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Wednesday, 7 August, 2002, 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK
Venezuela's border headache
Venezuelan troops patrol the border with Colombia
Kidnappings have accelerated in recent months

While politicians worry about Colombia's decades-old civil war spilling into Venezuela, residents of the latter's bucolic border region of Tachira - full of sprawling ranches and picture-postcard mountains - say they have been feeling the war's effects for a long time.

Cattle ranchers and businessmen feel it in the lurking threat of kidnappings - which have accelerated in recent months.

Residents of towns like El Nula, 30 kilometres from the border, feel it in the assassinations of Colombian guerrillas and narco-traffickers who seek refuge there.

And everyone feels the threats of the many irregular fighting groups that are taking advantage of the lawlessness to operate here.

Kidnap protection

Cattle ranchers, long the favourite targets of guerrilla kidnappers, have traditionally paid the guerrillas monthly "vacunas", or vaccines which protected them against kidnapping.

Genaro Mendez, President of the Cattlemen's Association of Tachira state.
Mr Mendez says ranchers are hiring guards to protect themselves
But the new organisations which have recently appeared do not respect the old arrangement, forcing ranchers to hire bodyguards or even employ National Guard troops to escort them around their own property, says Genaro Mendez, President of the Tachira Cattlemen's Association.

Mr Mendez said three Colombian guerrilla organisations operate in the area, along with the newly appeared Bolivarian Liberation Forces - who, Mr Mendez suspects, are only Colombian guerrillas disguising themselves with a different name.

In addition, there are many bandit groups that kidnap people and then "sell" their victims to the guerrillas.

"Until three or four years ago, there were only the two Colombian guerrilla groups," said Mr Mendez. "Now the worst part is trying to determine who is doing the kidnapping."

Guerrilla threat

One great fear of officials is that Colombia's confrontation between leftist guerrillas and right-wing self-defence forces will cross the long, barely-controlled border into Venezuela.

Colombian self-defence force leader Carlos Castano has said several times recently that his forces are organising and training Venezuelans to protect themselves.

"I don't like getting involved in Venezuelan affairs, but the frontier zone affects both nations," he told Caracas's El Nacional newspaper in an interview.

Mr Mendez said Colombian self-defence representatives have visited his members, but that the time is "not yet" right to begin organising.

But every day seems to bring new pressures on the cattlemen. A border area newspaper recently headlined "Who will be the next victim?" and estimated there was a kidnapping every 72 hours.

El Nula's assassinations

The town of El Nula is feeling a different sort of impact from the war next door.

Rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia
Many fear the guerrillas will cross from Colombia into Venezuela
Over the past two weeks this quiet farming and ranching community, where bicycles often outnumber cars on the main street and ranch hands ride horses into town, has been the scene of two professional assassinations.

The automatic rifle-armed soldiers who patrol El Nula's main street at night and man checkpoints on the highway have not been able to halt the killers, who roar into town on motorcycles, do their work with surgical efficiency, and roar away.

Father Acacio Belaudria, the town's Jesuit priest, believes the victims fled vendettas with Colombian guerrillas or narco-traffickers.

"They are deaths which nobody saw, nobody heard and nobody talks about," because of fear of retribution, said Mr Belaudria.

Promised offensive

But the guerrillas' influence is not all negative, Mr Belaudria added. In a region where government control is weak, they serve as justices of the peace to whom townspeople go to resolve land and other disputes.

Now border residents are bracing themselves for what might happen if newly-elected Colombian President Alvaro Uribe carries out his promised offensive against the guerrillas.

The impacts here, they predict, will include increased kidnapping and extortion, more guerrilla incursions, and refugees.

"There will be a massive exodus (of refugees)," said Mr Belaudria. "And the guerrilla groups themselves might also cross the frontier to protect themselves."


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