Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA-VENEZUELA: Paramilitary Presence Heats Up Border

Constanza Vieira*

BOGOTA, Dec 30 2003 (IPS) - Killings and other incidents of violence in recent days along the Venezuelan-Colombian border indicate that the right-wing Colombian paramilitaries are spreading through the areas previously controlled by leftist guerrillas, say sources in Bogotá and Caracas.

Seven members of the Venezuelan National Guard died in ambushes in mid-December. On Friday, under uncertain circumstances, Venezuelan military forces allegedly entered Colombian territory chasing a stolen vehicle, though Caracas denies that the military crossed the border.

And, over the weekend, hired assassins from Colombia murdered six youths in the border town of San Antonio del Táchira.

"It was paramilitaries who killed the national guardsmen," Gen. Melvin López, secretary of the National Defence Council, said in Caracas. "Though that doesn’t mean that drug traffickers or other subversive groups haven’t attacked at other times."

"Colombian paramilitaries are operating all along the border, on the Venezuelan side and on the Colombian side, and it seems the only government units going after them are Venezuelan," Colombian legislative deputy Gustavo Petro, of the leftist Independent Democratic Pole, told IPS.

Petro belonged to the M-19 guerrillas, who in 1990 signed a peace pact with the Colombian government and became a legitimate political party.

The lawmaker explained that in the northeastern department of Arauca, bordering Venezuela, "remains a zone of conflict between paramilitaries and guerrillas. But in (the departments of) Norte de Santander, Cesar and part of La Guajira, the paramilitaries are in control."

The United Self-Defence Units of Colombia (AUC) are the leading paramilitary group, with an estimated 12,000 members, in this South American country of 44 million people who have been dealing with civil war for the past four decades.

According to Petro, this gradual paramilitary advance "along the border has been occurring since before Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez took office" in February 1999.

The 2,219-km border between the two countries is often described as a "third state" in which drug traffickers, kidnappers, cattle thieves, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries are powerful forces.

"Paramilitary power is growing in the area, progressively taking over (illegal) businesses, such as money laundering and exporting cocaine through Venezuelan territory," says Petro.

"Smuggling of Venezuelan gasoline to Colombia is controlled completely by the paramilitaries" and the ‘pimpineros’, youths who carry three or four gallons of fuel in plastic containers known locally as ‘pimpinas’, "have gone out of style," he said.

"Today, the pimpineros are wearing uniforms and part of a military-like hierarchy. Their bosses are paramilitaries. The ones that didn’t want to be part of the paramilitary movement were murdered," said Petro.

Norte de Santander, across the border from the southwestern Venezuelan state of Táchira, one of the "hottest" border zones in the Andean region, in the past was a guerrilla stronghold, but "has been left largely under paramilitary control."

Violent incidents have been occurring at a dramatic rate. In San Antonio del Táchira, separated by a small river from Cúcuta, capital of Norte de Santander, Colombian hired guns opened fire on the weekend against a group of young people, killing six.

Says Venezuelan police chief Eddie Ramírez, Colombian paramilitaries had issued death threats against anyone who remained in the area, which is distribution site for illegal drugs.

The victims, ages 17 to 24, "were merely there drinking beer," Ramírez says.

The seven soldiers of the National Guard (Venezuela’s militarised police) apparently were killed in an ambush laid by irregular groups in rural zones.

The residents of Montelara, in the far Colombian northeast, say that Venezuelan national guardsmen crossed the border in pursuit of a stolen car and ended up in a gunfight with paramilitaries.

But says Carlos Santiago, Venezuelan ambassador in Bogotá, the story "is a fabrication by drug traffickers."

Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe acknowledged that there is not enough government presence in the border zone and asked for "an institutional accord at the highest level" to improve security, including the possibility of allowing the troops of one country to pursue criminals beyond national boundaries.

On the Venezuelan side, the crimes of kidnapping and assassination have escalated. Dozens of ranchers and retailers have been kidnapped in the past year.

Also in the area are 100,000 to 150,000 Colombians who have fled the civil war, reports the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The local Venezuelan human rights group Provea says the Colombians on the Venezuelan side of the border live in tentative circumstances, especially those who seek refugee status, which only 664 families obtained from January to August of this year.

Provea criticised an agreement signed by Bogotá and Caracas in April that categorises them as "displaced persons in Colombian territory who reach the Venezuelan border", which avoids granting them international refugee status.

Rumours circulating since April and thought to come from the Colombian intelligence services are that the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), an organisation of some 17,000 guerrillas, maintain bases and training camps in Venezuela, and that President Chávez looks the other way. Petro says the rumours are not true.

The foundations of the Colombian guerrilla movement lie in the Colombian interior, he says. Along the border, where the guerrilla is still present, they are not established but are in transit, "and it has been that way for 20 years," said the lawmaker.

But Petro warns that the peace negotiations underway between the Uribe government and the AUC paramilitaries are leading to a concentration of irregular forces in Norte de Santander department.

If Bogotá allows paramilitary chief Salvatore Mancuso to rally his troops in the department, as he has asked, "he could have as many as 7,000 men on the border," says Petro.

Mancuso is one of the paramilitaries negotiating demobilisation, while Washington is asking Bogotá for his extradition on drug trafficking charges. The right-wing paramilitary leader "has a direct interest in maintaining control over the export of cocaine via Venezuela," Petro says.

(* With reporting by Humberto Márquez, from Venezuela.)

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