JOSE DE CORDOBA
The Wall Street Journal
November 21, 2008
MANTECAL, Venezuela -- This sweltering market town on Venezuela's southwestern frontier has its own mayor, council and police force. It also has a parallel government of sorts -- a group of Communist guerrillas from the neighboring country of Colombia.
Earlier this year, a squad from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, took over the Doña Pancha bar in this town 70 miles from the border with Colombia. The uniformed guerrillas cut the music and told customers they were in the area to support the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and settle local disputes, according to a local priest.
Now, the priest says, the foreign fighters have been seen setting up impromptu road checks, meting out justice to petty thieves and extorting businessmen.
For years, President Chávez has denied giving refuge to the FARC and Colombia's National Liberation Army, or ELN, both considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. and Europe. But as the Colombian military has stepped up pressure against rebels, the number of guerrillas using Venezuela as a safe haven has swelled, according to Colombian officials, intercepted e-mails and dozens of interviews on both sides of the border.
Colombian and U.S. officials say Venezuela's military and police authorities turn a blind eye to guerrilla activity, and at times cooperate in areas including the trafficking of arms and cocaine. As these groups expand operations here, often in brutal competition with each other, Venezuela has suffered a sharp increase in kidnapping, drug trafficking and extortion.
The guerrillas' presence in Venezuela could prolong Colombia's decades-long civil conflict, and hamper U.S. and Colombian efforts to crack down on the drug trade that feeds the violence. The rebels could also prove to be a drain to Mr. Chávez's political capital in Venezuela, where their activities are unpopular. Mr. Chavez suffered an electoral setback Sunday when opposition governors won elections in five of 22 states, including two on the border with Colombia.
The Venezuelan Embassy in Washington declined to comment on Venezuela's relationship with the guerrilla groups or make key military and intelligence officials in Venezuela available for interview. Efforts to contact the FARC were unsuccessful.
The FARC, Latin America's oldest and largest insurgency, has been fighting to overthrow Colombia's democratic government since 1964. Originally a movement of peasants and urban Marxists, the FARC still claims ideological motivations. But analysts say it now operates more like a criminal enterprise -- funding itself largely through drug sales, shakedowns and taking hostages for ransom. Even before Mr. Chavez took power in Venezuela in 1999, the FARC and other guerrilla and paramilitary groups operated across the 1,400-mile border between Colombia and Venezuela, an ill-policed line across jungles, mountains and plains.
But under Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, elected in 2002, the country's army has pushed the rebels away from the big cities and into remote jungles. This year, in March, Colombia launched a cross-border bombing raid into Ecuador, killing the FARC's No. 2 man, Raúl Reyes. In July, it freed 15 hostages, including three Americans and French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, who had been FARC's biggest human bargaining chips.
"There's no space for [the guerrillas] here in Colombia," says a Colombian army colonel stationed in the border province of Arauca.
Mr. Chávez, who has governed Venezuela since 1999, has made no secret of his admiration for the guerrillas across the border. The populist former army officer calls Fidel Castro "father" and once tried to topple Venezuela's government in a failed 1992 coup. Mr. Chávez considers the FARC ideological brothers and possible allies against a U.S. invasion he believes might come from Colombia.
In January, he pushed through a motion in Venezuela's Congress calling for diplomatic recognition of the FARC and the ELN, seeking to raise international pressure on Colombia to scale back its drive against the rebels. "They are in no way terrorist groups," Mr. Chávez told the assembled Venezuelan deputies. "They are insurgent forces with a political project that we here respect."
Five Tons a Month
In Colombia, much of the war against guerrilla groups is fought in places like Arauca. This sweltering town, the seat of Arauca state, lies on the Arauca River, which runs along a 185-mile stretch of border between Colombia and Venezuela.
Emails from FARC
Below are excerpts from thousands of pages of emails that were obtained from computers belonging to the FARC's second in command, Raul Reyes, after he was killed in a raid by Colombian soldiers on his camp in Ecuador on March 1. Many of the emails had to do with relations between the FARC, and President Hugo Chavez and his top aides.
In the Jan. 18 email, a FARC secretariat member writes to the full body and mentions some of the issues to be taken up at a proposed meeting with President Chavez. Among the issues: an alliance against the U.S., keeping FARC units in Venezuela, such as the 10th and 45th fronts, which are kidnapping and extorting ranchers in Venezuela under control, and pushing Mr. Chavez for a $250 million loan.
