February 26, 2008
As President Chávez negotiated to free Colombians held by the FARC guerrillas in Colombia, families of kidnapped Venezuelans said: What about us?
SAN JOAQUIN DE NAVAY, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chávez has reveled in praise worldwide for helping secure the release last month of two Colombian hostages held by the FARC guerrillas in the neighboring country.
But his efforts to free other Colombians from captivity are provoking anger here along Venezuela's western border with Colombia, where kidnappings of Venezuelan ranchers and businessmen have risen dramatically.
''The president says that the guerrillas don't hold Venezuelans,'' said Alejandro García, a municipal official. ``The facts say otherwise. We have proof from witnesses, telephone records and [ransom] letters.''
Cattle growers and their political allies say Colombian rebels hold 16 Venezuelan kidnap victims and complain that Chávez is doing little to win their freedom, despite his sway with the FARC.
Sergio Omar Calderón, former governor of the border state of Táchira, spent 29 days in captivity in 2003 before soldiers freed him in a rescue operation that killed seven kidnappers. Calderón said his kidnappers were unidentified guerrillas who kept him in Venezuela.
''Friends who have been kidnapped [also] say they were kidnapped by guerrillas,'' he added. ``When there are no more kidnappings in Venezuela, I will believe the president that there aren't guerrillas here.''
Calderón no longer calls ahead before visiting his ranch, travels with bodyguards and always carries a walkie-talkie and a cellphone with the police emergency number on speed dial.
Kidnappings in Venezuela surged to 283 in 2007, up from 196 in 2006 and 60 in 2005, according to the cattle growers federation, whose members are most at risk. Another 51 Venezuelans have been kidnapped so far in 2008.
Kidnappings are hardly new in Táchira state, a remote place of thick forests and rugged mountains that for years has virtually operated on its own rules.
Beginning 15-20 years ago, potential kidnap victims began paying the FARC and Colombia's smaller ELN guerrillas for protection. Locally, it is known as La Vacuna, or the vaccine. With the rise of Colombian counter-guerrilla paramilitary groups, they, too, began demanding payment for protection.
For a while, nearly all the kidnap victims were people who had refused to pay the protection money to either the guerrillas or the paramilitary groups, local officials say.
But the rules appear to have changed in recent times, and La Vacuna no longer provides the same level of protection.
The success of Plan Colombia under President Alvaro Uribe has played a role by demobilizing paramilitary groups and thinning the guerrillas' ranks. But many ex-fighters have allegedly continued their violent ways in Táchira, as kidnappers for hire.
In many cases, they then sell the victims to the guerrillas so the rebels can collect ransom, the victims' families say.
A shadowy Venezuelan paramilitary group alleged to have links to Chávez's leftist government, the Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación, is also believed to participate in kidnappings.
The breakdown in the rules has spread fear throughout Táchira, said Gerardo Chávez, a lawyer in the city of San Cristóbal who owns a 700-acre cattle ranch in San Joaquín de Navay, a hamlet one hour by car from the Colombian border.
Many ranchers have left Táchira for the safety of Margarita, a Venezuelan island only 30 minutes by air from Caracas. Those who have remained now make sporadic visits to their ranches, which has hurt investment and production.
Gerardo Chávez now carries a pistol wherever he goes. He travels with two armed escorts when he visits his ranch on days that employees say they sense the level of danger is higher.
''Before, people reached agreement with the guerrillas, and they protected you,'' said Chávez as he stood in a cattle pen at his farm. ``But you can't put your trust in this anymore. Another group wouldn't respect the agreement.''
Chávez declined to say whether he pays La Vacuna, calling the matter ``too delicate.''
Heber Aguilar, Táchira's top law enforcement official and a strong Chávez supporter, said he believes that right-wing Colombian paramilitaries carry out the kidnappings, not Colombian guerrillas.
He said the kidnappers belong to the ''Black Eagles,'' the name given to demobilized paramilitary men who have since formed lawless gangs.
''There are probably [kidnapped] Venezuelans in Colombia,'' Aguilar said. ``But they are held by the Black Eagles. We have no information on kidnap victims being sold to the guerrillas.''
Aguilar added that the government is intensifying efforts to arrest kidnappers and rescue their victims.
Alejandro García, a city councilman in the border town of Ureña, earned Chávez's wrath last month after arranging for families of the victims to meet with top Colombian anti-kidnapping officials in Cúcuta on the Colombian side of the border.
Three days later, senior Venezuelan government officials came to Táchira to meet with the families for the first time.
''It doesn't look good for the president that we have to go to Colombia for help,'' said García, whom Chávez branded a ``traitor.''
García and others note that Chávez rejects the common view in Táchira that fighters of the FARC -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- regularly cross into Venezuela to escape Colombian troops and blackmail farmers.
One rancher, to emphasize that it does indeed happen, took a carefully folded piece of paper out of his wallet.
It was a hand-written note ''to whom it may concern'' declaring that the rancher, who insisted on anonymity for his safety, was protected because he had paid the Vacuna. The note had a stamp from the FARC's 10th Guadelupe Salcedo Front.
''This is my safe-conduct pass,'' the rancher said, adding that he believed it had helped keep him from being kidnapped.
He said he believed that it was indeed the FARC that was providing him protection.
Juan Pabon, a former paratrooper like President Chávez, said he has no word on who seized his mother and younger brother from their farm late one afternoon more than four years ago.
Pabon said he believes government intelligence officials were involved since he said they deliberately contaminated all of the fingerprints and other evidence at the farm, which sits on a ridge overlooking the town of Cordero near San Cristóbal.
Pabon pried open the door to his mother's bedroom, which has been left untouched since the day of the kidnapping.
''I wish I could register my family as having been kidnapped by the FARC,'' Pabon said, looking down his mother's dust-covered bed. ``Then the president would take notice.''