On 28 November 2011, another of Colombia's most wanted, Maximiliano Bonilla-Orozco, AKA Valenciano, was captured across the border in Venezuela. He will shortly be handed over to the Colombian authorities and will likely be extradited to the US. Since the extradition of Oficina de Envigado's Don Berna to the US in 2008, Valenciano has been competing with former associateErick Vargas Cardenas, AKA Sebastian, for control of the Berna legacy in Medellin. Firsthand reports in 2011 have evidenced an upsurge in violence in the City that is directly attributable to the struggle for power that has ensued between the two narcos.
President Santos described Valenciano’s arrest as a ‘good present’ for Colombia, and it is another high-profile scalp for the security forces. This time it had the added plus of cross-border collaboration that has not been a feature of the Colombia-Venezuela relationship in recent years. A new trade agreement between the two neighbours that was announced the same week has led some commentators to predict the coming of a new dawn at the top of the Andes. However, seasoned local observers on the ground in Colombia paint a different picture. To them, without exception, Chavez continues to represent an unpredictable, divisive figure in the region, with a brand of ultra-populism that remains diametrically opposed to the more Market-led reforms that Colombia is implementing
- At the level of international relations, Colombia is making successful strides to cement trade agreements with Europe and the US and create a level of monetary and fiscal discipline. These helped push it to the fourth most popular destination for foreign FDI inflows to the continent in 2010 with just over 15bn of investment;
- Meanwhile, its Bolivarian neighbour repatriates gold from foreign States, sells oil to Iran at favourable rates, and publicly supported Mohammar Ghadaffi during the recent conflict in Libya. It is also running a de facto parallel currency;
- The border with Venezuela remains one of, if not the most insecure region in Colombia. It is rumoured that numerous FARC members are hiding inside Venezuela while Chavez seems to be doing little, in practical terms, to address the issue. FARC's new leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, AKA Timochenko, was in fact believed to have been based there, at least until recently when assumed the role of the insurgents’ leader following Alfonso Cano's death earlier this month;
- Taking the above into account, would it be unreasonable to ask whether Chavez had in fact been aware of, or at least wilfully blind to, Valenciano's whereabouts in Venezuela all along?
Undeniably, the bilateral relationship has improved since the change in Colombia from Uribe to Santos. However, due to significant ongoing ideological differences between the two leaders, cross-border security issues, and the significant potential for disagreement in the fields of international trade and investment, the relationship will continue to be a complex one for some years to come. Like a deeply dysfunctional married couple, Colombia and Venezuela are stuck with each other. There may be thaw in the air right now, but their chalk and cheese elements still remain.