By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta
ARAUCA/CUCUTA, Colombia, June 20 (Reuters) - Venezuela's crisis is spilling across the border into Colombia as Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries recruit migrants to strengthen their ranks, according to five Colombian military commanders.
Violence still simmers in Colombia despite a 2016 peace deal with leftist FARC rebels, meant to end five decades of conflict. Dissident FARC fighters, the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN), right-wing paramilitaries and drug-trafficking gangs are battling each other and the military.
Keen for recruits, these armed groups are targeting Venezuelans as they traverse the porous 2,219-km (1,380-mile)frontier at illegal border crossings, according to the military officials, human rights officials and migrants themselves.
Five military commanders told Reuters that as many as 30% of insurgents in Colombia's eastern border region are Venezuelans, willing to take up arms in return for food and pay.
"Recruitment of Venezuelans is happening," said Colonel Arnulfo Traslavina, military commander of a special unit battling armed groups in Colombia's eastern border state of Arauca. "The ranks of illegal armed groups are increasing. It's a major threat to Colombia."
Nationwide, an estimated 10% of fighters are Venezuelan, the commanders said. Their estimates were based on information from informants, deserters, captured rebels and residents.
Reuters was not able to independently verify these figures.
The head of Colombia's military and government spokesman on this issue, General Luis Fernando Navarro, told Reuters that armed groups were targeting Venezuelans because they were easier to recruit than Colombians.
At the last official count by military intelligence in May, there were 2,296 FARC dissident combatants and 2,402 fighters from the ELN in Colombia. Including their urban offshoots, the two groups total nearly 8,400 members.
Rebel numbers are small compared with the 250,000 combat troops in the armed forces but Colombia's rugged jungle terrain - spread across a country the size of France and Spain - makes it difficult for the military to tackle small, mobile units of fighters.
The military officers say they had interrogated some Venezuelans who had defected from armed groups and identified Venezuelan nationals killed in combat. They did not provide a total number for Venezuelan casualties.
Reuters was not able independently to confirm the information provided by the commanders or speak directly to any Venezuelans who had been recruited by an armed group.
Several Venezuelan migrants told Reuters they had been approached by armed groups for recruitment on entering Colombia.
"They said I'd get clothes, food, money, accommodation, a cell phone," said Gregorio, a 20-year-old Venezuelan migrant who said he was asked to join an unspecified group in the mountains as soon as he waded across the Tachira River onto Colombian soil.
"I was tempted, but scared... I'd been told there were bad people offering such things and I didn't want to join," said Gregorio, who declined to give his second name for fear of reprisals.
An estimated 1.3 million Venezuelan migrants have settled in Colombia in recent years, fleeing shortages of food, electricity and water as the South American nation has seen its economy unravel amid a bloody political confrontation.
Most Venezuelans do not come to Colombia to enlist in insurgent groups but with almost nothing in their pockets, the prospect of food and shelter is enticing, said Deisson Marino, human rights ombudsman for the border region of Arauca.
"They end up enrolled in a war that has nothing to do with them," said Marino, whose job involves traveling to remote areas and speaking to victims of the conflict and armed groups.
RECRUITING IN VENEZUELA
Colombia's Defense Minister Guillermo Botero has said the military has more than doubled operations against armed groups since President Ivan Duque took office in August, looking to tackle a rise in illicit drug production and trafficking. Colombia is the world's largest producer of cocaine.
"The ELN has been retreating - at least its leadership - to Venezuela where it's recruiting for greater strength, to attack us," Botero said recently.
A FARC dissident, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters the group was also present on Venezuelan soil and was recruiting Venezuelans.
The Venezuelan information ministry - which handles media enquiries for the government - did not respond to a request for comment about the conscription of Venezuelans by Colombia's armed groups.
Venezuela's government has acknowledged that the ELN and dissident FARC are present on its territory. It has said it does not support the groups or tolerate their presence, and that its troops pursue them as they would any other illegal group.
Representatives of the ELN did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The FARC, which became a political party after the peace deal and kept its former acronym, has publicly expelled the armed dissidents.
Since it was founded in 1964, the ELN has funded itself from kidnapping, drug trafficking and extortion but is increasingly making money from illegal migration, the officials said.
Military officials and rights workers say the ELN and colectivos - shadowy irregular armed groups in Venezuela affiliated with President Nicolas Maduro's Socialist Party - control most of the crossing points into Colombia and demand payment from migrants and traders.
Army Colonel Rodolfo Morales, head of the army's 30th Brigade in the border town of Cucuta, said migrants were also being drafted by drug trafficking groups to pick coca, the raw material for cocaine.
Antonio, another Venezuelan migrant who declined to give his second name, said that after crossing the border he was offered money by unidentified men to go into the jungles around Tibu - a border town around 115 km north of Cucuta in the dangerous Catatumbo region - to pick coca leaves.
"I'd rather go hungry than go with them," said the 33-year old from the central Venezuelan state of Carabobo.
Colombia's right-wing paramilitary groups, which battled the ELN and FARC for decades, are also recruiting migrants, the military officials said.
The paramilitaries were behind most of the 260,000 killings that occurred during the nation's half-century conflict and never fully demobilized under a 2006 peace agreement.
Eddinson, 26, a migrant from Venezuela's coastal state of Aragua, said he and three other Venezuelans were approached by armed men who identified themselves as paramilitaries as they trekked through the mountains of Santander province near the border.
Eddinson said the leader of the eight armed men - who were dressed in khaki uniforms - tried to recruit them.
"He said that training would last six months. We'd be given salaries according to rank," said Eddinson, adding that he and the other Venezuelans declined the offer. "He told us that we'd know our start date but not when we could leave."
(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O'Brien)
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