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,"
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
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police we used to rely on have been withdrawn."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.
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
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. …