Mérida, November 11, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com)– Venezuela's Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El-Aissami confirmed Sunday that Venezuela plans to increase its military presence in five locations along the northern region of the Colombian border called the Sierra de Perijá.
The exact structure and purpose of this military presence, however, remains unclear.
The conflictive, forested zone is affected by spillover fighting from the Colombian civil war, local indigenous struggles against transnational coal mining on their ancestral lands, and the smuggling of narcotics from Colombia to the Global North.
At first, El-Aissami said the government will build five military bases to help control drug trafficking, kidnappings, guerrilla and paramilitary activity along the sparsely inhabited border.
El-Aissami said the new bases would be part of the National Plan for the Defense and Sovereignty of the National Government, and will include all four components of the Venezuelan Armed Forces, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Guard.
Then, in a later press conference, El-Aissami said that five "citizen security zones," not military bases, will be set up to help the government protect and bring medical care and food assistance to the Yukpa people, a local indigenous population.
Hundreds of Yukpa occupied sections of large private estates this year to demand that the government comply with the Indigenous Peoples Law and grant them title to their ancestral lands.
Yukpa organizers expressed skepticism that sending more troops would benefit their communities. "Out here, there is no confidence in the armed forces," an organizer told Venezuelanalysis.com Monday. "If more of them come, it will be to protect the large estate owners, and to continue harassing our community."
Last August, National Guard units in the Sierra de Perijá intimidated and ignored the Yukpa who reported that the dominant land owners in the region had hired assassins to attempt to kill Yukpa leaders. The National Guard also denied humanitarian aid and independent media access to the Yukpa communities involved in the land occupations.
Even while President Hugo Chávez and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nicia Maldonado declared unequivocal support for the Yukpa, sectors of the Venezuelan government allied with the local National Guard units continue working to concede Yukpa ancestral lands to transnational coal companies.
Chávez ordered the suspension of new coal mining projects in the region in 2007, advocating that a cleaner method of extraction be found.
The Sierra de Perijá is also a stage for diplomatic conflicts between the Venezuela and Colombia. Colombia and its ally the United States have accused Venezuela of harboring leftist Colombian guerrillas and failing to halt drug trafficking in the region.
While making the announcement about the increased military presence Sunday, El-Aissami said that Venezuela has interdicted 45 tons of drugs and arrested 14 drug traffickers so far in 2008.