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Slayings cast light on border intrigues in South America

The bodies of two Colombian soldiers are found in Venezuela, raising questions about both governments.

June 15, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA, VENEZUELA — A whodunit involving two undercover Colombian soldiers whose bodies were found here in western Venezuela has heightened tensions between the neighboring countries and lifted the lid on the dirty little secrets of their border relations.

At first, the unidentified and badly decomposed corpses found in late April near the city dump were thought to be those of victims of the drug trade. As much as one-third of the cocaine produced by Colombia is shipped through the region, and turf wars are constant.

Next, officials pegged robbery as the motive for the killings after Colombian family members came forward to claim the bodies and said the victims were traveling salesmen.

Then, the bombshell: Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos confirmed that the two, Capt. Camilo Gonzalez and Sgt. Gregorio Martinez, were undercover agents of the Colombian army. They had been found out by leftist Colombian rebels operating in Venezuela, who captured, tortured and killed them, he charged in a radio interview last month.

Inflaming matters even more, the Colombian magazine Semana, citing Venezuelan sources, asserted that the two Colombians had been detained at a Venezuelan National Guard installation in Santa Barbara shortly before they were killed. One of the victims managed to place a cellphone call to a family member to say he was in Venezuela's custody and to alert the Colombian government, a source close to the investigation confirmed to The Times.

"It raises the issue of whether the Venezuelan armed forces were facilitators or even participants in the murders," said the source, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the case.

In an interview with The Times last week in Bogota, the Colombian capital, conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe declined to comment on the case, saying it was "under investigation by both countries."

Murky circumstances aside, the case has shed light on border intrigues -- Colombia's extensive spy network and what critics of leftist President Hugo Chavez call Venezuela's permissive attitude toward rebel groups in its territory. It also poses questions about whether Venezuelan armed forces offer more than passive support in their dealings with Colombian rebels.

Santos, whose office did not respond to requests for an interview on the case, acknowledged in the radio interview that Colombia had "lots of people" who had infiltrated the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. In recent years, Colombian spies have engineered the capture of two high-profile FARC commanders, Rodrigo Granda in Venezuela in December 2004 and Simon Trinidad in Ecuador in January 2004.

The Colombian government views the spies as a necessary weapon, especially in Venezuela, where Chavez is trying to remold his country as a socialist state. Although Chavez denies supporting rebel groups, he idolizes Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader who once sponsored guerrilla movements in Latin America.

Chavez has made no secret of his opposition to Plan Colombia, the U.S.-financed campaign against drugs and terrorism. Chavez blames the program for pushing combatants on both sides of Colombia's civil war into Venezuela.

In an interview late last month in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, Gen. Alberto Muller Rojas, a Chavez security advisor, said his government had "no data linking our armed forces to either of the two officers. Officially, at least, we know nothing about that.... I imagine the guerrillas killed them."

Muller also criticized Santos, saying he was determined to portray Venezuela as a "rogue state." But he acknowledged that the FARC and another Colombian leftist rebel group, the National Liberation Army, known by the Spanish initials ELN, routinely use Venezuela as a haven.

Stopping them is "not our job," he said. "We don't have to incur expenses to contain an enemy that is not our enemy. That's their job," Muller said, referring to the Colombian government.

Muller asserted that Colombian rebels in Venezuela "behave themselves."

"They don't want to cause problems. It is the paramilitaries who are at the root of any public disorder," he said in a reference to right-wing Colombian paramilitary groups that he says also cross over into Venezuela.

In his "Alo Presidente" -- Hello President -- weekly radio show Sunday, Chavez acknowledged that the presence of Colombian guerrillas in Venezuela was an issue, saying he was aware that Apure state officials had made contact with rebels. He forbade Venezuelan officials from doing so, saying he would apply the "the full weight of the law" against any who did.

"Whoever they are, the ELN or the FARC, they have their struggle in Colombia and they should go there. They have nothing to do in Venezuela," Chavez told viewers.

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