In the past couple of months, Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chávez has spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy negotiating the release of high-profile hostages held by leftist rebels in neighboring Colombia.
His ideological kinship to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) played a key role in last month's release of Clara Rojas, an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, and former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez. Both had been held for more than five years, and it was the most important hostage release in the Colombian conflict since 2001.
But Venezuelans living near the border with Colombia have been suffering from the presence of the FARC for years, and a growing number of them are complaining that Chavez's affinity with the rebels is causing him to turn a blind eye to the problem within his own borders.
"I am happy for [recently released Colombian kidnap victims] and their families," says Juan Pabón, whose mother and brother have been held captive for more than four years. "But what about us? The entire international community is watching the hostage situation in Colombia, but nobody sees us."
Mr. Pabón believes that Colombia's insurgent groups that operate on the border have been holding his mother and brother. He says they are demanding $465,000 in ransom. Informants have told Pabón that they are being held either by FARC or by the National Liberation Army (ELN), another Colombian leftist group.
But to Pabón, it matters little who is holding them captive. "I don't care if my family is in the hands of the FARC, or the ELN, or of common criminals," he says in the living room of his modest family home, which is dominated by portraits of his mother and brother surrounded by religious icons. "What I do care about is that the government, the authorities, help me find them."
But Pabón, like many other families of Venezuela's kidnap victims, says he has received little help from Chávez's government. So when he saw Chávez working tirelessly last fall to secure the release of Colombian hostages held by Colombian rebels he became embittered.
Colombian officials have long suggested that Venezuela's lax security along their shared, 1,300-mile border has allowed Colombian rebels to establish a permanent presence inside Venezuela. Residents of the border area repeat incessant rumors that FARC has camps – and even a military hospital – in Venezuela. Despite deteriorating bilateral relations between the two neighbors, Colombia is careful not to accuse the Venezuelan government of directly helping the FARC but rather complains that authorities here do little to combat them.
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.
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."