In the Nov. 12 email, Ivan Marquez, the FARC's representative in Venezuela reports to the late Manuel Marulanda, the FARC's legendary chief, on a meeting with President Chavez. Among the points he mentions is that Mr. Chavez has approved a loan for what Colombian officials believe is $300 million "without blinking." Mr. Chavez has named then Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin to act as liason with the guerrillas. Among the first orders of business is to set up a meeting with two Australian arms dealers. Mr. Chavez also gives the orders to set up medical and rest facilities for the FARC along the Venezuelan border.
The Nov. 14 email is self explanatory. Mr. Rodriguez Chacin asks the FARC for training in guerrilla warfare to meet what Venezuela believes will be an invasion from the U.S.
* * *
Jan. 18, 2007
Comrades of the Secretariat: warm greetings. We consider that the conditions for the meeting between a member of the Secretariat (the FARC's ruling body) with President Chavez are favorable for the following reasons:
a- Strengthen the alliance against the "gringos" and their strategic allies, the capitalists.
b- Mutual respect between the FARC and the Venezuelan government. We commit to correcting all the irregularities committed by (the) Fronts 10 and 45 of the Eastern Block of the FARC-EP.
c- Request they help us secure (the) weapons included in the strategic plan, the $250 million loan we will repay when we take power.
* * *
Nov. 12, 2007
Comrade Manuel, comrades from the secretariat. Cordial greeting. I'll summarize the results of the two meetings with President Chávez in Miraflores [The home and office of the President of Venezuela]:
1- He approved the request totally and without blinking (300). He designated Rodríguez Chacín for the task at hand, who already made some interesting proposals. I will elaborate on this topic later.
9- Rodríguez Chacín is one of Chávez top dogs. He practically manages or coordinates state security. As it relates to the first item Chavéz put him in charge. He already suggested a mechanism to receive the Australians in the Orinoco. Little by little we have been drawing him closer to our position.
10- The relationship with the army is very close to what is presented in the Strategic Plan. We have a friendship and a level of empathy with at least 5 generals. Moreover, Chávez gave the order in front of me to establish resting and medical areas along the border and named some sort of Joint Chiefs of Staff for these relations. They are already asking us where we want to build them. Chávez indicated that they will help regardless of the possibility of a confrontation. He said that if Uribe so much as touches a delegate of the FARC he will gain an enemy for life.
* * *
Nov. 14, 2007
Comrades of the Secretariat. Cordial greeting.
1- Rodríguez Chacín asked about the possibilities of transmitting our experience(s) in guerrilla war to them, which they call "asymmetric war". They want (the) operating mode, explosives, Bolivarian lectures, camps in the jungle, ambushes, logistic, mobility... all contemplating an adequate response to the possibility of an invasion from the United States.
2- There would be several levels. One of them with some generals and another at an intermediate level.
3- Chávez proposed quarterly contacts to evaluate progress in (the) relations with the two guerrillas, through events that could take place on the border, Caracas or Havana, without ruling out his presence. That is all, Iván.
At an army base here one morning in July, a Colombian military intelligence captain pointed to a map covering the length of a conference room. It showed the locations of four FARC camps on Venezuela's side of the Arauca River. Each camp has about 100 fighters, he said. In all, Colombian officials believe, Venezuela is now home to about 500 Colombian guerrillas and another 1,000 militant sympathizers.
The Venezuelan side also harbors top FARC commanders, including German Briceño, known as Granobles, whose brother is the FARC's most feared military leader, Colombian officials say. The guerrilla chief's tiny photograph was glued to the map by the town of Elorza, about 10 miles from the border, where Colombian officials believe he lives on a cattle ranch.
Mr. Briceño traffics at least five tons of cocaine a month from Arauca and uses the profits to arm the guerrillas and buy supplies, according to a Colombian intelligence estimate. That amount would account for about one-quarter of the cocaine that U.S. drug officials believe flows out of Venezuela.
Another photo on the map was that of José Felipe Rizo, a rebel known by the nom de guerre Jurga Jurga. Colombian military intelligence believed that in 2005, Mr. Rizo oversaw at least five bombings on a major oil pipeline in Colombia.
