- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

URENA, Venezuela — Colombian paramilitaries and Marxist guerrillas are running kidnapping, extortion and smuggling rackets as they infiltrate Urena and other communities near Venezuela’s border, residents and officials say.

“There are more and more FARC in Apure and in Tachira [two western border states of Venezuela] present in the communities, and they are recruiting,” said Virginia Trimarco, regional representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“That makes people inside the country, and the Venezuelans, worried about security and selective killings,” she said, near the end of four years of working in Venezuela and more than 20 years in Latin America.

FARC is the acronym in Spanish of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerrilla army founded in 1964 by the Communist Party of Colombia.

On the outskirts of this hot, dusty town several hundred yards from the border, Colombian refugees fleeing the violence take shelter in dusty shacks of paper and branches.

Mrs. Trimarco estimates there are about 1.5 million Colombian refugees now living on the Venezuelan side of the border. Government estimates are as high as 3 million, and nongovernmental organizations have put the number as low as 350,000.

Venezuelan cattle ranchers and a local state official — who asked not to be named — said the government of President Hugo Chavez turns a blind eye to FARC guerrillas operating in Venezuela, pushed to the border by the success of the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia, aimed at eradicating the cocaine trade in Colombia that funds the rebels.

Right-wing Colombian paramilitaries are not far behind them, running “protection” operations.

Restaurant owners, taxi drivers and even Colombian refugees are forced to pay what is locally known as a “vaccination” — money to protect themselves from these armed groups.

The FARC’s favorite fundraisers are kidnapping for ransom and cocaine trafficking. Venezuela is a major transshipment point for Colombian cocaine headed for the United States and elsewhere.

Illicit commerce rife

“There is arms trafficking, drug trafficking, people trafficking,” said Mrs. Trimarco, one of the few officials ready to speak out about what many in these border towns will say only in private.

“The situation is slipping out of their control. Nobody wants confrontation or war, but the military are worried,” she said.

Much of the violence is invisible. Villages of whitewashed houses with red-tiled roofs clinging to the sides of the Andean foothills appear idyllic, but cafes are guarded with shotguns at night and drivers head home after 11 p.m.

“As [Colombia’s President Alvaro] Uribe pushes his war and illegal armed groups to the borders, they are moving over the borders, and moving their [cocaine] labs into neighboring countries,” said Mrs. Trimarco.

“The border areas are heavy with conflict between the illegal armed groups fighting for turf,” she said.

Venezuelan ranchers reportedly sometimes hire Colombian paramilitaries to protect themselves — either from the FARC or from rural workers trying to invade their land. Even so, in towns like San Cristobal, there are daily kidnappings and assassinations; the local La Nacion newspaper even runs a daily kidnapping column.

More obvious is the daily gasoline-smuggling operation at popular border crossings like San Antonio de Tachira, which leads to the bustling shopping town of Cucuta in Colombia.

Hundreds of beat-up Dodges, Fords and Chevrolets from the 1970s — the period of Venezuela’s last oil boom — make the crossing every day, carting as much as 100 extra gallons of gasoline in specially built tanks.

Gasoline in Venezuela costs about 18 cents per liter — 72 cents a gallon — but about 85 cents per liter — $3.40 per gallon — in Colombia. In addition to being a motor fuel, gasoline is also used in the processing of cocaine.

Moms, children hide

Colombian women who have survived the killings of their villages come straggling over the border with numerous children in tow. They settle in dusty shantytowns like El Cuji on the outskirts of Urena, and until they get Venezuelan papers, they are not allowed to travel more than 10 kilometers [about 6.2 miles] from the border.

Their shacks are not much more than mud and paper, sometimes just plastic bags and empty flour sacks glued together and held up on sticks above the dirt floor. Many of the children suffer from respiratory diseases and blisters from the unsanitary conditions.

Local government officials fill each family’s drum with water, but it runs out fast, and families are forced to cope. The lucky ones, whose children or newfound husbands do underpaid work in small factories nearby, pool their money to buy extra water.

The UNHCR, along with Caritas and Jesuit Relief Services, two Roman Catholic charity groups, struggle with meager resources to integrate the asylum seekers into the Venezuelan community and process their claims. But many of the Colombians streaming across the border are too afraid to identify themselves.

“There is a great degree of insecurity, because of the high rate of murder and crime” all along the border, said Jenncy Penaranda, a UNHCR protection assistant. The husband of one woman seeking help was slain last month on the dirt track outside his home, she said.

A 34-year-old mother of seven bathed her youngest child, who stood naked in a cement wash tub, using a small plastic pail to pour water over the crying child, trying to keep her children clean to prevent the diarrhea and skin diseases that plague many people here.

“I came from Colombia four years ago because of the violence,” said the mother afterward, as she balanced one of a pair of twin girls on her knee while sitting on a broken chair. She asked that her name and those of her children not be used.

“I lived in a village far from the border, but my kids were in danger,” she said, light brown hair blowing around her face. “They would cut off people’s ears. I was so scared I could not even sleep.”

One of her young sons added from behind his mother’s shoulder: “And cut their tongues out.” Life for this young mother and other families nearby is measurably better, she said. But the guerrillas and paramilitaries that tortured and killed their fathers, brothers and husbands have not disappeared with their move to Venezuela.

Her husband works in a furniture factory, earning the equivalent of $10 per week, barely enough for water and food for the family of nine. A teenage son manages to bring home about $2.50 a week in bolivars for working in a motorbike maintenance shop.

‘Slow procedure’

“There is no safety,” said the mother. “Anyone can come here and rip the wall,” she said, gesturing at the burlap bags and tin roof beside her.

“We also pay the ‘vaccination’ here for protection,” she added when the UNHCR representatives were out of earshot. “Someone comes to pick up the money.”

Government commissions have dealt with 700 asylum requests in the past two years, and only 300 applicants were considered refugees, said Mrs. Trimarco in her office in Caracas.

“It is a very slow procedure, but they are slowly getting better. At this pace, we will not meet the needs,” she said.

And the needs increase every day as the guerrillas and paramilitaries penetrate deeper into the border towns, not only of Venezuela, but also of neighboring Brazil and Ecuador, said Mrs. Trimarco.

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