Bridges to Bogotá

Bolivarian revolutionary tanks.

The news that Hugo Chavez expects delivery of his new Russian tanks “soon” revives concerns about what he wants them for.  The reported order of 92 main battle tanks (MBTs) from Russia (a mix of predominantly T-72s with some T-90s) will more than double Venezuela’s MBT inventory, which stands at 84 French-built AMX-30s.  Those 84 AMX-30s are a healthy force in comparison with most of Chavez’s neighbors.  But he also has a light-tank force of some three dozen French AMX-13s and over 70 British Scorpion 90s.

The light tanks alone are more than enough to quell popular unrest in Venezuela.  They are more likely to be used in that role than the MBTs, as they are smaller, lighter, and travel easily on more of Venezuela’s erratic road network – while providing all the firepower necessary for the average insurgency-quelling.


Adapted from Wikimedia commons map














Meanwhile, a look at the map shows that Venezuela’s environs, and in particular her borders with Colombia and Brazil, are spectacularly hostile to armored warfare.  There is no threat of invasion from either side.  Brazil has a substantial inventory of armor, but no political friction with Venezuela of the kind that would make present-day Brazilians hanker after the capacity to invade their northern neighbor.  Even if they had such a hankering, getting tanks into Venezuela from Brazil would entail filing through a narrow, mountainous route – being highly vulnerable to counterattack – and having to go a very long way through Venezuela to achieve any territorial gains that were politically useful.

The border with Colombia is, if anything, even more inhospitable to armor.  The peaks of the Andes are a prohibitive geographical feature between the main population centers of the respective countries – and much of the Colombian Andes comprises “páramo” terrain, a unique ecosystem carved out by ancient glaciers, with erratically distributed crags and rills surrounded by peat bogs, springy turf, and wetlands in which armored tanks would be mired immediately.  Feasible approaches to western Colombia across this mountain terrain are very limited, and are made impassable by seasonal conditions (the winter, as a reminder, occurs during our summer months).  Few roads in the Andean north would sustain an efficient armored advance toward Bogotá, and there are, today, no bridges that would support a tank invasion through this northern border area.

In Colombia’s sparsely populated southeast, the “Llanos” region, the terrain is savannah-like grassland.  Tanks, even light ones, would sink and get mired in this terrain too, as other forces have found in other savannahs.  During the winter months, the rainy conditions turn much of the Colombian Llanos into marshland, awash in up to a meter of standing water.

Colombia is not a likely place to fight a tank battle.  So Colombia has no armored tanks, and is therefore not an armor threat to Venezuela.  Hugo Chavez faces zero prospect of having to fight off a tank invasion from Colombia.


Wikimedia commons map


With that in mind, a few observations.  First, the strongest likelihood, all things being equal, is that Chavez is seeking to make himself immune to invasion from El Norte.  As hard as it is to understand a mindset like Chavez’s, he has evinced on more than one occasion a belief that the US is actively plotting to come down and regime-change his “Bolivarian” revolution.  The wicked actually do flee – or imagine pursuit – when none pursueth.

That said, however, there are other factors we should not ignore.  One is that Venezuela has a tank landing-ship force.  It’s not a big one; there are only four ships.  They were built in South Korea in the 1980s.  But that number of ships, and the number of tanks they could deliver, would make a difference to a dicey internal situation in a nation like Panama, Costa Rica, or Honduras.  In combination with paramilitary forces from Cuba and Nicaragua, they could up the ante significantly.

In theory, Chavez has this particular capability now, with the existing landing ships and his French and British tanks.  The addition of the nine submarines he is buying from Russia would significantly enhance a landing force’s survivability and effectiveness, however, along with the dozens of Su-30 strike fighters, and Mi-17 and Mi-35 combat helicopters, being purchased from Russia as well.  No single capability is a game-changer; it’s the cumulative enhancement of capability from Chavez’s shopping spree that makes the difference.

There are two other factors that merit discussion.  Their potential significance comes from their interrelationship.  One is Chavez’s well-known obsession with establishing himself as a regional leader in the Bolivarian mold.  Little is made of Simon Bolivar’s military exploits in analyses of Chavez and Venezuela, but with Chavez arming himself to the teeth, the topic is at least worth a look.  And, as students of Bolivar know, his most famous campaign was his wintertime crossing of the Andes in 1819, to launch a surprise attack on the Spanish forces in New Granada, or what is now Colombia.

