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COLOMBIA / VENEZUELA
Tensions on the border
Mike Ceaser
4/25/2002
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Accusations fly about guerrilla activities on the border.

Accusations that guerrilla forces have used Venezuelan territory as a base for attacking Colombian troops have ignited a war of words between the two countries.

On March 21, Colombian Gen. Martín Carreño announced that a contingent of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, had attacked his soldiers from a base in Venezuela and lobbed mortar shells across the border.

The incident came amid escalating violence after the collapse of peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC (LP, March 11, 2002).

Carreño said that about 150 FARC fighters had set up camp in the northwestern state of Táchira, about one kilometer inside Venezuela, blocking the Colombian military’s attempts to retaliate. About 40 rebels and soldiers were reported killed in the fighting in Colombia’s northern Santander province.

Venezuelan officials quickly rejected Carreño’s charges.

"The reports completely contradict reality, as well as the understanding that Venezuela has always shown toward the unfortunate internal conflict wracking Colombia," Venezuelan Foreign Minister Luis A. Dávila said.

Venezuelan Army officials said they reconnoitered the area and found no encampment.

Shortly afterward, however, the US Embassy in Caracas warned US citizens not to travel within 80 kilometers of the Colombian-Venezuela border because of danger of being kidnapped by guerrillas, an alert that appeared to support the Colombian charges.

Press reports also seemed to confirm the accusations. Bogota’s El Tiempo newspaper reported on the guerrilla camp and quoted campesinos who said that Venezuelan army helicopters had attacked the camp a week earlier.

The Caracas daily El Universal also reported that groups of armed Colombian guerrillas had been visiting Venezuelan cattle ranches for months, requesting "voluntary contributions" of food and other supplies, while merchants in one small border town were doing brisk business selling food and provisions to Colombian rebels.

The newspaper also said that members of the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second-largest rebel group, had been seen in a nearby valley and that the guerrilla groups were so comfortable in Venezuela that on Sundays they played soccer with local residents.

The accusations touched tender points in both countries. For Colombians, they renewed long-held suspicions that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez sympathized with the FARC.

While Chávez had claimed to take a neutral stand on the Colombian conflict, El Universal reported that a FARC radio station near the Colombian-Venezuelan border interspersed its pro-FARC broadcasting with advocacy of Chávez’s "Bolivarian revolution."

Reports of guerrilla forces based in Venezuela have surfaced before. In the past two years, there has been an average of two abductions a month of Venezuelan ranchers or large landowners by the FARC, ELN or splinter groups acting independently. In some areas, Colombian rebels also charge Venezuelan ranchers a monthly fee, known locally as a "vaccination," to "guarantee the security" of their property.

"If the Venezuelan government can’t defend us, we’re going to have to defend ourselves," one rancher said. According to some estimates, Venezuelan ranchers have a private armed force of about 100 men. Some have also hired private security companies.

"I think that ...Venezuela must clarify its role in [Colombia’s] internal conflict through diplomatic channels," said Colombian Sen. Yimmy Chamorro, president of the Senate International Affairs Commission.

Chamorro said that if the suspicions of the FARC using Venezuela territory were confirmed, Colombia would have no choice but to file a complaint against Venezuela with the Organization of American States for interference in the country’s internal affairs.

For Venezuelans, the issue inflamed resentment over the spillover from the civil war in the neighboring country. Critics said that Colombia, preoccupied with internal fighting, has put little effort into guarding the two nations’ 2,400-kilometer border, where 20,000 Venezuelan troops are stationed.

"You cannot expect one nation to be the sole custodian of a common frontier, particularly when the other state has caused the security problem," Dávila said.

Besides the guerrilla presence, Venezuela has seen a steady trickle of Colombians crossing the border to flee the violence.

Over the past two years, top government officials have insisted that the Colombians are "displaced persons in transit," not refugees, and should not be granted asylum. At least 1,500 Colombians who have sought refuge in Venezuela over the past two years have been returned to Colombia.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Venezuelan non-governmental organizations have complained that the "displaced persons in transit" label has no meaning under international conventions and is simply designed to keep Colombians fleeing the armed conflict from settling in Venezuela.

This has made it more difficult to determine how many people have crossed the border, because they no longer approach government officials, said Carlos Correa, general coordinator of the non-governmental Human Rights Education and Action Program (PROVEA) in Caracas. Correa said many of the arrivals are women with small children.

On April 3, Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso, leaders of the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary umbrella organization, accused Chávez of being "openly tolerant" of FARC guerrillas and called on him "not to lie to the world."

Despite accumulating evidence of FARC activity in Venezuela, Chávez rejected the Colombian accusations and demanded an explanation.

"Lies are being spread abroad attempting to show that Venezuela is a nation that protects terrorists, guerrillas and drug traffickers," he said. "We are not about to permit any armed group to enter Venezuelan territory."

But some observers in Caracas said that Chávez, whose popularity had been plummeting (LP, Feb. 25, 2002), was trying to save face by denying the guerrilla presence. One commentator on the city’s Unión Radio Nacional station said, "It seems that everybody sees the guerrillas except the government."

 


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