Father Acacio Belandria says openly what others in this run-down town in southwestern Venezuela are afraid to: Colombian rebels are all over the place.
The 78-year-old Jesuit priest says his parishioners are increasingly complaining of extortion, kidnapping threats and killings by the leftist guerrillas, and that Venezuelan armed forces and President Hugo Chavez are either unable or unwilling to stop them.
The rebels’ “presence is active and interventionist,” the priest said as he sat in the spartan rectory of San Camilo Roman Catholic Church, about 20 miles from the Colombian border. “The question I ask myself, and what people in the countryside are asking, is, why can’t or won’t the government defend its sovereignty?
“The rebels used to come here just to rest and recuperate,” he said. “Now they have made this their territory.”
The presence of Colombian “irregulars” on the Venezuelan side of the border has been a fact of life for more than a century, as civil conflicts in Colombia have pushed those groups to seek refuge in the mountains and jungles that separate the two countries.
Their presence has grown in recent years, government, business and military sources agree. They point to the aggressive military action taken by conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to deny rebel groups sanctuary in the border zone.
But Colombian and U.S. government officials also are convinced that the leftist Chavez tolerates the rebels in Venezuelan territory for political purposes. Corrupt Venezuelan authorities also are suspected of being involved in drug trafficking activities with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the largest Colombian rebel group.
This month, a Colombian engineer named Jorge Andres Sierra, who was released after 20 months in captivity by the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, told a radio reporter in Bogota that his captors held him in Venezuela for part of that time. Guerrillas described Venezuela to him as a “friendly territory” with which they had a “nonaggression pact,” Sierra said.
Relations between the neighboring countries have soured in recent months, with Chavez accusing Uribe of being a U.S. puppet and Uribe responding that Chavez is trying to legitimize terrorism by cozying up with FARC rebels.
Residents in other communities along the frontier are making similar complaints about rebel activities.
In neighboring Tachira state, gubernatorial candidate and Chavez opponent Leomagno Flores said 68 residents were being held for ransom by Colombian rebels operating on the Venezuelan side of the border and that Chavez was doing nothing to stem the wave of kidnappings.
“I blame the government’s ideological complacency,” Flores said. “There has been a political decision at the national level to facilitate the relocation here of Colombian armed groups.”
In San Cristobal, a Tachira city of more than half a million people, businessmen and farmers routinely pay armed Colombians “vaccinations,” or bribes, to avoid being killed or kidnapped, said one prominent businessman who was a kidnapping victim in the late 1990s. He spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.
Farther north, in Zulia state, Mayor Alfonso Marquez of Machiques said groups of suspected FARC rebels in civilian clothes openly buy supplies at stores and go unchallenged by the authorities. Land belonging to indigenous groups has been taken over by the insurgents, he maintained.
The president of Venezuela’s cattlemen’s association, Genaro Mendez, said this month that 34 members were kidnapped in January alone by Colombian rebels in border states. He called on Chavez to “recognize the problem.”
The tenor of discontent has risen as Chavez, a strident critic of President Bush, has expressed admiration for Colombian rebels and their leaders; his beliefs that the FARC and the ELN should be treated as “belligerents,” not terrorists; and his contention that parts of Venezuela’s southern and western borders run up not against Colombia, as any modern map would indicate, but with territory belonging to the FARC.
In an interview, retired Venezuelan Adm. Mario Ivan Carratu said that Chavez declared himself “neutral” in the Colombian conflict soon after taking office in 1999. But he charged that subsequent events show a “clienteleist” attitude by the Chavez government toward rebel groups, citing the detentions of two Colombian rebel leaders with false government-issued identification in recent years. Carratu suspects Chavez government officials gave them to the rebel leaders
Responding to the rising criticism, Chavez this month denied on his Sunday afternoon TV program, “Alo Presidente,” that he harbored Colombian rebels. “It’s a lie; we want peace. It is [Colombia] that supports paramilitarism.”
In an interview Tuesday, Chavez advisor and former campaign manager Alberto Muller Rojas said right-wing paramilitary groups as well as leftist rebels have spilled over from Colombia’s civil conflict for decades.
“To expect us to control a 1,400-mile border with 70,000 troops, when the United States can’t control its border with Mexico with 20 times that number, is not just unrealistic, it’s stupid,” said Muller, a retired general.
Former Venezuelan Defense Minister Raul Baduel, a onetime confidant who has broken with Chavez, said that he didn’t know whether Chavez actively supported the Colombian rebels, but that the Venezuelan leader’s “irresponsible and unscrupulous” statements about the FARC had created “confusion and discomfort” in the military.
Venezuelan armed forces “wonder how they are supposed to carry out their constitutional responsibility to preserve Venezuelan sovereignty and the integrity of our borders if they detect the presence of these elements,” he said.
In El Nula, Father Belandria veered away from making any political commentary. He simply said rebels were more active than at any time since he arrived to take over this forgotten parish eight years ago.
“The rebels live and move clandestinely but are very present in the countryside,” he said. “There is no court or prosecutor here, so the rebels serve that judicial function, intervening in family problems, settling property and business disputes.”
They recruit Venezuelan youths, whom they “seduce with promises,” and check on what schoolteachers are telling the children, Belandria said.
Rebels extort a “war tax” on farmers and business owners, typically demanding a cow or $20 a month. Those who don’t pay are killed, said Belandria, who estimated that there was a killing a month in his parish, with the victims usually local people who hadn’t paid up.
“The level of violence is very strong. The rebel groups fight among themselves over ideology and turf,” Belandria said.
“Every day there are more dead. So people are selling everything they own and leaving.”