The campaign is justly famous, in part, for the prohibitive conditions Bolivar overcame in prosecuting it.  Everything that makes it impossible to operate armored tanks in the Llanos and the Colombian páramo was a towering problem for Bolivar.  He took a southerly route, approaching his objective – Bogotá – from the east through the Llanos, and his troops had to slog through a marshy Llanos that was waist-deep, in some places, from the winter rains.  He crossed the mountain range at the Páramo de Pisba pass precisely because the terrain was so bad that the Spanish had no one guarding it.

But a key condition has changed on the route Bolivar’s army took, and literally in the last few years.  There is now an improved, commercial-grade highway stretching all the way from Caracas to Bogotá, served by the José Antonio Páez Bridge over the Arauca River at the Colombian border town of Arauca.  (See map.)  The road enables heavy commercial traffic (primarily oil-industry traffic) to traverse the Llanos.  The bridge – an iron-truss bridge built in the second half of the 20th century – was given a maintenance upgrade by Colombia in 2009 and 2010.


Adapted from Wikimedia commons map


The highway, inaugurated in stages from 2008 to 2010, is christened La Ruta de los Libertadores – the Route of the Liberators.  Venezuela refers to her stretch of the roadway as the Autopista José Antonio Páez.   The road traces the route of Bolivar’s army in the Andean campaign of 1819.  And its completion means that it is no longer the case that Chavez literally cannot drive 45-ton main battle tanks into central Colombia.  Doing so might be inadvisable: with only one feasible route, an alerted Colombian military would have no difficulty finding the invasion force, and would have at least one key advantage in countering it.  But the enterprise has gone from being impossible to being highly unlikely.  The road itself is more important than the bridge; bridging equipment, well deployed, can get tanks across a river, but the important change from a military standpoint is the existence of a road that will bear heavy traffic through the thinly-populated Llanos and across the rough ascent to Bogotá.

From a military perspective, there are two other approaches to northern Colombia from the Venezuelan side.  One is the mountain pass that lies between Cúcuta, Colombia, north of Bogotá in the Andes, and the Venezuelan state of Táchira.  Colombia improved the highway connecting Cúcuta and Bogotá in 2007, but the road through the pass and the bridges at the border (the Simon Bolivar and the Francisco de Paula Santander) would not, in their current state, be anyone’s choice for a main battle tank advance.  Chavez noted, at the time of the “Miraflores declaration” with new Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, in November 2010, that he considers improving that road, and building a bridge at the border for commercial traffic, one of his highest infrastructure priorities.  This route has the drawback, however, of traversing heavily populated areas.

The other potential approach is now the least appealing of the three, running through the Valle de Upar in extreme northern Colombia, near the coast.  The terrain on the Venezuelan side – around Maracaibo – is problematic; multiple river crossings are required to traverse it, and the cross-country route south of Lake Maracaibo is hindered by swampland. The northerly route into the valley in Colombia is circuitous and the road condition is poor.  Getting through this valley would connect a tank force with the Colombian highway system, but wouldn’t put it in a particularly useful position in Colombia, except as part of a multi-pronged invasion.

Three years ago, Chavez had tanks but no way to get them into the heart of Colombia over land.  Today, he has a way to drive them into central Colombia, he has more tanks on the way, and he has an agreement with Colombia to improve a second potential tank route across the Andes.  There’s no need to panic.  But strategic conditions are, in fact, changing.

J.E. Dyer blogs at Hot Air’s Green Room and Commentary’s “contentions.”  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.

10 thoughts on “Bridges to Bogotá”

  1. Interesting in many dimensions.

    Can Chavez and his military people really expect us to permit the transit of an amphibious force to Panama, Honduras or Costa Rico? And, can they expect to make Venezuela anything like immune to invasion given what happened to Saddam’s tank force?

    This touches on a conversation I had a few years ago with a friend who’s one of the relatively few American citizens still working for the Canal authority (or whatever it’s called). He mentioned that Panama had no military any more, in part because of how quickly and relatively easily we brushed aside their military when we went in to get Noriega. Can any small country hope to do more than impose a relatively minor delay for gathering of forces if we really, really, determine to take it down?

