Frontier clash pits cattlemen against guerrillas

Colombia's long civil war spills over the border onto Venezuelan ranches.

When Hector Arriaga's modest cattle ranch was invaded by squatters in late 1999, he was stunned as well as angry.

Just a month earlier he had paid the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC - Colombia's biggest guerrilla group) more than $700 in protection money. "Around here, no one does a thing without the guerrillas' say-so," says Mr. Arriaga (who asked that his name be changed to prevent reprisals). "They promised me no land invasions, no cattle rustling, security - the works."

What is unusual about Arriaga's story is that he does not live in Colombia, but in neighboring Venezuela, whose porous, 1,300-mile border is a key asset to Colombia's rival guerrilla armies. "Guns, drugs, trussed-up kidnap victims - they all pass through here," says Arriaga.

The rancher's experience is just one example of the way Colombia's 40-year civil war is impacting the lives of its neighbors. Though successive Venezuelan governments have sought a modus vivendi with the guerrillas, the effective authority along most of the Colombian side of the border, ranchers say President Hugo Chavez, who came to power early in 1999, has left them defenseless against the marauders.

One of Chavez's first moves - which has sparked widespread dissent within the Venezuelan military - was to declare his government officially neutral in the Colombian conflict and grant quasi-diplomatic status to representatives in Caracas of the FARC and the second-largest guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Along the border, clashes between Colombian guerrillas and Venezuelan armed forces have all but ceased. Extortion and land invasions have notably increased.

"When they arrived at my farm on January 20, 2000," says Otto Ramirez, "One of the first things [guerrilla commander] 'William' told me was, 'We have an agreement with Comandante Chavez not to attack the Venezuelan armed forces and not to kidnap. But we are allowed to extort protection money."

When the guerrillas came back for the money, the rancher set a trap for them, but his plan failed. He moved his family out of harm's way, and now only visits the ranch under military escort. Since then he has pushed for a change in government policy.

Mr. Ramirez, who has close relations with the Army and national guard commanders in the area, says they would like to help but have been "castrated" by government policy. "Every day, military checkpoints disappear from the border area," he says. "The rural police we used to rely on have been withdrawn."

His complaints are echoed by the ranchers' national leader, Jose Luis Betancourt of the cattlemen's federation, Fedenaga. "The guerrillas are the de facto authority in the border area," Mr. Betancourt says.

The Chavez government denies accusations that it has struck a deal. "There is no agreement, written or tacit, with the Colombian guerrillas," says new Defense Minister Jose Vicente Rangel. Chavez has described the allegations as part of a plot to discredit his government.

Gen. Manuel Verde Acosta, head of the national guard's No. 1 Regional Command in San Cristobal, blames the ranchers themselves for not reporting cases of extortion. "We call on the cattle ranchers to give us the information, and we guarantee confidentiality," he says. Asked why he believes they withhold it, he replies, "Most of all out of fear."

The fear, however, is turning to anger. On Jan. 29, rancher Ramirez announced the formation of an armed group whose objective is to drive the guerrillas out of the area. Although he rejects comparisons with the right-wing paramilitaries of Colombia, the aims and origins of this new organization are similar.

Ramirez says the group has backing not only among cattle ranchers but from "bankers, industrialists, merchants," and others who feel deprived of the protection of the state. "Now we have the answer to the ill-treatment and humiliation inflicted by the guerrillas," he asserts.

In response, Cmdr. Ruben Zamora (a nom de guerre), head of the 33rd Front of the FARC, called for talks with the ranchers. Betancourt declared that these could only take place if the guerrillas released their Venezuelan kidnap victims and the governments of Venezuela and Colombia agreed.

More than 20 Venezuelans are kidnapped each year. This week, rancher Hermir Garcia, a friend and neighbor of Ramirez, was released from captivity. Though the Venezuelan government has said the kidnappings are carried out by Venezuelan criminals, they recently acknowledged that they had negotiated some releases, for "humanitarian reasons" with the guerrillas inside Colombia. The releases have been accompanied in some cases, sources say, by large payments to the captors or the release of guerrilla leaders held in Venezuela.

Hector Arriaga, meanwhile, has taken a bold step to resolve his problem with the squatters on his property. Having failed to elicit any response from civil or military authorities in Venezuela, he paid a visit to the FARC.

"They told me, 'There's been a big shake-up in Venezuela,' " Arriaga says," 'and now the FARC, Chavez and "human rights" groups will be dividing up the ranches.' " The talk took place shortly after Venezuela's new Constitution was approved by referendum in December 1999.

A year later, however, the shifting boundaries between the rival guerrilla groups brought Arriaga's section of the border under the control of the ELN guerrillas. When the ELN showed up, Arriaga and his neighbors invited them to lunch.

"The guerrillas pulled out Chavez's decree No. 949," Arriaga says, "in which he orders regional commissions set up to resolve land disputes. They said they would hold a hearing to decide who was in the right." A week later, the guerrillas told the squatters to clear out "or face the consequences."

The ELN has not demanded payment from Arriaga for carrying out the eviction, but in any event, he has had enough of the mayhem. "A war is going to break out there," he says. "I'm giving the property a lick of paint and putting it on the market."

He is under no illusions as to likely buyers. "Even if it's the guerrillas or the drug traffickers - what can I do? ... We tried to be patriotic before turning to the guerrillas. I created that ranch from nothing 25 years ago - and this is the reward I get."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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