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FARC extortion rackets in Venezuela, say locals

In border states, Venezuelans say Colombian rebel groups extort monthly 'protection' money from businesses and ranchers.

By Jeff FarrellContributor / June 13, 2008

Rich Clabaugh

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El Llanito and San Cristóbal, Venezuela

Father Stephen Harney is accustomed to providing solace to his poor Venezuelan parishioners who struggle to survive. But these days its the middle-class and wealthy families forced to pay protection money to the FARC, Colombia's main rebels, who knock on his door for guidance.

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The 74-year-old Rosminian priest says the leftist guerrillas are increasingly taking extortion money from his flock in El Llanito, a small community outside of San Cristóbal, the capital of the Venezuelan state of the Táchira. Those who fail to pay up, he says, are either kidnapped for ransom or executed by local assassins hired by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

"There's nothing sadder than the kidnappings and the paid killers. It's very much a problem," says the Irish priest, seated in a small armchair in the Rosminian center, which is just an hour's drive from the Colombian border. The Rosminians are a Roman Catholic charitable order, founded in 1828.

In the past six years, FARC representatives have been operating more openly, stepping up extortions and kidnappings, confirmed a San Cristóbal police officer who handles complaints from local businesses. He refused to be identified, he said, because corrupt police and military authorities are also said to be involved in drug trafficking activities with the Colombian irregulars.

Top Venezuelan police officials in San Cristóbal said they were not available for interviews.

The Colombian military's efforts to drive the leftist guerrillas from its eastern region during the past 44 years have pushed the guerrillas into the mountains and jungles on the border with Venezuela. Colombian officials claim that FARC rebels operate from bases in Venezuela and Ecuador. A March 1 raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador killed the No. 2 rebel commander, Raul Reyes.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has sent mixed signals on the FARC. Five months ago, he called on the US and Europe to take the FARC off their lists of "terrorist" groups. Mr. Chávez has denied that there are any FARC bases in his country. But earlier this week, in an abrupt turnaround, Chávez distanced himself from the FARC, calling on the rebels to end their struggle and surrender their hostages in "exchange for nothing."

"The guerrilla war is history," Chávez said Sunday, during his weekly television and radio program. "At this moment in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place."

But in the state of Táchira, opposition politician Leomagno Flores says that "Chávez gives protection to these Colombian guerrillas. The relationship with Chávez and FARC is not only in the computer of Raul Reyes – it's here."

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