Armed Conflicts, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA-VENEZUELA: Border Killings Heat Up Tension

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Nov 4 2009 (IPS) - The activities of Colombian armed groups across the border in western Venezuela are aggravating the diplomatic conflict between the two governments, which are ideological opposites, and some analysts have begun to wonder just how far the tension will escalate.

The sense of alarm has even reached their big neighbour, Brazil, where Marco Aurelio García, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s foreign policy adviser, said “It would be a good thing for Venezuela and Colombia to agree on a system of joint surveillance of their common border, and I would not exclude a non-aggression pact,” for which Brazil could provide assistance through “technical means,” such as surveillance aircraft.

Although Venezuela and Colombia have always managed to patch things up after a number of political, economic and diplomatic rows over the past decade, “this time, the confrontation is escalating in a more disturbing way, because the violent incidents have acted as fuel,” María Teresa Romero, a graduate studies professor of international affairs at the Central University of Venezuela, told IPS.

For nearly half a century, Colombia has been caught up in a civil war that frequently spills over its borders. Guerrilla movements in remote rural areas took up arms in 1964, and far-right paramilitary death squads with ties to the drug trade have been active since the 1980s.

Since 2000, Colombia – the main source of drugs to the U.S. market – has received heavy U.S. military aid as well as advisers and contractors, to fight drug trafficking and the insurgent groups, through Plan Colombia.

Former Colombian president Ernesto Samper (1994-1998) warned that there was a “pre-war situation” with Venezuela because of President Álvaro Uribe’s poor handling of the new military agreement with Washington.

The agreement, which would open up seven of Colombia’s military bases to the U.S. armed forces, in a major expansion of Plan Colombia, has drawn criticism from the rest of the region since it was announced in July.

Lula’s adviser García said the Brazilian government “does not see the accord as appropriate. We cannot keep Colombia from reaching its own decisions, but what are needed are guarantees that no imbalance will be generated in the region.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, an outspoken critic of the United States, has said the aim of the agreement is to spy on and destabilise his country, and perhaps even invade and topple his government.

“Venezuela feels threatened,” Samper told Colombia’s Caracol radio station.

The current escalation began in late October, after the bodies of 11 young men, including nine undocumented Colombians, were found in the western Venezuelan state of Táchira.

The young men had been kidnapped by a group of heavily armed men in pickup trucks while they were playing football two weeks earlier in the town of Chururú in Táchira, four hours from the Colombian border.

The Venezuelan government and Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba believe the killings may have been the result of a clash between paramilitary groups from Colombia operating in the area.

But Táchira’s opposition Governor César Pérez Vivas, a Christian Democrat, blamed the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s smaller left-wing guerrilla group.

Irregular armed groups from Colombia have been active for years in Táchira, an Andean highlands state that borders the northeastern Colombian department of Norte de Santander.

Two of the biggest roads connecting Colombia and Venezuela run through the state.

Since July, Chávez ordered restrictions of trade and other economic activities with Colombia, and the border bridges over the Táchira river, joining the Colombian city of Cúcuta and the Venezuelan towns of San Antonio and Ureña have been the scenario of frequent protests by truckers, local merchants, shop workers and people who depend on petty contraband for a living.

Last weekend, paramilitary supporters handed out leaflets urging businesses in Ureña and San Antonio to close their doors in protest against the restrictions on cross-border traffic imposed by authorities in Venezuela. The leaflets also included death threats against some people in the area. Ten of the pamphleteers were arrested by the Venezuelan National Guard.

On Monday, armed motorists attacked a National Guard post near Ureña, killing two members of that military force, which has police duties.

Venezuelan Vice President Ramón Carrizález accused “paramilitary bands trying to position themselves in this region (Táchira) to try to intimidate our National Guard, as part of the destabilisation plan.”

Carrizález, who is also defence minister, said the paramilitaries “are like the vanguard of something that is threatening Venezuela as well as all of the countries of South America: the installation of Yanqui bases in Colombian territory.”

Chávez accused Governor Pérez Vivas of opening up Táchira to the paramilitaries “as part of the destabilisation plan,” and said the governor should be tried and “will maybe head to Peru,” where several prominent opponents of Chávez have gone into exile.

The president said he was studying the possibility of declaring a state of emergency on the border. He also lashed out at the Uribe administration again, for the military base deal with Washington: “Colombia is no longer a sovereign country. They have turned it into a kind of colony. Anyone who wants to talk to the Colombian government has to go through the White House or the Pentagon.”

In a parallel development, Venezuelan authorities arrested three alleged agents of Colombia’s domestic secret police service, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) – two Colombians and one Venezuelan – and announced that they would be tried for spying on the Venezuelan military.

Venezuelan Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami showed parliament documents that he said were Colombian plans for spying on Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela. The Colombian government complained that other documents, which are confidential because they form part of a judicial investigation in Colombia, are in the hands of authorities in Venezuela.

The former heads of the DAS are facing criminal charges in Colombia for years of spying on journalists, activists, politicians and even Supreme Court judges.

“This espionage business is perhaps the best demonstration of how the tension has been ratcheted up, and may be the most serious episode in relations between the two countries in the past decade,” Elsa Cardozo, a professor of international relations at the Metropolitan University, commented to IPS.

In a statement released Wednesday, the Colombian Foreign Ministry said “the public order situation in Venezuela, which has claimed the lives of a number of Colombians, is serious.”

Venezuelan Vice President Carrizález, meanwhile, said “The paramilitary phenomenon that was created in Colombia has permeated our border and has intensified in the past year.”

The Venezuelan authorities are investigating the killings of the Colombians who were kidnapped on the soccer field in Chururú.

Lázaro Vivero, a Colombian expert on peace, told the Caracas daily El Nacional that “relations between Colombia and Venezuela are in such a state of tension that anything could happen.”

Iván Cepeda, the spokesman for the Movement of Victims of State Crimes in Colombia, said “a climate favourable to a military confrontation” was taking shape, while “fabricated situations that create a public sensation of imminent confrontation are growing.”

Romero said the escalation “has more to do with internal, rather than international, factors, especially in the case of Venezuela, because of the drop in Chávez’s popularity and the fact that he has to face the election of a new parliament in 2010.”

The Venezuelan polling firm Datanálisis found that Chávez’s ratings have gradually dropped this year, from 57 percent in February to 46 percent in October.

But the analyst also said that as a result of “the Bogotá-Washington agreement, Colombia will become the biggest military obstacle for Chávez’s campaign to internationalise his so-called Bolivarian political project.”

On the border formed by the Táchira river, meanwhile, the temporary closure of the two international bridges after the National Guardsmen were killed has forced people to cross the shallow river by foot, while the Venezuelan military presence has been intensified.

Pérez Vivas said he would ask the governments of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay to act as mediators to ward off a conflict between Colombia and Venezuela, and the governor of the Colombian department of Santander, Horacio Serpa, urged Chávez to meet with Uribe to work out the current diplomatic and trade crisis.

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