Frontier Clash Pits Cattlemen against Guerrillas ; Colombia's Long Civil War Spills over the Border onto Venezuelan Ranches

Article excerpt

When Hector Arriaga's modest cattle ranch was invaded by squatters in late 1999, he was stunned as well as angry.

Just a month earlier he had paid the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC - Colombia's biggest guerrilla group) more than $700 in protection money. "Around here, no one does a thing without the guerrillas' say-so," says Mr. Arriaga (who asked that his name be changed to prevent reprisals). "They promised me no land invasions, no cattle rustling, security - the works."

What is unusual about Arriaga's story is that he does not live in Colombia, but in neighboring Venezuela, whose porous, 1,300-mile border is a key asset to Colombia's rival guerrilla armies. "Guns, drugs, trussed-up kidnap victims - they all pass through here," says Arriaga.

The rancher's experience is just one example of the way Colombia's 40-year civil war is impacting the lives of its neighbors. Though successive Venezuelan governments have sought a modus vivendi with the guerrillas, the effective authority along most of the Colombian side of the border, ranchers say President Hugo Chavez, who came to power early in 1999, has left them defenseless against the marauders.

One of Chavez's first moves - which has sparked widespread dissent within the Venezuelan military - was to declare his government officially neutral in the Colombian conflict and grant quasi-diplomatic status to representatives in Caracas of the FARC and the second-largest guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Along the border, clashes between Colombian guerrillas and Venezuelan armed forces have all but ceased. Extortion and land invasions have notably increased.

"When they arrived at my farm on January 20, 2000," says Otto Ramirez, "One of the first things [guerrilla commander] 'William' told me was, 'We have an agreement with Comandante Chavez not to attack the Venezuelan armed forces and not to kidnap. But we are allowed to extort protection money."

When the guerrillas came back for the money, the rancher set a trap for them, but his plan failed. He moved his family out of harm's way, and now only visits the ranch under military escort. Since then he has pushed for a change in government policy.

Mr. Ramirez, who has close relations with the Army and national guard commanders in the area, says they would like to help but have been "castrated" by government policy. "Every day, military checkpoints disappear from the border area," he says. "The rural police we used to rely on have been withdrawn."

His complaints are echoed by the ranchers' national leader, Jose Luis Betancourt of the cattlemen's federation, Fedenaga. "The guerrillas are the de facto authority in the border area," Mr. Betancourt says.

The Chavez government denies accusations that it has struck a deal. "There is no agreement, written or tacit, with the Colombian guerrillas," says new Defense Minister Jose Vicente Rangel. Chavez has described the allegations as part of a plot to discredit his government.

Gen. Manuel Verde Acosta, head of the national guard's No. 1 Regional Command in San Cristobal, blames the ranchers themselves for not reporting cases of extortion. "We call on the cattle ranchers to give us the information, and we guarantee confidentiality," he says. …