence Possible

Venezuelan Army commander Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco has ordered the army to work with the country's attorney general to identify, disarm and dismantle civilian militias organized as Bolivarian Circles. Numerous members of these groups, which were organized and coordinated by former Vice President Diosdado Cabello, participated in an armed attack April 11 against protesters who were peacefully demanding the resignation of President Hugo Chavez.

Members of the Bolivarian Circles have gone into hiding since the armed forces moved against Chavez. Although there is little or no danger that these groups could launch a successful counterstrike to regain control of the government, they do have the capacity to carry out violent attacks in Caracas and other urban areas. Such attacks could terrorize the populace and hinder the transition government's efforts to maintain public order while the institutional bases for new national elections are being put in place.

Additionally, pro-Chavez extremists in rural regions could try to link up with Colombian guerrillas operating inside Venezuelan territory, if such links do not already exist. In fact, evidence compiled on both sides of the Venezuela-Colombia border since Chavez became president in early 1999 indicates very strongly that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have infiltrated Venezuelan territory at numerous points along the 1,200-mile border.

With Chavez out of office, FARC and ELN leaders may conclude that it is to their tactical and strategic advantage to help "Bolivarian" extremist groups plan and execute attacks in urban and rural areas of Venezuela. By supporting militant action and political conflict there, the FARC and ELN may hope to disperse some U.S. military support that otherwise might be sent directly to Colombia. If the guerrilla groups choose this tactic, attack methods could include kidnappings, car and bicycle bombs, targeted assassinations and mass killing sprees in public locations like restaurants. Moreover, U.S. citizens and companies in Venezuela could become targets in the coming months for both Venezuelan and Colombian extremist groups.

Vasquez Velasco, who so far appears to be the principal leader of the nearly bloodless military rebellion that forced Chavez to resign, expects to minimize the potential threat of low-intensity counterstrikes against the new government by implementing an aggressive disarmament plan, with the help of civilian police and prosecutors. The general indicated the plan would include court-authorized searches of private property and vehicles and other measures to seize all unregistered weapons.

Vasquez Velasco also confirmed that military and civilian police are conducting a national search for former vice president Cabello and Libertador Municipality Mayor Freddy Bernal. Sources in the new government told STRATFOR that Cabello was the chief organizer and financier of the armed Bolivarian Circles, while Bernal commanded sharpshooters who shot at the anti-Chavez protesters from rooftops in downtown Caracas on April 11.

Jack Sweeney is a senior analyst with STRATFOR, the global intelligence company. For more information about STRATFOR, click here.