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Venezuelan FARC victims to Chávez: 'What about us?'

Many families of those kidnapped near the border with Colombia say President Hugo Chávez has neglected them in favor of high-profile Colombian victims.

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Chávez said this week that while the insurgents may control areas on the Colombian side of the border, he believes in the "commitment" of the FARC's top commander Manuela "Sureshot" Marulanda to not kidnap inside Venezuela.

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According to government figures, 382 people were kidnapped last year in Venezuela, most of them near the border with Colombia, where kidnapping is an industry for common criminals, leftist rebels, and right-wing paramilitary groups. Many hostages are released after huge ransoms are paid. Others are never heard from again.

In most cases on the Venezuelan side of the border, it's hard to know who has the hostages. "People kidnap and you don't know who they are," says Porfirio Dávila, whose father – a rancher – was kidnapped in June 2003 and is still held captive. As in Colombia, common criminals often carry out the abductions and later "sell" them to the FARC or the ELN who have the logistical ability to hold a captive and negotiate a ransom. Most Venezuelan hostages are believed to be held inside Venezuela but often the ransom payments must be made in Colombia.

Alejandro García, a city council member in the Venezuelan border town of Ureña, has become a spokesperson and organizer for the hostages' families. He says at least six of the 27 hostages still in captivity in the eastern state of Táchira are believed to be in the hands of Colombian rebels.

Due to lack of response in Venezuela, many families have sought help from Colombian authorities on the border, exchanging information on the possible whereabouts of the captives.

The families of the Venezuelan hostages are so frustrated that they are considering seeking a meeting with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to ask for his help. That, warned Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín last month, would be tantamount to "treason."

Once the families of the hostages here saw everything Chávez was doing for the Colombian captives, they began to break the silence that ruled their lives since their loved ones' abductions. "We lost the fear; [Chávez's] attitude toward the Colombian hostages motivated us," Pabón says.

Rodríguez Chacín met with the families of 16 hostages in San Antonio last month but they walked away with what they felt were empty promises to reopen investigations and offers of scholarships for the children of the hostages.

"Scholarships? We want our families back, we want their captors brought to justice," says Pabón. "We want our president to pay attention to us, too."