For years, Colombia's army struggled to kill or capture Mr. Rizo, who kept his family on the Venezuelan side of the border. Pointing to the photograph, the Colombian captain said that in February 2008, Mr. Rizo received treatment on an old war wound at a hospital in Elorza.
'End of Story'
Minutes later, the captain's cellphone rang. "Now I can tell you the end of Jurga Jurga's story," he said, turning to a reporter. "I've got to go identify the body."
Shortly after, the captain was at police headquarters, a few hundred yards from the border with Venezuela, examining two corpses stretched out on the courtyard. He nodded at one, whose Wellington boots poked out from under a white tarp. "It's Jurga Jurga," he confirmed.
Earlier that morning, a police team in a helicopter had swooped in on Mr. Rizo's hideout, a lonely farmhouse in Colombia, a few miles from the border. In the firefight, the captain said, Mr. Rizo and another guerrilla had been killed. At the time of his death, Mr. Rizo was carrying a Venezuelan identification card and a Venezuelan-issued army rifle, the captain said.
Some Colombian soldiers have been accused of faking such casualties. In recent weeks, the government says 30 officers and 10 enlisted men were purged after soldiers were accused of killing poor Colombians and dressing them as rebels to pad body counts. But no such allegations have been made in the case of Mr. Rizo.
In September, six weeks after Mr. Rizo's death, the U.S. placed sanctions on three of Mr. Chávez's top aides -- the head of military intelligence, the head of Venezuela's domestic intelligence agency and the interior minister -- for their alleged roles in protecting FARC drug shipments and trying to help the group obtain arms. The U.S. said the military intelligence chief, Gen. Raúl Carvajal, also helped provide the FARC with Venezuelan identity documents similar to those found on Mr. Rizo's body.
Venezuela's government denied the accusations at the time, saying they were part of a U.S. plot to discredit Mr. Chávez and destabilize the country. Through its embassy, it did not make Gen. Carvajal available for interview.
Inside Venezuela, locals say the FARC and other rebel groups are unimpeded by local military and law enforcement, even as the groups often battle each other for influence along vast border territory. None of these residents wished to be identified.
In Santa Barbara de Barinas, a cattle town about 40 miles from Colombia, a candidate for a local political office said he pays tribute, or "war taxes," to three groups -- the FARC, the ELN and the Bolivarian Liberation Front, a homegrown Venezuelan outfit that enjoys support from the government.
The budding politician said that to run for office, he had to ask permission from the FARC. He said the local Venezuelan army detachment steers clear of the guerrillas. "If the colonel wants a promotion, he knows he has to co-exist with the guerrillas," he said.
The FARC also operates in Venezuela's cities, far from the border. Marcela, a 23-year-old former guerrilla, says she spent the month of August 2006 in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela's largest port, working with a FARC squad and a Venezuelan National Guard captain. Her job was to shadow a Citibank bank manager as a kidnap target.
"I got a job as a receptionist at the bank and gave information to my crew about his schedule," said Marcela, who later fled the rebels. The kidnap attempt was called off because the bank official was with other people the day the kidnapping was to take place, said Marcela, who is now enrolled in Colombian government program to reintegrate former guerrillas.
Citibank's parent, Citigroup Inc., declined to comment.
The ELN also holds sway over a big chunk of Venezuelan territory. It rules Amparo, a Venezuelan town with unpaved streets just across the river from Arauca, said a retired teacher there. The group settles domestic disputes and collects taxes on everything from building permits to heads of cattle.
"To build a house, you pay a war tax, and they place the people they want in the job," the teacher said. "If your wife runs off with somebody else, you go see [the ELN]. They decide whether to kill the guy, whether or not to return your wife."
The retired teacher added that he had been held briefly by a 50-man ELN squad with a base on the island of Charo, on the Arauca river, as he traveled on the waterway earlier this year. The island was less than two miles from a Venezuelan military base. "The Venezuelan military is afraid of them," the teacher said.
Lessons From FARC
While Mr. Chávez had openly admired the FARC for years, the extent of his support became clear only earlier this year. After the Colombian army killed the FARC's second-in-command, Mr. Reyes, authorities seized computers that belonged to him. They found dozens of emails outlining close ties between the guerrillas, top-ranking Venezuelan officials and Mr. Chávez himself.
