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Venezuela Cattlemen Living in Fear

Ranchers say rebels from Colombia are running a kidnapping industry on their land.

July 25, 2006|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

VILLA DEL ROSARIO, Venezuela — The violence has come too close for comfort for dairy farmer Edgar Vargas, whose family has raised cattle on their ranch near the Colombian border for three generations.

First his friend and fellow rancher Mario Vassallo was kidnapped and killed in February. Then a neighbor, Salvador Ferrante, was kidnapped and spent three weeks in a Colombian rebel camp before his family paid a $600,000 ransom. The final straw came last month when the president of the local cattlemen's association, Luis Martinez, was shot nine times as he rode on his tractor.

Martinez had gone to the police days before to report that he'd been threatened and to ask for protection. He'd even brought along photos of the suspects that he'd taken with his cellphone. Martinez had told other ranchers that he'd rather die than be kidnapped, Vargas said. And he did just that, witnesses say, resisting a group of eight men dressed in the battle fatigues and knee-high rubber boots preferred by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

"We live in constant fear," Vargas, 46, said as he walked among his herd of 300 cows, the mountains bordering Colombia looming to the west. "Farming is a beautiful thing, working the land and raising animals. But there is no security anymore."

So he's selling his ranch and getting out.

Once a peaceful dairy region, this section of Venezuela's western border with Colombia has become a lawless zone where kidnappings, cattle thefts and forays by suspected Colombian rebels rule the day. Vargas said his employees had spotted armed groups in battle fatigues crossing his property five times in recent months.

Farmers say kidnappings, once an occasional event, have multiplied in the six years since the advent of Plan Colombia, the anti-drug and anti-terrorism campaign largely financed by the United States.

They complain that the effort has pushed guerrillas into Venezuelan territory, where they rest, recuperate, resupply -- and wreak havoc on local farmers.

"There is a kidnapping industry in place now. We all are afraid," said Hugo Suarez, another cattle rancher here. "We never tell anyone when we will visit our farms. When we do go, we go quickly and stay as little time as possible."

The response of the government of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is largely to act as if there is no problem, said Adonay Martinez, president of a ranchers' association called Fegalago that is the umbrella group for several local groups between Lake Maracaibo and the Colombian border.

"Our government is totally indifferent to the problem," Martinez said. "Our sovereignty is being violated, and the response we get is total complacency." Other cattlemen who asked not to be named theorized that the military has been passive because it is sympathetic with the leftist rebels' cause.

Carlos Luna, who heads the kidnapping unit in the local office of the Venezuelan equivalent of the FBI, said he agreed that Colombian "dissidents" were causing trouble, and that kidnappings had increased since Plan Colombia took hold. But he said rogue elements of the right-wing Colombian militias were also involved in criminal activity in western Venezuela.

"Here we have criminal gangs who cooperate with armed Colombian groups, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries," Luna said.

The national cattlemen's association has sharply criticized the military for its "absurd passivity." It has demanded that the government garrison a major army presence here to defend against the rebel incursions.

Vargas recalled the government's reaction when a friend disappeared a decade ago, before Chavez came to power.

"Ten years ago when Erlen Atensio was kidnapped, the government sent a thousand army units here to comb the mountains. They never found him, but at least they came," Vargas said. "Now we've had eight kidnappings in less than a year, and we haven't seen a single soldier."

Ranchers say the rebels have since set up base camps in the mountains above this town on the Venezuelan side of the border and make forays into the area to look for food, collect "vaccinations" -- extortion payments -- rustle cattle and seize victims.

The Chavez government's alleged inaction in the face of Colombian armed groups' incursions has also drawn fire from the U.S. government, whose officials charge that the anti-American leader is allowing the FARC to use Venezuela's border region as a rest and resupply zone.

The Venezuelan government has also been criticized by Italy, which has expressed concern over the fact that a disproportionate number of victims in western Venezuela, at least 16 over the last two years, have been of Italian lineage or had dual citizenship. In the years after World War II, this country received a wave of European immigrants, many of whom bought farms.

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