Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

VENEZUELA: Colombian Paramilitaries Convicted of Plot

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Oct 25 2005 (IPS) - A Venezuelan military court sentenced 27 Colombian paramilitaries to six years in prison Tuesday for participating in a failed plot to overthrow the government of Hugo Chávez in May 2004, while 73 others were acquitted, released from prison and deported.

Two Venezuelan officers tried in the same case were handed nine-year sentences, and a third was sentenced to two years and five months in prison. Three lower-ranking officers were declared innocent and released.

The court ruling has brought to a close a legal process that has stretched on for nearly one and a half years. But it has not answered many of the questions left by a strange story of invasion, plots and political conspiracy.

On May 9, 2004, police intercepted outside of Caracas a bus full of Colombians dressed in military fatigues, as it was pulling out of a ranch southeast of the capital. But only one of the man was armed.

A search of the Daktari ranch – owned by right-wing Cuban exile Robert Alonso, now a fugitive from justice – brought to 130 the number of Colombians arrested. Most of them were young unemployed men or labourers who had been recruited as paramilitaries with false promises in northeastern Colombia.

Nine of them were minors – including a young pregnant woman – who were sent back to Colombia without charges shortly after the arrests. The U.N. refugee and children’s agencies had applied to the government on their behalf.

“Venezuela has been invaded. We are facing a serious threat to the country’s peace, integrity and security,” Chávez said at the time. He added that the plot had been “thought out, planned and led by an international network, two of whose hubs are in Miami and Colombia.”

For his part, Vice President José Vicente Rangel accused the then commander of the Colombian army, Gen. Martín Carreño, of meeting in Colombian military barracks with leaders of the anti-Chávez opposition movement, “as part of a conspiracy that brought the over 100 paramilitaries to the outskirts of Caracas.”

Carreño rejected the accusation, saying “we have a very touchy problem in our own country (a reference to Colombia’s armed conflict), and we do not meddle in problems that are none of our business.”

“We have no intention of participating in any plot affecting another country,” he stated.

Chávez clarified at the time that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe had “nothing to do with this invasion.” Nor, he said, did a majority of those comprising the Venezuelan opposition movement.

When the Colombians were arrested in May 2004, the memories of the burning roadblocks mounted by the opposition in middle-class neighbourhoods in Caracas in March 2004 were still fresh, and the country was gearing up for the Aug. 15 presidential recall referendum with which the opposition hoped to oust Chávez. (He survived, taking 59 percent of the vote).

”I can almost predict what the script would have been: the paramilitaries, dressed as Venezuelan soldiers, would attack the government palace to kill the president, as well as some military installation, to show the world a false image of a division within the armed forces,” Chávez told foreign correspondents after the Colombians were captured in 2004.

If that had occurred, ”a civil war would have been triggered. Thank God – and the security bodies – that we thwarted this danger,” he added.

Once the military trial began, several serving and retired Venezuelan armed forces officers were arrested for allowing or helping the Colombian paramilitaries to enter the country and travel the nearly 1,000 km between the border and Caracas.

The trial lasted 17 months, with 91 hearings, including testimony from a group of “repentant” paramilitaries who agreed to cooperate with the prosecutors and provide information on their companions and on the Venezuelan officers.

Only 100 of the 130 Colombians were eventually tried, and the court convicted those who appeared to be leaders of the units and let the rest go free.

All of the Colombians who were released “have already headed Tuesday to Colombia at the end of this exhausting and expensive legal process,” said the Colombian consul in Caracas, Darío Angarita.

The Venezuelan officers who received nine-year sentences were national guard Colonel Jesús Farías and army Captain Rafael Farías. Both will also be expelled from the armed forces.

Retired army general Ovidio Poggioli, who has spoken out publicly against Chávez since 2002, was sentenced to two years and five months in prison, but could be released since he has already served more than half of his term.

Poggioli maintained that the Colombians were tortured to make them implicate him in the plot.

The text of the sentence itself, which would shed light on the plot, will be made public at some time in the future, depending on the appeals filed by the defence attorneys and other legal questions.

Lawyer Carlos Bastidas, who represented Colonel Farías and one of the officers who was absolved, asserted that “There is no proof to justify the conviction of any of the accused.”

Under Venezuelan law, “A conviction for (military) rebellion is not possible if there are no weapons,” he said.

“What happened in this case was a set-up, but I am not familiar with what story there might be underneath,” Bastidas added.

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