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Opinion and Analysis: Land Reform | Military

Venezuelan Government Announces Offensive Against Paramilitaries

“It is not possible [to accept] the continued massacre of our campesinos [peasants]”, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared during the August 6 edition of Alo Presidente, his weekly TV program. “They [attack] Braulio Alvarez [the National Assembly deputy and campesino leader, who survived a second assassination attempt on July 22], and no-one is guilty. The chiefs of police must respond to these acts ... if they feel incapable they must resign.

Venezuelan campesinos are facing violence from right-wing paramilitary groups opposed to the “Bolivarian revolution” led by Chavez’s government. Part of the Bolivarian process has been land reform, distributing under-utilised land to landless peasants.

Venezuela’s economy has traditionally been reduced to providing cheap oil to First World countries, with the rest of the economy, and the majority of the people, left abandoned. By taking under-utilised land owned by a small, rich minority who have traditionally controlled most of the country’s agricultural land and redistributing it to landless peasants to work in cooperatives, the revolution can both develop agriculture and tackle poverty.

On August 18, Chavez announced the creation of civilian-military security units in the large farms that have been taken over during the fight against the latifundia (large land holdings) in Barinas, Apure and Tachira states.

The Venezuelan president was responding to mounting popular anger over the wave of murders, kidnappings and extortion affecting the country, particularly in the states bordering Colombia. Blame has focused on right-wing Colombian paramilitaries hired by Venezuelan latifundistas to intimidate campesinos who move to take control of under-utilised land.

David Valasquez, a National Assembly deputy and Communist Party leader, called for strengthening the level of popular organisation and consolidating security units, and incorporating brigades of territorial guards as urgent measures to confront the assassination squads, according to the August 8 Diario Vea. He said that these forms of popular participation could counter some of the inefficiencies of the state apparatus.

A recent series of articles in the Caracas daily Ultimas Noticias has exposed the serious situation in Venezuela’s frontier states. On July 9, UN revealed that over 70% of businesses in Tachira state, which borders Colombia, have to pay a vacuna (“vaccine”) as protection money to Colombian paramilitary gangs.

“The crime wave in Tachira began on August 15, 2002, with the death of a police agent, Freddy Sanchez. From that moment, the spiral has been increasing, and it would appear there is no way of stopping it, at least in the short or medium term”, Ramon Buitrago, from the Popular Network for Monitoring Human Rights in Tachira state, told UN.

In 1999, there were 81 assassinations in Tachira, according to Buitrago’s group, and there were 93 in 2001. These figures increased dramatically in 2002, with 212 murders. By 2005 this figure had almost trebled to 566. “Therefore, we’re talking 2037 assassinations in the last seven years. It is clear that this figure [should be] much larger because we are only reporting those that have [been officially] recorded”, said Buitrago.

Buitrago said that there was evidence of both former and active-duty police officers being involved in some of the killings. The crimes were brutal, characteristic of the paramilitaries, who always leave a personal mark to serve as a warning to the general population.

The frontier corridor between the states of Tachira, Apure, and Zulia, and the Colombian regions of Santander, Arauca and La Guajira, has always been an extremely important route for the movement of military equipment, arms, explosives, wounded combatants, and food supplies. For many years, it has also served as a route for the transport of drugs, the paper reported.

“When the Colombian government realised they had lost the battle [against left-wing Colombian guerrillas] in a very important zone, the fumigation of illegal cultivation of coca became worse. They also destroyed many other food crops that had allowed the campesinos and their communities to survive. In spite of this, [the Colombian government] did not achieve control of the territory, so they began to support [right-wing] paramilitary groups, such as the Auto-Defence Units of Colombia (AUC), whom they not only trained but also assisted to do the dirty work of extortion with guns”, an unnamed social investigator told UN.

Little by little, the cultivation of coca in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Arauca, Casanare, Boyaca, and the north of Santander in Colombia came under the paramilitaries’ control.

After a couple of battles, the paramilitaries took almost total control of the distribution of drugs in the frontier, and began to sow terror, carrying out horrific murders in the areas of Colombia very close to Venezuela. An example is the May 1999 massacre of 40 people in La Gavarra at the hands of the AUC. Five trucks full of AUC equipment escorted by the Colombian military was installed at the paramilitaries’ military base on the banks of the river Tarra, which they announced publicly.

As a reprisal against an attack by left-wing guerrillas, and to set a precedent, the paramilitaries took 20 campesinos, cut them in half with an electric saw while they were still alive, and then killed another 20. From this date, life in the frontier zone changed forever, the July 9 UN reported.

Pablo Rodriguez, editor of San Cristobal’s La Nation, told UN: “The paramilitaries began to arrive in Tachira in 2000. Initially, they settled in Urena, then silently they expanded to San Antonio. First, they contacted the business community, from whom they extorted the vacuna, in exchange for guaranteeing their property and preventing them being robbed or assaulted.”

The paramilitaries began to kill people who had a criminal record such as drug-dealers. Bodies would appear in the streets of different cities, horribly mutilated by electric saws, with the aim of spreading terror among the population.

Six years after entering Venezuela, the paramilitaries can be found operating in almost all the municipalities of Tachira, some of Apure, and in areas of Barinas. “Nobody refuses to pay the vacuna. Everybody collaborates, because the only other option is death, simply because one is accused of supporting the [left-wing] guerrillas”, Rodriguez said.

He claimed that the Venezuelan security forces know the movement of these people and that some security officials are actively involved in these groups, but the government hadn’t done anything to stop this.

Ronald Blanco la Cruz, Tachira’s governor, says that the paramilitary presence in Venezuela is a direct consequence of the US-backed “Plan Colombia” — the military offensive against guerrilla forces in Colombia under the guise of fighting drug trafficking — and of the support that the Colombian army gives to the paramilitaries.

He also said that the “presence of the paramilitaries can be seen as [troublemaking] by a totally weak [Venezuelan] opposition, looking for support to combat the revolutionary process ...”

He accused the opposition of contracting paramilitaries to assassinate campesinos “to create terror, and an atmosphere in which there appears no government, no security, in order to play the game of US imperialism, which does not want any progressive government to exist. And they find in Colombia their best ally.”

Blanco added: “We have consistently asked the National Assembly to approve the Law of Frontiers, and the Law Against Extortion and Kidnappings, and that they modify the Penal Processing Code for the protection of witnesses. We have also asked that attention be paid to judges and prosecutors who are constantly being threatened. Right now, this is not a regional but a national problem, for the entire Venezuelan state, so they [must] try to contain this total explosion of violence that is engulfing us.”