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Venezuela finds 11th body in massacre

The execution-style killings in a state near the border with Colombia have worsened tensions between the two countries. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez hints the Colombian victims may have been spies.

October 29, 2009|Chris Kraul and Jenny Carolina Gonzalez

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Venezuelan authorities Wednesday recovered the body of the 11th and last man who was kidnapped near the Colombian border and killed execution-style in an incident that has stoked tensions between the neighboring countries.

Officials in San Cristobal, the capital of the Venezuelan border state of Tachira, identified the final victim as Jose Luis Arenas, 21, a Colombian whose body was found near the town of El Pinal. The bodies of several other victims had been found there Saturday.

Arenas was one of 12 men, 10 of them Colombians, who were kidnapped on a soccer field in southwestern Venezuela on Oct. 11 by unknown assailants. They were held for several days before being killed. Their bodies were found strewn around the countryside.

Most of the Colombians were living on the Venezuelan side of the border.

The unexplained killings added to tensions that have simmered for two years between the countries. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez refused this week to allow a Colombian air force plane to land in San Cristobal to repatriate the remains. The bodies of the Colombians were later sent back across the land border.

Chavez hinted that the Colombians might have been spies, and revealed that his government last month had arrested an agent of the DAS, Colombia's equivalent of the FBI. He said Venezuela would try him on espionage charges.

Neither Venezuelan nor Colombian officials have said who they think was behind the killings. Theories include drug traffickers, paramilitaries and the Colombian guerrilla groups the ELN and the FARC.

One of those abducted, Manuel Junior Cortes, survived the massacre by feigning death. He is now a patient in a hospital in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. Colombian media have reported that Cortes described his captors as leftist guerrillas who accused the captives of being paramilitaries.

William Bello, the father of victim Michael Bello, 18, said in an interview that his son was a street vendor who worked at the border crossing and had never had a run-in with the law. "He was in his mother's house the night before the killing and did not mention any problem or threat," the elder Bello said.

Colombian officials and family members said the victims were simply playing pick-up soccer.

Chavez has in the past charged that Colombia routinely sends spies into Venezuela, and the Colombians accuse Venezuela of giving haven to the ELN and the FARC. Two undercover Colombian military agents were found dead in western Venezuela in 2007.

Tachira Gov. Cesar Perez, a Chavez critic, said Colombian guerrillas freely moved in towns and along roads inside Venezuela.

Relations between the two nations have deteriorated over the last two years since Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in November 2007 abruptly canceled Chavez's mediation efforts with the FARC.

Chavez has also railed against Colombia's decision to permit the Pentagon to relocate its anti-drug flights to bases in Colombia from Manta, Ecuador, a move Chavez says is being taken to facilitate an invasion of Venezuela.

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Kraul and Gonzalez are special correspondents.

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