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.
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."
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.
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."