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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 January 2007, 19:59 GMT
Venezuelan farmers living in fear
By Greg Morsbach
BBC News, Machiques, Venezuela

Juan Romero
Farmer Juan Romero lives in daily fear of being kidnapped

Cows graze in the lush and green fields of a large cattle ranch in western Venezuela.

Others lie lazily under a cluster of trees, sheltering from the hot mid-day sun.

Just in distance you can make out the dark ridge of the Andean mountain range.

On the other side of the steep mountain wall is Colombia and with it a daily threat to the ranchers of this part of Venezuela.

This rural idyll with its wide open spaces of rolling green fields is not as peaceful as it seems.

Juan Romero, a young Venezuelan cattle rancher, no longer spends the night on his farm and has moved his wife and children to the nearest city.

"I used to go out horse riding every day," said Juan.

"Now I only do this once in a while. The threat of kidnapping is just too great. I could be ambushed quite easily here on the farm."

Threatening letters

This farm, like most in the area, is very isolated.

The nearest small market town, Machiques, is 90 minutes away and anybody being targeted here would find it very difficult to call for help.

Venezuelan cows
All is not as peaceful on the farm as it looks
"Almost every family around here has someone or knows someone who has been kidnapped," Juan told me.

"I'm lucky to have avoided any trouble so far."

As the internal conflict in neighbouring Colombia has intensified due to the US-backed "Plan Colombia", more and more leftwing guerrilla and paramilitary groups are seeking respite inside Venezuela.

To help pay for their food and equipment, they resort to kidnappings and are believed to be operating hand-in-glove with local Venezuelan criminal gangs.

Parts of the western state of Zulia have reported movements of uniformed members of the leftwing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) as well as sightings of combatants belonging to the paramilitary United Self Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC).

"The other day a group of teenage girls, all with Colombian accents and dressed in the camouflage combat fatigues of the Farc, handed a letter to my office assistant while I was away from the farm," said Arnoldo Martinez, a cattle rancher, whose younger brother was abducted and killed a year ago by unidentified kidnappers.

"The letter which was apparently signed by a local Farc commander said if I didn't give them a large sum of money, they would find me and my family would pay a high price," said Mr Martinez.

At the cattle farmers' association in Machiques they keep a folder containing dozens of letters threatening to kidnap a farmer or a family member if they do not pay thousands of dollars up front.

Nobody really knows for sure who is really behind the letters and whether they are all genuine.

'Farmers to blame'

However, the kidnapping statistics are real enough: last year alone 150 Venezuelans were kidnapped. Ninety-six of them were cattle farmers and 17 of those were murdered by their kidnappers.

The ranchers of Machiques have been putting pressure on Venezuela's National Guard, which is responsible for border security, to protect them from further kidnappings.

Venezuelan National Guard Gen Castor Perez-Leal
Gen Castor Perez-Leal has set up an anti-kidnap squad
The farmers say the military appears to be taking little interest so far and if anything, is scaling down its presence along the border.

However, the BBC was given exclusive access to the operations room of the National Guard headquarters in Maracaibo.

The map room is the nerve centre of the military's anti-kidnapping operations in the region.

The walls of the room are covered in dozens of passport size photos and names of people still being held by their kidnappers.

A large map shows several blue and red rectangles marking the presence of platoons belonging to the Farc or AUC.

Gen Castor Perez-Leal who is in charge of the military base said: "Sure we have a kidnapping problem in our state of Zulia as it is right next to Colombia. But the farmers are acting as if they were the only kidnapping victims on this planet."

Gen Perez went on to tell me that the ranchers had created the problem of kidnappings for themselves.

In his opinion, many Venezuelan farmers had hired cheap Colombian farm workers without checking their IDs properly or doing background checks.

"Some of these Colombian peasants have been treated badly by their employers or are underpaid. So naturally, some of them take revenge on their masters by plotting to kidnap them," Gen Perez said.

The National Guard has set up a special mobile squad to help deal with kidnapping cases.

Selling farms

This is of little comfort to Giovanna Vasallo whose father Mario was killed in cold blood by his kidnappers in February 2006.

Mr Vasallo was kidnapped on his ranch near Machiques and held for several days.

Giovanna Vasallo
Giovanna Vasallo's father was kidnapped and killed
"We had already handed over a ransom of tens of thousands of dollars to them. But they still murdered my father," Ms Vasallo said.

"They told him to dig a hole in the ground. Then they made him kneel in the hole and shot him in the back of the head."

Mr Vasallo's kidnappers are still at large and Giovanna fears she could be next if she tries to track them down.

Back on his ranch, Juan Romero is in a philosophical mood as he closes the gate leading to the farm house.

"It's true that the kidnappers have forced us to change our lives. Many of us have sold up and left. Others are hiring bodyguards to continue farming," Juan said.

"But if we all just give on our farms, the kidnappers will have won. I for one won't let that happen."

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