Venezuelans Grow Bitter Over Abductions

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela -- In recent weeks, President Hugo Chávez has worked with fevered intensity to secure the release of Colombian hostages from rebel groups. He has appointed his interior minister to negotiate with guerrilla commanders and has flown the families of Colombian hostages to Venezuela's capital for meetings at the presidential palace.

But along this country's porous, 1,300-mile border with Colombia, Venezuelans have watched with disdain as their populist president has embraced the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The guerrillas, residents say, are at the root of their own heartbreak.

"It's no secret for anyone that the FARC kidnaps Venezuelans," said Joseline de Caires, whose mother-in-law and brother-in-law were both kidnapped in 2003 and never heard from again.

People here -- from small-time politicians to cattlemen, businessmen to farmers -- say the FARC and a smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, are either directly responsible for kidnappings or have paid criminal organizations to carry them out. Venezuelans also note that, as the relatives of Colombian hostages have been lavished with attention, they rarely hear from their own government after loved ones are snatched into oblivion.

The Venezuelan government's own figures show that 382 people were taken hostage last year, up from 232 in 2006 and 44 in 1999 -- Chávez's first year in office. That was before Colombia's long internal conflict with guerrillas began a violent, rapid expansion into Venezuela. But the government, which shares an ideological affinity with Colombia's rebels, officially denies that the FARC or ELN kidnap Venezuelans, or that the two groups hold hostages inside Venezuelan territory, as families here contend.

"I guarantee the farmers and inhabitants of the border that I believe the word of Commander Marulanda," Chávez said recently on his television program, referring to Manuel Marulanda, founder of the FARC. "The FARC do not kidnap, nor are they going to kidnap in Venezuela. That's the FARC's commitment."

The reason for the abductions is money.

One former guerrilla, who spent seven years in the FARC, said in an interview that corrupt units of the National Guard permit the group to operate inside Venezuela. The rebels, he said, work with criminal gangs and rogue policemen to identify targets for kidnapping.

"In Venezuela, this is one of the sources of financing for our organization," said the guerrilla, who deserted the FARC late last year and joined a government program for demobilized rebels in Bogota. "We look for cattlemen, for entrepreneurs, for businessmen who have the most money in Venezuela."

Such disclosures are no surprise to Porfirio Dávila, a veterinarian in the small town of Rubio. His father, also named Porfirio D¿vila, was kidnapped in 2003 by guerrillas as he arrived for work at his farm.

"We've been asking for one year for a meeting with the president," said Dávila, seated with his mother in the living room, where pictures of his father are strewn on the table. "They had never shown themselves to be worried about our cases, never."

He said that he watched with a mix of amazement and shame as his government hosted Colombian families in Caracas, putting them up at the elegant Gran Melia hotel and ferrying them to meetings with the president. "That's depressing for us, even humiliating," he said. "We're Venezuelans."

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