Combating the Colombian Paramilitaries in Venezuela

Since Hugo Chavez took office as Venezuela’s president in February 1999, the oil-rich South American country has been threatened by right-wing paramilitary forces from neighbouring Colombia.

By Jim McIlroy and Coral Wynter - Green Left Weekly
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“What we call the selective invasion of Venezuela by Colombian paramilitaries is not a normal military invasion”, Luis Tascon, a prominent member of the Venezuelan parliament, told Green Left Weekly on July 4. “Really, there have only been two major incursions. One in Rio de Oro, a frontier town in the state of Zulia, in 1999. The other was an operation by 120 paramilitaries uncovered in El Hatillo, near Caracas, in May 2004.”

Elected from the western state of Tachira, which borders Colombia, Tascon is a founding member of the main parliamentary party supporting Chavez, the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR), and a member of the parliament’s commission for science and technology. He has been a leading figure in the campaign to expose the infiltration of Venezuela by right-wing paramilitaries from neighbouring Colombia.

“We were aware of the situation four years ago, when a small group of murderers began to kill the common criminals as a service offering 'security’ to the wealthy”, said Tascon. “They began as a front, in a convincing way, to control the sale of petrol across the border. Venezuelan petrol is very cheap. In Colombia, it is sold at international prices. Historically, there has been a thriving business of smuggling petrol. Cars buy petrol here and sell it at 10 times the price in Cucuta in Colombia.

“The paramilitaries control the business, principally in Cucuta — with the support of the Armed Forces of Colombia [FAC], and the assistance of the Venezuelan opposition. Proof of this is the presence of paramilitaries in Caracas, brought here in the context of the internal political struggle in Venezuela to provoke violence. This process is controlled by the FAC.

“The paramilitaries were created to fight Colombia’s left-wing guerrillas. But right now, what is happening are incursions into Venezuela. The paramilitaries have bought large farms; they have relations with figures from the opposition, with large landowners who pay for the service of providing security.

“The paramilitaries are only effective on the frontier. They say they have a presence in other states, in the centre of the country, but really they are only operating on the border.

“To hire a paramilitary, you go to the border. The chief of the paramilitaries is a Colombian. They make incursions to murder someone, if they have a contract.

“The border has always been an area of operation for the Colombian left-wing guerrillas. Historically, it has been a logistical front for the Colombian guerrillas. And because of this, the Colombian right-wing paramilitaries, such as the AUC, have also had a presence.”

Tascon said that up until two years ago the Chavista forces faced a problem of a domestic right-wing conspiracy against Chavez’s government. “We had to place our best resources to protect the capital, Caracas, and the petrol-producing zones. Because the danger was there, the confrontation was there. Once we had broken the conspiracy, we then had to focus with more force on the border.

“Now we are taking new action, firstly, to confront corruption in the FAN [National Armed Forces of Venezuela], because, frankly, the only way the paramilitaries can operate is in the shadow of the corruption of FAN, the National Guard and the police. For the military, it’s a serious problem; for the government, it represents a loss of sovereignty.

“At present, the paramilitaries do not really control territory. What they control is business, illegal business. It is the penetration of the paramilitaries into narco-trafficking, and the trade of drugs through Venezuela into the world market, to Caracas, and other ports of exit. This has been detected, together with the petrol smuggling, and the trade in all types of contraband. All of this is the dirty business which they want to control, on the border and from Cucuta.

Asked about evidence of US involvement in the paramilitary infiltration of Venezuela, Tascon said: “The US controls the anti-guerrilla war in Colombia, and uses the paramiliatries in this war. Washington’s plan is not for a direct US military intervention into Venezuela, but an indirect intervention through Colombia.

“Thus, the paramilitaries can play a role in destabilising the Venezuelan state. It is all part of Plan Colombia and Plan Patriot. There is no other reason for the presence of the paramilitaries, and their brutal behaviour, in Venezuela. For this reason, we have a very serious problem and we must fight it.”

Since the Venezuelan government enacted a land reform law in 2001, conflicts between land reform activists and large landowners have resulted in at least 150 assassinations of campesinos. “For many years, the big landowners have been killing peasant leaders in the south of Tachira state”, Tascon told GLW. “They have also been murdering government officials and leaders who have promoted the land law, regarding idle land or land stolen by latifundistas.”

Asked about the apparent disarming of paramilitaries by the Colombian government, seen recently on Colombian TV, Tascon said: “This is false, perpetrated by [Colombian President Alvaro] Uribe to legitimise the paramilitaries. Uribe is historically linked to the paramilitaries, and began in the business of 'security’. When Uribe arrived in the presidency, he sought out the paramilitaries in Colombia, and tried to regularise their operations. He built up the paramilitaries from the Colombian army.

“They have carried out a false demobilisation, intended to legitimise the paramilitaries within Colombian internal politics. So, they searched for old, unserviceable and defective weapons, and announced on television that the paramilitaries had given up their arms.

“Apart from this, Uribe has transformed the civil war, and changed the paramilitaries virtually into a normal, regular fighting force against the guerrillas, who have no opportunity to negotiate with the paramilitaries.

“There are members of the paramilitaries who are war criminals, guilty of crimes against humanity, and should be tried, but they have been pardoned by Uribe.

“Many of the paramilitaries who come into Venezuela are the same murderers. For this reason, we understand that this is all part of Plan Colombia, between the US, the Colombian state and the Colombian oligarchy.

“The US has committed many millions of dollars to Plan Colombia. Uribe is publicly very close to President Bush. Colombia was the first country in Latin America to sign the ALCA free-trade agreement with the US — contrary to the interests of the Andean countries. Venezuela left the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), because we were betrayed by Colombia and Peru.

“We understand that the Colombian government acts together with the US, and with the paramilitaries.”