March 10, 2008
RUBIO, Venezuela -- When Porfilio Davila hears his government deny that Colombian guerrillas are mobilizing in his part of western Venezuelan, he thinks about his father, whom he believed was kidnapped by such guerrillas nearly four years ago.
Dozens of people in this hilly, forested border region also have gone missing, and many here believe Colombian guerrillas are to blame. Despite the government's pledge to crack down on groups terrorizing the border, few here think that will happen. ''The national government lies,'' Davila said. Colombian police have even told him they suspected the National Liberation Army, one of three guerrilla groups believed to be operating here, was holding his father.
''Here, Colombian guerrilla groups are operating, sometimes with the complicity of police,'' he said. ``We live in a climate of terror fueled by the indifference of the state and the injustice of impunity.''
Questions about the guerrilla presence in this region were at the heart of an international controversy that erupted March 1 after Colombian troops bombed a jungle camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, in Ecuadorean territory.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez threatened war with Colombia if that country's troops entered Venezuelan territory in pursuit of Colombian guerrillas. Chávez also sent an estimated 9,000 troops, along with tanks, aircraft, and ships, to the Colombian-Venezuelan border.
Colombia President Alvaro Uribe, who has the backing of the United States, has long complained that neither Venezuela nor Ecuador were doing much to prevent the Colombian guerrillas from taking shelter in their countries.
The tensions eased Friday after Colombia's government apologized for violating Ecuadorean territory and promised not to do it again. Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador also committed themselves to fighting destabilizing ''irregular or criminal groups'' in their countries.
Despite the promises, Venezuelans living near the Colombian border said they don't expect their government to move against the growing number of guerrillas using the region as a safe haven from the pursuing Colombian army.
Several residents said they found it hard to believe Venezuelan officials didn't know about the guerrilla infiltration, given the many military checkpoints that dot the region's main highway.
Adding to local skepticism was Chávez's defense of the FARC as a legitimate military force, despite the group's kidnappings and drug production.
Computer documents found at the FARC's Ecuadorean camp showed that Chávez had given $300 million to the guerrilla group last year, Colombian officials said. Chávez has vehemently denied giving the money.
''The government is not doing anything because they have a friendship with these subversive groups,'' said city Councilman Alejandro Garcia, who represented the families of Venezuelan kidnap victims in talks with Colombian government officials in January. ``But there's no doubt about it, the groups are here and they're active.''
The movement of guerrillas is a fact of life in Venezuelan towns such as El Nula, about 20 miles from the Colombian border, said the Rev. Acacio Belandria, who heads a local parish.
Many here pay yearly extortion fees of up to $1,000, known as ''La Vacuna,'' or the vaccine, to one or more guerrilla groups to protect themselves against kidnapping. Some say the payments no longer provide protection.
In some cases, the guerillas have become so dominant that they've taken on local government functions, Belandria said.
The National Liberation Army (ELN) in El Nula, for example, adjudicates legal disputes over debts and divorces; disciplines school teachers who don't teach approved lessons; and vets members of community government councils.
''They've become a threatening presence, an interventionist presence and a violation of national sovereignty,'' Belandria said. ``We're suffering the effects of Colombia's armed war.''
Miami Herald Staff Writers Pablo Bachelet, Tyler Bridges, and Juan Tamayo contributed to this report.