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BOGOTÁ/CARACAS, May 25 2012 (IPS) - When 12 Colombian soldiers were killed by FARC insurgents a stone’s throw away from the northern border with Venezuela, the consequences included military cooperation that reinforces the political, diplomatic and trade-related links that have developed over the past two years between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Santos said that after the attack on Monday he spoke to Chávez, who immediately “ordered the deployment of two brigades to the border zone, with instructions to try to locate” the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) column that attacked a Colombian army unit.
“If they manage to find them, they will capture them. If they resist, they will open fire. They will shoot them down,” Santos said.
He said Chávez told him over the phone, “Our position is the same as it has been since you and I restored dialogue (in August 2010, when Santos took office as president) and we began our cooperation: we will not tolerate incursions by any illegal armed force, whatever its nature, into Venezuelan territory.”
The left-wing Venezuelan president said on television that his government would not allow “irregular groups, whatever side they are on, to use Venezuela as a camping site, a training ground, or a base to attack forces of other countries, in this case Colombia.
“We cannot allow ourselves to be mixed up in a conflict that is not our own,” Chávez said.
A Venezuelan army contingent was in position there by sunset.
The people of Guana, still frightened by the intense gunfire and explosions, spent several nights away from their homes, staying in nearby villages, the local press reported.
“Santos has persuaded Chávez to start pursuing the guerrillas. Now Chávez will ask Santos to pursue the criminal gangs (based in Colombia) smuggling gasoline, trafficking drugs and engaging in extortion rackets” in Venezuela, said Ariel Ávila, head of the Armed Conflict Observatory of the Bogotá think tank Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris (CNAI).
In Ávila’s view, Chávez’s decision is “a setback” for the FARC, because “the guerrillas need a rearguard territory to retreat to.” He said “cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries will mean the FARC will be hit hard,” as well as the other Colombian left-wing insurgent group, the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN).
Colombian Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said the FARC unit responsible for the attack “has probably been based in Venezuela for a considerable time.”
General Sergio Mantilla, the Colombian army chief, said the FARC rebels “presumably came from Venezuela and fled back there” after the attack.
Mantilla said he had personally verified that the body of one of the dead soldiers was in Colombian territory, barely 150 metres from the boundary between the Colombian department (province) of La Guajira and the Venezuelan state of Zulia.
These statements have not been denied by the Venezuelan authorities.
Venezuelan opposition leaders like presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and Zulia state Governor Pablo Pérez have said it has long been known that Colombian irregulars operate all along the border.
“Why is the Venezuelan army not fulfilling its primary function of guarding the border?” asked Pérez, while Capriles maintained that “the places where the FARC operates in our border states are known, and the government is complicit in this situation.”
In the past few years, IPS correspondents visiting Venezuelan border areas to report on problems facing indigenous communities, shopkeepers or Colombian refugees have gathered testimonies about the presence of guerrillas or far-right paramilitaries from Colombia.
Rocío San Miguel, head of Citizen’s Control for Security, Defence and the Armed Forces, a Venezuelan NGO, told IPS that earlier cooperation mechanisms “have not worked because they did not give rise to clear and effective instructions that could be followed by middle-ranking officers of military units.
“This is apparent from the (Venezuelan) response arising from a telephone conversation between the presidents,” San Miguel said.
However, “the Venezuelan military deployment on the border is not credible,” she argued.
“The Venezuelan defence minister, General Henry Rangel, has talked of mobilising up to 140,000 troops, when the strength of the country’s entire armed forces is 124,000,” she said.
“The only way to address the problem in a consistent fashion is through effective cooperation between units led by middle-ranking officers, with permanent patrolling, and cooperation on intelligence and communications with the Colombian side, instead of sporadic actions,” said San Miguel.
The military cooperation against the guerrillas comes on top of agreements between Chávez and Santos on trade, which have paved the way for Venezuela’s pending debt to Colombian exporters to be paid, as well as reciprocal arrangements for handing over people wanted for drug trafficking and insurgency.
Colombia and Venezuela have also entered into a diplomatic understanding, in particular to buttress the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which brings together the 12 countries of the region.
Their amicable relationship apparently continues to flourish, in spite of the ideological differences between the two presidents which led to confrontation in the past.
When the conservative Santos was defence minister in the government of former right-wing president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), Chávez described the Colombian guerrilla groups as “political forces with a Bolivarian ideology” and said they deserved the status of legitimate belligerents because they “control territory” in Colombia. (END)
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