Members of Colombia’s largest rebel group live openly on or near several Indian reservations in western Venezuela with at least the tacit approval of President Hugo Chavez, indigenous leaders here charge.
Although the border area has long absorbed Colombian refugees fleeing decades of war, members of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have become visible as never before in the last two or three years, buying supplies, looking for medical assistance and forging relationships with indigenous women, said Venezuelan Congressman Arcadio Montiel, a Wayuu Indian.
Leaders of several Indian communities clustered around this town in a wild rain forest area that forms the border with Colombia told The Times over the weekend that the FARC’s presence is harming their culture and youth.
“They have replaced the caciques, or chiefs, as authority figures and so who do the youths now want to emulate? The rebels,” said Javier Armato, a Yupa Indian who is a former Zulia state deputy and onetime Chavez supporter.
During his 10 years in office, socialist Chavez, a fierce critic of the United States, has often expressed admiration and affinity for the FARC. In 2007, Chavez said his country shared a border not with Colombia, but with territory controlled by the FARC.
Chavez has toned down his pro-FARC rhetoric since March, when Colombian officials said data from a laptop recovered in a raid on a rebel camp in Ecuador indicated that the Venezuelan leader may have had contact with FARC leaders, even offering them material support. Chavez denied any such contact.
“Chavez sees the rebels as a line of defense in the event of U.S. interference or a civil war,” said Montiel, another former Chavista who broke with the president over the presence of the FARC in his home state, Zulia, and joined splinter party Podemos. He was interviewed last week in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital.
Montiel and several community leaders say the FARC operates camps in the Perija Mountains to the west, where they say the rebels rest and recruit and train Venezuelan Indian youths.
In an interview last year, Chavez political advisor Alberto Muller Rojas acknowledged the presence of Colombian rebels, saying that Venezuela has been a safe haven for more than 1 million Colombians fleeing war over the last several decades.
Muller Rojas said the rebels are more Colombia’s responsibility than Venezuela’s, as long as they don’t harm residents.
But Indian leaders here say the rebels are slowly corrupting their cultures with arms, drugs and values that are anathema to their ways. They are also slowly taking control of Indian lands by squatting and by marrying indigenous women
On many Saturdays, rebel mule trains descend from the rugged Perija Mountains through the two dozen Indian communities that surround this town, indigenous leaders said.
After parking their mules in foothill pastures, the rebels continue on by bus into Machiques, the nearest big city, to make telephone calls, run business errands and go to a market, they said. The supplies are taken back up into the mountains.
At other times, they suddenly appear at doorways, seeking food, clothing or medicines.
“They don’t pay for anything, it’s always for ‘solidarity.’ But you can’t say no to them. Nor can you complain about them to others, because someone might inform on you,” said one indigenous leader, who requested anonymity because of security concerns.
One reason more rebels are visible in Venezuela is the much more aggressive pursuit by Colombian armed forces under President Alvaro Uribe. But Montiel said it’s also because the rebels are here at the “pleasure” of Chavez.
An official at the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in Machiques, which provides help to 800 Colombians registered as refugees, said that nobody from his office has had direct contact with Colombian rebels, but that he has received an increasing number of complaints from Indians over the last two years.
Some in the government insist that the supposed rebels are actually displaced Colombian civilians. But all indigenous leaders interviewed here last weekend disputed that.
“Everyone in the area knows who the displaced are because they register with the U.N. Believe me, the people we see are FARC. How do we know? Because they identify themselves as such,” said one local leader, who like others interviewed declined to give his name for fear of reprisal
A Roman Catholic priest in the region says the rebels’ presence has brought acts of terrorism. “I can’t talk to you about them because they’ll kill me,” said the priest, who also requested anonymity for security reasons.
Although there is a National Guard post 20 miles southeast of here, leaders say the Venezuelan armed forces make no effort to monitor or control the rebels’ presence, said Armato, who has had to live in the state capital, Maracaibo, since he first denounced the rebels several years ago.
There is a general climate of insecurity in the border area, with the Chavez government blaming it on Colombian paramilitary forces who cross the border to chase the rebels, while ranchers say the rebels are responsible for a recent wave of kidnappings
“Instead of making friends with the guerrillas, Chavez should be defending the diversity and plurality of the nation,” Montiel said.