Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

VENEZUELA: Colombian Army Implicated in Paramilitary’s Cross-Border Activities

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, May 11 2004 (IPS) - The Venezuelan government accused Colombian army chief Gen. Martín Carreño of meeting with members of the opposition allegedly plotting actions against President Hugo Chávez, after the arrest of 86 purported Colombian paramilitaries on a country estate near Caracas.

Carreño denied any participation in the case Tuesday.

Venezuelan Vice-President José Vicente Rangel said Monday that Carreño met in March with members of Venezuela’s opposition coalition, the Democratic Coordinator, and other groups in the Grupo Maza garrison in the northeastern Colombian city of Cúcuta, on the border with Venezuela.

Rangel made the accusation while underscoring the gravity of the possibility that right-wing paramilitaries from Colombia, many of them army reservists, were brought from Cúcuta to Caracas by radical members of the opposition purportedly plotting against the Chávez administration.

The paramilitaries, unarmed and dressed in Venezuelan army uniforms, were captured at a country house belonging to Chávez opponent Robert Alonso, whose whereabouts are unknown, although some media outlets report that he is in the U.S. city of Miami.

Carreño said in Bogotá that he was unaware of any plan to overthrow Chávez. ”I reject the accusation. This is extremely serious. I knew absolutely nothing about this situation (the arrest of the paramilitaries) and found out from TV,” said the Colombian army chief.

Carreño said he visited Cúcuta on Mar. 12 to set up a joint task force. ”That’s my hometown, my family lives there, and I have friends and acquaintances there,” he added.

Although he admitted that he met with Venezuelan friends in the Maza army garrison – out of security concerns – he denied that they belonged to the anti-Chávez opposition movement, which has been trying to remove the Venezuelan president.

In the context of the opposition’s efforts, an aborted coup d’état removed Chávez from power for two days in April 2002, and a December 2002-January 2003 general strike by the opposition caused 10 billion dollars in losses.

”There were no politicians among the people I met with, nor members of the opposition. I met people who work in the countryside, ranchers, neighbours from Colombia and Venezuela,” said Carreño.

Venezuela’s Minister of Information, Jesse Chacón, said Tuesday that ”it would be interesting for Gen. Carreño to name the people he met with.”

”We already know,” he added.

But Carreño refused to give names.

According to Chacón, the paramilitaries captured Sunday in the outskirts of Caracas were part of the “Plan Guarimba 2″ aimed at creating a new wave of disturbances in the Venezuelan capital and other cities over the next few weeks.

In late February and early March, anti-Chávez groups threw up barricades and held violent protests along the roads leading into middle-class neighbourhoods of Caracas and other cities.

During the disturbances and the crackdown by security forces, 10 people were killed and around 50 were injured.

The technique of setting up flaming roadblocks was dubbed ‘guarimba’ (refuge) by radical anti-Chávez activists – including Alonso – who, over the Internet, shared slogans and instructions for keeping alive that form of struggle.

The Democratic Bloc, a small right-wing opposition group, says people opposed to Chávez should set up ”a small guarimba” to provoke the government to call the armed forces to the streets. In that context, according to the group, officers would mount a more or less massive disobedience against the (pro-Chávez) army brass and the government.

The Bloc separated over a year ago from the Democratic Coordinator, a coalition of most of Venezuela’s political parties and opposition groups that is pushing for a recall referendum to remove Chávez.

Colonel Miguel Rodríguez, the head of the political police, said that in searches of homes and offices of opposition activists, documents were found that talked about a ”counter-revolutionary plan” – a reference to efforts against Chávez’s so-called ”social revolution”.

He did not provide details of the alleged plan, but said it was to involve leaders of the Democratic Bloc and the Democratic Coordinator.

”One of them is Rafael Marín”, a parliamentary deputy who was secretary-general of Democratic Action, a social democratic opposition party, two years ago, before he left the party, said Rodríguez.

Military intelligence agents attempted to search Marín’s home, but refrained when he pointed out that he had parliamentary immunity.

But the police did search La Ahumada estate, which belongs to former president Carlos Andrés Pérez (1974-1979 and 1989-1993) of the Democratic Action party, who was charged and found guilty of corruption in Venezuela and is living in exile.

La Ahumada estate, which is inhabited by Pérez’s ex-wife Blanca Rodríguez, is located near Alonso’s country house, where the Colombian paramilitaries were detained.

In 1992, when Pérez was president, then-lieutenant colonel Chávez led a failed uprising against him by several army battalions.

Pérez told the Colombian radio station Caracol that the capture of the Colombians was ”a set-up by Mr. Chávez, who just doesn’t know what to do anymore to defend himself from the difficult situation in which he finds himself due to the repudiation of the Venezuelan people.”

Chávez ”will only leave by force. It’s not that I’m in favour of violence, it’s just that there is no other way to get rid of him,” said Pérez.

The president of the National Assembly, Francisco Ameliach, showed a video in parliament of confessions by some of the Colombian detainees, who said they were waiting on the Alonso estate to be moved to another property where they were to prepare to assault a military base in a matter of days.

The plan was to put together a force of 3,000, according to one of the men arrested. The government said the group, from which 86 men have been captured, is made up of 130 paramilitaries. The rest were able to escape.

According to Gen. Melvin López, secretary of the Council for the Security and Defence of the Nation, there are Colombian paramilitaries in seven of Venezuela’s 23 states, including several in the east, far from the Colombian border.

Vice-President Rangel also said members of the Venezuelan opposition have met with Salvatore Mancuso, military chief of the right-wing United Self-Defence Units of Colombia (AUC), that country’s leading paramilitary group. He added that Colombian military leaders were aware of the meeting.

According to the United Nations, the paramilitaries are responsible for the majority of the crimes committed against unarmed civilians in Colombia, a country that endures an ongoing civil war that is four decades old.

The AUC is included on the U.S. State Department’s list of international terrorist groups. Mancuso and Carlos Castaño (AUC leader, who disappeared in April) are wanted by U.S. justice authorities to be tried on drug trafficking charges.

“I have no knowledge of meetings between the leaders of the AUC and members of the Venezuelan opposition. I want it to be clear: we have no knowledge of those events,” repeated the Colombian commander Carreño.

“We have a very delicate situation in our country and we don’t interfere in a problem that is not our responsibility. We have no intention of participating in any plot that affects another country. That is the clear policy of our government,” he added.

The Colombian detainees are being held in the main prison of Caracas and have been indicted by the military justice system. If they are found guilty of military rebellion, they could face 25 years behind bars.

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