FARC extortion rackets in Venezuela, say locals
In border states, Venezuelans say Colombian rebel groups extort monthly 'protection' money from businesses and ranchers.
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Laptop computers found by the Colombian military in the March 1 raid in Ecuador revealed close ties between Chávez and the Marxist guerrillas, according to Colombian officials. Documents indicated that Chávez had supplied the rebels with weapons and given them a $300 million loan. Chávez has consistently denied such claims.Skip to next paragraph
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But Mr. Flores says San Cristóbal, which has almost 600,000 residents, is under the grip of the FARC. He says that they send representatives from their mountain hideouts to extort a monthly vacuna, or vaccination, from local businessmen.
"These foreign forces are committing violence against the people of Táchira," says Flores, a gubernatorial candidate in the November elections. "It's an imported violence."
Locals say that the FARC and other Colombian militias, including the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) and Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, are operating on Venezuelan soil. The Los Andes Daily, a local newspaper, reported that Venezuelan Gen. Jesus Gregorio Gonzalez said on May 27 that border patrol units under his command had detected the presence of Colombian "irregulars," or rebel groups, in the border states of Zulia and Apure.
Business owners say the FARC kidnaps people who failed to pay the vacuna. Cattle ranchers who work in border areas have been prime targets for guerrilla kidnappings. Thirty-four were taken hostage last January alone, Genaro Mendez of the Venezuelan Cattle Ranchers' Association told local media in February.
The head of the Apure branch of the association, Omar Bustos, declines to comment on the presence of Colombian rebels in the border state. He says, however, that his members are having "security problems," and calls on the state authorities "to do more."
Father Harney says that local government officials "are friends of the FARC. They're all over the place here. The government doesn't chase them out."
A woman who lives in the town of El Pinal, in Táchira state, agrees that it is overrun with FARC rebels and says that the president's leanings toward the Colombian rebels have prompted them to take refuge in Venezuela.
"Before they wouldn't identify themselves. But now since Chávez has taken them by the hand, they come forward and show themselves," says the woman, refusing to give her name. "If you talk against them they kill you."
A member of Venezuela's National Guard was among two Venezuelans captured by the Colombian authorities in a border zone on June 7, according to Colombia's chief prosecutor. The man, who is being held in Bogota, is accused of selling tens of thousands of rounds of Kalashnikov ammunition and weaponry to FARC rebels.
This week, the US State Department described Chávez's comments about the FARC as "good words," but asked that the president follow the announcement with "concrete actions."