Venezuela Denies Arms Smugglers Caught in Colombia Belong to its Military

Colombian officials say they arrested a sergeant of the Venezuelan National Guard for attempting to smuggle ammunition to Colombia's FARC rebels. Venezuela says, though, the arrested man is not a National Guardsman and pledged to carry out a full investigation of the incident.
A dispute has erupted over whether one of the Venezuelans arrested for smuggling AK-47 ammunition to the FARC Friday is a National Guardsman, and what the real events were leading up to his arrest. (Colombian Attorney General's Office)

Mérida, June 9, 2008 (— According to the Colombian Attorney General, Mario Iguarán, Colombian officials arrested a sergeant of the Venezuelan National Guard for attempting to smuggle ammunition to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on Friday. Venezuela says, though, the arrested man is not a National Guardsman and pledged to carry out a full investigation of the incident “in accordance with the law.”

“Four people were captured in a flagrant act, from whom 40,000 AK-47 cartridges were confiscated,” Iguarán told the press Saturday. Two were Colombians, he said, and “two of them identified themselves with Venezuelan I.D. cards, one of whom claims to be Manuel Agudo Escalona, a junior sergeant in the National Guard.”

The Colombian government says the ammunition was destined for the FARC’s 16th Front.

However, Fredys Alonso Carrión, the top commander of the Venezuelan National Guard, announced Saturday, “When we received the information [of the arrest], we immediately began investigating.”

“I can tell all of you with total confidence that there exists no active duty or retired member within or in relation to the National Guard by the name of Manuel Agudo Escalona,” Carrión declared on the Venezuelan state television channel, VTV.

The Colombian Chancellor, Fernando Araújo, appealed to the Venezuelan Foreign Relations Department for “coordinated work between both chancellors” in order to “verify the identities and who could be implicated.”

In response, the Venezuelan Foreign Relations Ministry released a statement Saturday, assuring that the incident would be rapidly investigated and submitted to thorough legal proceedings.

According to the statement, “From the first moment in which the information circulated the press, we established communication with the Colombian Foreign Minister in order to comply with the legal steps by which we will verify the identity of those detained.”

Once the “transparent facts” are clarified, the Venezuelan government will proceed “in accordance with the law and the truth” in order to solve the issue, the Venezuelan Ministry communicated.

The Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal reported Monday that Agudo Escalona and the other captured Venezuelan, a civilian named Germán Castañeda Durán, pleaded guilty to arms trafficking charges before a public tribunal in Bogotá.

In a contrary account, the Venezuelan Minister of Justice and the Interior, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, speculated Monday that the arrest is actually a “false positive,” in which Colombian officials “simulated some punishable act, attributed it to the guerrilla and took the credit for having resolved the case, which they themselves had set up.”

According to Minister Chacín, Agudo Escalona has alleged that he was offered more than 100 million bolivars (US$46.5 million) to cross the Orinoco River in a small boat in military uniform, then the ammunition was planted in his boat and Colombian authorities arrived “immediately” afterward to make the arrest.

In any case, the arrests were made by Colombia’s Technical Investigations Body (CTI) in the borderlands between the Colombian Guainía and Vichada provinces, along the frontier shared with Venezuela. They were part of broader operations that also led to the arrest Friday of a bodyguard of the FARC’s top military commander, Jorge Briceño, who is known as “Mono Jojoy,” and several other insurgents.

Colombia has accused Venezuela of financing and facilitating arms purchases for the guerrillas, citing as evidence computer files found in FARC laptops its says it recovered from the wreckage of a FARC camp that Colombia bombarded within Ecuadorian territory last March.

The computers spent a month in the custody of Colombia, after which a forensic analysis by INTERPOL found “no evidence” that the computers were tampered with, but INTERPOL did not evaluate whether the files under question actually belonged to the FARC.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez energetically denies the accusations, saying his relations with the FARC have been exclusively aimed at hostage releases.

Colombia’s raid in March killed the FARC’s chief hostage negotiator, Raul Reyes, two days after Chávez, in collaboration with Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba, negotiated the liberation of four high profile FARC hostages and garnered international praise.