The emails implicated some of Mr. Chávez's closest aides in attempts to supply weapons and money to the FARC. The Venezuelan officials also sought the rebels' assistance: In one 2007 email, a FARC leader reports that Venezuela's then-interior minister had asked the group for training in guerrilla warfare -- "jungle camps, ambushes, logistics, mobility... everything" -- as a response to the "possibility of invasion from the U.S."
Mr. Chávez went to lengths to back the FARC, even as it terrorized some Venezuelans, the emails reveal. In September 2004, an armed group ambushed a Venezuelan National Guard patrol in the state of Apure, according to press reports at the time. The attackers killed five Venezuelan soldiers and a state oil company engineer.
The emails reveal that FARC fighters from the 10th Front -- which operates in Venezuela -- had conducted the attack for reasons that remain unknown. "Chávez is angry and demands a detailed explanation," Ricardo Granda, a key contact between the FARC and Venezuela's government, wrote to Mr. Reyes, citing a meeting Mr. Granda had held with a Venezuelan official the day after the killings.
"The 10th [Front] is out of control," Mr. Granda quoted the official as saying. "They are kidnapping Venezuelan ranchers, extorting farmers, executing people. They've become rich... They are buying 600-hectare haciendas and are allowing their militia to commit all kinds of crimes in Venezuela."
The FARC quickly apologized to its Venezuelan contacts. In an email, Mr. Granda reported that Gen. Carvajal, the head of military intelligence, told him that Mr. Chávez was ready to treat the incident "in a political and prudent way."
Two days after the attack, Venezuela's then-Secretary of Defense Gen. José García Carneiro issued a statement pinning the killings not on the FARC, but on right-wing Colombian paramilitaries. "Not only did they shoot them, but they gave the coup de grâce to the wounded and that makes us believe that it was the work of paramilitary-drug traffickers who are in the area," the statement said.
When the emails came to light, Mr. Chávez said they had been fabricated by the Colombian government. Both Interpol and the U.S. government, which viewed the emails, said they did not bear signs of tampering.
Such close ties surprised even the most jaded observers of the Venezuelan president. The FARC has generally abandoned its ideological battles in favor of protecting its cocaine labs and jungle camps with minefields. In Colombia in 2007, FARC landmines killed 146 people, according to the office of the Colombian vice president.
Following the disclosure of the Reyes emails, Mr. Chávez dialed back his pro-FARC rhetoric. In June, he said the time for armed struggle in Latin America had passed. He urged the group to put down its weapons and free an estimated 700 kidnapped hostages.
Colombian officials, who initially welcomed Mr. Chávez's U-turn, now say nothing has changed. Venezuela is still following a national strategy of supporting the FARC and is seeking to help arm the guerrillas with surface-to-air missiles, one high official says.
In August, FARC's new leader, Alfonso Cano, urged his troops to fortify its Venezuelan operations in response to pressures from Colombian military, according to a message from Mr. Cano that Colombian military intelligence says it intercepted. In the message, Mr. Cano also urged FARC commanders to keep up their relations with Mr. Chávez's top aides.
Mr. Chávez's support for the rebels has come at a high cost for his own country. In the decade under Mr. Chávez, kidnappings in Venezuela have increased tenfold, says the country's national cattleman's association, Fedenaga. So far this year, 217 people have been kidnapped, says Fedenaga's president, Genaro Mendez.
In the past, Mr. Mendez says, many abducted Venezuelans were taken to Colombia until their ransoms were paid. But now he says they stay in Venezuela, where their captors feel safer.
The FARC's Venezuela operations also complicate the U.S. war on drugs. Trafficking through Venezuela, much of it carried out by the FARC, has increased dramatically in recent years, say U.S. and Colombian officials. Cocaine shipments from Venezuela rose to an estimated 256 metric tons in 2007 from 51 metric tons in 2002, according to the U.S.'s Office of National Drug Control Policy.
"There's an utter lack of effort by the Venezuelans to deal with the problem," John Walters, the U.S.'s Director of National Drug Control Policy, said in a recent interview.
According to a report drawn up by a U.S. intelligence agency, Gen. Carvajal, the military intelligence head recently blacklisted by the U.S., received a payment to allow the passage of a 3-ton shipment of cocaine in September 2007. The report, viewed by The Wall Street Journal, says the shipment, belonging to a senior FARC official, had been stashed in a warehouse in the port city of Puerto La Cruz. Gen. Carvajal learned about the cocaine from a top former Venezuelan official, who paid him $200,000 to let the shipment pass, the report said.