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."
Ch¿vez's involvement in Colombia underscores his persistent drive to become an influential leader beyond his own borders. But the strategy of negotiating to liberate Colombians and denying that the rebels do harm in Venezuela is permitting abuses to continue, say the families of hostages and many people interviewed along the border.
"The kidnappings have not ceased. There is still kidnapping by the guerrillas, though it's easy to say it's criminal gangs," said Marcos Tarre, a security analyst who heads the anti-crime group Secure Venezuela in Caracas. "What is clear is there's a great resentment on the part of Venezuelan families who believe there's not even minimal interest in helping them, while there's this media show to help Colombian hostages."
Officials at the Communications and Interior ministries did not return calls seeking comment. But Venezuelan authorities have publicly asserted that common criminals and right-wing Colombian paramilitary groups are behind the kidnappings. "If someone has proof that there is another factor involved, they should collaborate to the maximum with the authorities," Vice President Ramón Carrizales said in January.
In the rolling mountains and picturesque towns along this border, the families of hostages say that those who demand ransom often have Colombian accents and identify themselves as members of revolutionary groups. Venezuelans who are freed, after paying ransom, contend that they have been held by guerrillas, almost always inside Venezuela.
To lessen the risk, affluent Venezuelans hire bodyguards and pay a monthly "vaccine" to help ensure they will not be threatened.
Businessman Luis Rosales, 62, is among those who worry constantly about being kidnapped. That's what happened to his son, Carlos Eduardo Rosales, 29, who was abducted in 2002 and never heard from. His father believes the ELN kidnapped him.
"You wonder every day if today is my turn," he said. "If they're going to get me. If they'll kidnap someone else, who they're going to take, what relative, what friend?"
The rebel commander in the demobilization program said that the FARC carries out "economic studies" on potential targets and asks from $400,000 to $700,000 to release a hostage. He said Venezuelan authorities are well aware of the FARC's activities.
"The role of the government is the government plays deaf and dumb to accusations made by civilians," he said. For the government, he said, "it does not benefit them that it be publicly known that there are Venezuelans kidnapped in Venezuela by the Colombian guerrillas."
The FARC, which began fighting the Colombian state in 1964, is particularly notorious for kidnapping, a war crime under international humanitarian law. In Colombia, more than 750 people, including three Americans, are in captivity; some have been held as long as a decade. Most are held for ransom, but about 45 are considered political pawns to be used as leverage against President Álvaro Uribe's government.
To spearhead negotiations to free Colombians, Chávez is using Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacin, who has met with FARC commanders on various occasions. The government is now working with the guerrillas to stage the release of three more Colombian hostages.
While Colombia's government has permitted Chávez's involvement, the Venezuelan leader has repeatedly hurled invective at Uribe while offering mollifying words to a guerrilla group that is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union.
"The FARC and ELN are not terrorist groups. They are armies, real armies that occupy space in Colombia," Chávez said to rousing approval last month in the National Assembly. "They are insurgent forces who have a political project, who have a Bolivarian Project that is respected here."
Ciro Sánchez, 57, wants to tell the president what happened to his mother, Blanca Oliva Delgado, 78. On Sept. 7, she was kidnapped near her home, on a country road just a few miles outside San Cristobal. She was frail and diabetic, and Sánchez said he later learned from contacts he has in the intelligence services that she had died three days into her ordeal.
"My mother was kidnapped by common criminals and sold to the FARC," Sánchez said. "She couldn't last and died. She died in the hands of the FARC."