January 17, 2008
Colombian guerrillas are venturing deeper into Venezuelan territory for their kidnappings, according to witnesses and local groups.
CARACAS -- The Venezuelan rancher was kidnapped in broad daylight in early 2007, while he was going to his ranch in the central state of Yaracuy. His captors kept him ''blindfolded for many hours on the road,'' he said.
Forty-five days late
r, he was released just outside the Colombian border city of Cúcuta, after an agreement to pay a $465,000 ransom in Venezuelan currency -- and put up one of his sons as collateral.
The kidnappers had demanded one billion Venezuelan bolivares. When the 60-year-old rancher told them he only had 600 million bolivares on hand, they agreed to exchange him for one of his sons while the father rounded up the remaining 400 million.
The man, who declined to be identified out of fear for his safety, told El Nuevo Herald he believed his kidnappers were Colombian guerrillas -- either the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known for its Spanish acronym as FARC, or the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN.
The son was eventually released, but the case is one of many of ranchers abducted in Venezuela and taken to Colombia to negotiate their release with kidnappers who appeared to be representatives of the FARC or ELN.
''They spoke with a Colombian accent'' and operated from ''a command center that gave and received orders from other command units in [three Colombian areas],'' the man said, recalling the phone and radio calls he overheard in captivity.
Witnesses and authorities interviewed by El Nuevo Herald say such groups recently have been widening their operational range beyond the Venezuelan-Colombian border zone and now penetrate deeper into Venezuelan territory.
''The problem of kidnappings has stopped being a border crime to become a national crime'' said Manuel Cipriano Heredia, vice president of the National Federation of Cattle Ranchers in Venezuela, which keeps a registry of kidnappings of members and other ranchers.
''They work in a very organized way. Many of those abducted are surprised to see their kidnappers have a detailed inventory of their properties,'' said Fhandor Quiroga, rancher and director of the federation in Yaracuy.
The guerrillas may even control some forest sections of Venezuela. ''We have numerous testimonies about groups of irregulars in military outfit in [Yaracuy] zones,'' Quiroga said.
''The Colombian guerrillas act freely in the country,'' said César Pérez Vivas, leader of the opposition party COPEI. As a member of the national legislature, he has investigated numerous abductions by Colombian groups along the border.
In spite of the constant complaints from farmers, President Hugo Chávez has persistently denied that Colombian rebels operate in Venezuela.