Colombian Conflict Spills Across Venezuelan Border

So far this year, "we've had 35 violent deaths in the area, and the situation has reached critical levels at times, because the various irregular armed groups are all present here," said Jorge Rodríguez, the mayor of the Alto Apure district in Venezuela, near the Colombian border.

GUASDUALITO, Venezuela, Mar 28 (IPS) – A four-year-old girl was killed in a shootout between members of Colombia’s two biggest insurgent groups in El Amparo, a border town in Venezuela’s southwestern plains region.

High school students held a demonstration in February in Bolívar Plaza in Guasdualito, a town in southwestern Venezuela located just a few minutes from the Colombian border, to protest the recruitment of young people by irregular armed groups from Colombia.

And in the nearby town of El Nula, when the body of a person killed in unclarified circumstances arrived at the cemetery in early March, people accompanying the coffin covered it with a flag of the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group.

So far this year, “we’ve had 35 violent deaths in the area, and the situation has reached critical levels at times, because the various irregular armed groups are all present here,” Jorge Rodríguez, mayor of the Alto Apure district, told IPS.

Alto Apure is the lower-lying eastern portion of the state of Apure, a plains region along the border with Colombia that for decades has been a lawless area where guerrillas, cattle thieves, drug traffickers, paramilitaries, smugglers and kidnappers operate.

“People here are used to seeing and hearing but keeping their mouths shut. Anyone who says they know who killed someone can wind up dead themselves,” David, a local truck driver in the area, told IPS while waiting patiently in line for fuel at one of the few gas stations in Guasdualito, where gas, 10 times cheaper than in Colombia, is sold according to a strict schedule and under close military watch.

The people of Alto Apure “are blind, deaf and dumb; they prefer to be careful and not talk,” Rodríguez admitted, “and I myself make sure I don’t talk too much, to avoid hindering the work of the authorities.”

Security in the area is in the hands of a military theatre of operations, under the control of a Venezuelan army general.

Euclides Martínez, an activist with the Catholic relief and development organisation Caritas in Guasdualito, told IPS that “now the violence that has always been seen around here has become more public and visible, and it’s not only political or an extension of the Colombian armed conflict, but also involves common crime, personal feuds, vendettas, you name it.”

José Sieber with the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) commented to IPS that “The influx of refugees increases from a drip to a steady flow when there are clashes in the political conflict on the Colombian side of the border.”

Years ago, insurgents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — the main rebel group — and especially the ELN would make incursions into the region before returning to Colombia. But the evidence now points to a permanent guerrilla presence in the area.

The firefight in El Amparo that cost the life of four-year-old Naiber Piñero in February was the result of a turf war between the FARC and the ELN, said Esther Hernández, a member of the local community council.

The two leftist insurgent groups have been involved in a “fratricidal” war over the past year and a half in southwestern and eastern Colombia. Refugees who have arrived in Guasdualito fleeing the clashes told IPS that although they feel safer in Venezuela, there is always fear about what could happen, because the porous border is so nearby.

Since the early 1990s, a Venezuelan armed group has also marked a presence throughout southwestern Venezuela: the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL), a little-known leftist group which states in some of its pamphlets that it will defend President Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution”.

Mayor Rodríguez, a local cattle rancher and former member of the armed forces, said he had no idea how the FBL was financed, but that he tended to support the hypothesis that it was originally promoted by the ELN in order to stake out a presence in Venezuelan territory.

“If the aim was to defend Chávez’s programme, it would have no reason to exist anymore, because the president and the government are defended by the regular armed forces,” he said.

Jesuit priest Armindo González, who was parish priest in Guasdualito — which has a population of 40,000 — complained that the FBL are carrying out “a campaign of recruitment of young people.”

After he made that complaint, the Caracas newspaper El Universal received a letter from the FBL that denied the charges, stating that “as a revolutionary organisation, we respect the rights of children and adolescents, on whose behalf we wage our struggle.”

Luis Carrero, an official with the ombudsman’s office, said it was a positive thing that young people in the area were protesting recruitment practices “that have been seen in rural areas for some time now and are beginning to be seen in the high schools,” because in the border region “there is a silent war caused by the irregular armed groups, and local residents keep mum for fear of being killed.”

People in Guasdualito refer to members of the ELN as “elenos”, the FARC “farrucos”, the FBL “boliches”, and the far-right Colombian paramilitaries grouped in the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) as “paras”. Graffiti along the road into town reads “the AUC, always present”.

Some, like Martínez, believe the Colombian guerrillas will avoid an escalation of violence in the area, because that could destroy their chances of using the border zone as a refuge and source of provisions.

Rodríguez said the fight against the irregular armed groups should be carried out on two fronts, by “fighting poverty and marginalisation with programmes that address social problems, infrastructure work that provides jobs, and increased education and healthcare,” on one hand.

But on the other, “the army and the government must provide the necessary military response, although closely linked with the social action,” said Rodríguez, who also said the number of border posts and checkpoints should be increased. Thousands of soldiers have been stationed throughout southwestern Venezuela, and General Carlos Briceño, the region’s military commander, announced a further increase, with an additional 1,700 troops.