  2. J.E. The only thing preventing Chavez attacking Colombia is..he is a rank coward, full of bluster, bocon, charlatan, bochinchero, hablador, bocagrande.
    He would buy the Brooklyn Bridge if someone told him that that might give the Colombians a moment of worry!
    So yes, like Hezbollah and Hamas the armament has been upgraded, augmented, installed. The only thing lacking is th “cojones”, and that Chavez cannot get for love nor money!

    1. Elixelx — I think if we changed the name of the Brooklyn Bridge to the Bolivar Bridge, Chavez would indeed be mystically attracted to it. I don’t think HC is going to do much other than bloviate in the near future. But it’s always wise to recognize what is possible, especially when that changes.

      Cojones are actually a less intransigent deficiency than topography — there’ve been multiple instances of cojones in Latin America’s history, but only one instance, so far, of technology defeating the Llanos at the Colombia-Venezuela border.

      BTW, I can’t tell why your comment went to the spam queue — sorry it took time to rescue it. Don’t be a stranger.

      1. You are correct, JD, on the matter of cojones being less important than topography, but think about Hanibal, elephants, and Alps.
        The topography exists to be conquered IF one has the cojones; without the latter the former remains insurmountable.
        But I, for one, don’t believe that HC bought those tanks for offensive purposes. They are for defense, but NOT against foreigners–neither Colombia nor Brazil is about to attack Venezuela–but for home use. That’s right; HC can keep power only backed up by massive fire-power. The time will come when he will not be able to trust his police forces, maybe not even his defense forces; but the tank battalion..well, this from Wiki:
        “Afterwards, from 1978 through 1979, Chávez was commander and squad leader of the Bravos de Apure AMX-30 armored tank battalion in Maracay…” When the people demonstrate or revolt the best way to keep order is with tanks..think Tianamen, think Russian parliament 1993(?)
        And Chavez is not about to trust the Army, which is not only an elitist, entitled group in Venezuela, it was the Army that TWICE defeated HC’s coup attempts.
        The best example of this is, as always, Hitler. The Nazi Army was led by the old aristocrat Junker Class, untrustworthy to a man, and Hitler was personally guarded by a tank battalion.
        There is one further reason for believing that the tanks are for prospective domestic use only–Tanks are useless against air power, and Colombia, the putative enemy, has an airforce, US/Israeli-trained and supplied, far in advance of anything HC can throw against them. It would take one day for the Colombian AF to have domination of the air, and approximately one hour to shoot Hugo’s tank battalions to pieces!

  3. With these three dozen tanks that Russian has agreed to sell to him, and the other five dozen that he’s requested and not yet been promised, along with all the other resources such as those submarines and tank-carrying ships, I have to analyze the situation to read that it’s all a part of the Venezuelan-Iranian-Chinese plot to supplant and replace the Panama Canal.

    This Venezuelan strike force that you’ve described has to be tasked with capturing the current canal and keeping it from operating.

    1. Saw a documentary on the canal the other evening. Interesting; but it reinforced my impression when the wife and I took a boat excursion through it a few years ago and then did a behind the scenes tour with my friend down there. We’ve come a long way in a hundred years. There are now (large) housing developments that move earth almost on the scale necessary for the canal.

      Still well worth visiting though, especially if you combine the visit with a few days at one of the beach resorts down there. Almost guaranteed sea water temps in the 80’s in Jan and Feb. One of the few places with good beaches where that pertains.

  4. Maybe Hugo is amassing his military so he can protect the Columbians from the remnants of FARC.

  5. The current Venezuelans, who lead the world in per capita expenditures on plastic surgery and skin care products, are much too concerned over personal appearance to risk mussing their hair crawling into a tank. These aren’t the same folks, dressed in animal skins, armed with lances and riding bareback behind Paez, that drove the peninsulares back to Spain. The Russian tanks will find a resting place in various Plazas de Armas and parques throughout the country, if they can make them run that far, where kids will climb on them and sweethearts will have their pictures taken before them with new digital cameras.

  6. Chavez, doesn’t recruit from the people who would show up in telenovelas. or at the local mall. They are likely less well trained than the Colombian Army, and probably
    have lower quality equipment. I would be more concerned, if someone unlike Fmr.
    Defense Minister Santos were in charge.

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