Leftist rebels fighting Colombia’s U.S.-backed military have increasingly found refuge in Venezuela, where they get weapons, food, medical treatment and a smuggling route for the cocaine that keeps them afloat.
Former rebels, local citizens and Colombian officials told The Associated Press that hundreds or even thousands of Colombian insurgents are in Venezuela at any given time.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who last month publicly recognized the rebels as “insurgent forces,” denies directly supporting them. He blames Colombia for failing to police their 1,370-mile border.
But former rebels say the two main Colombian rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, buy protection from high-ranking Venezuelan National Guard and army officers, with whom they often also share a leftist ideology.
“Venezuela’s army helps the guerrillas a lot,” said Antonio, who spent 13 years with FARC. Now an informant for Colombia’s military, he asked that his last name be omitted to protect relatives from reprisals.
Antonio was among two FARC and four ELN deserters interviewed by AP who said they moved freely across the frontier, a tangle of thick jungle, wild rivers and rugged mountains.
Well inside Venezuela, Colombian insurgents rest, train, buy arms and uniforms, recover from wounds and process cocaine, according to the rebel deserters, Venezuelan opposition politicians and Colombian officials.
Some top rebel commanders even raise families and educate their children in Venezuela, deserters told AP.
Colombian rebels were buying weapons and seeking refuge in Venezuela long before Chavez came to power in 1999. But border zone residents say their presence and influence have grown under Venezuela’s leftist leader, principally in the states of Zulia, Tachira, Apure and Chavez’s home state of Barinas.
Inside Colombia, the rebel forces have been seriously weakened by a Colombian military fortified by U.S. training, weapons, satellite intelligence and communications intercepts.
Venezuela’s safe haven has helped to keep their insurgencies alive, particularly because it enables the rebels to extract tons of Colombian cocaine for unhindered shipment to the United States and Europe, according to U.S. and Colombian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they said they didn’t want to provoke Chavez.
In the dusty Zulia village of El Cruce, Venezuelan soldiers maintain nearby checkpoints but cede control of the town to Colombian rebels, residents say. Venezuelan officers also ferry rebels around in their vehicles, the deserters said.
“They are protected by a cloak that nobody touches,” said Teofilo Duran, a Chavez foe who is mayor of the El Cruce district.
Roman, who quit FARC in January, said he broke his left thigh bone last year and had it repaired at the municipal hospital in Guasdualito, a town in Apure.
He said FARC paid for the operation and his monthlong recuperation at a private residence with seven other guerrillas.
“I was the only one who wasn’t there for bullet wounds,” he said. Roman, too, would only be identified by his first name.
No one interviewed by AP – including retired Gen. Raul Baduel, a former close ally who recently split with Chavez – alleged or provided evidence that Chavez is personally involved in sheltering or militarily backing Colombian rebels.
But there is little doubt senior rebel commanders have traveled freely and even lived in Venezuela.
In December 2004, Colombian agents kidnapped a senior FARC official, Rodrigo Granda, in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas.
Colombia freed Granda last year at the request of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who is working for the release of rebel hostage Ingrid Betancourt, who holds dual Colombian and French citizenship. Granda is believed to again be living in Venezuela.
Colombian officials say at least two members of FARC’s seven-member secretariat – Ivan Marquez and Timoleon Jimenez – live in Venezuela.
So do the top two ELN commanders, Nicolas Rodriguez and Antonio Garcia, four ELN deserters told AP, speaking anonymously because they inform for Colombia’s military.
Chavez was asked directly by AP in Guatemala last month whether his government provided Colombian rebel leaders with refuge.
“That subject is ‘off.’ I won’t talk about it,” he replied.
FARC and ELN have long bought weapons, ammunition and uniforms in Venezuela, the deserters said. But Chavez’s recent wave of arms purchases has Colombian officials worried that rebels could use them to make up for reported ammunition shortages.
They are especially fearful that some of the 5,000 Dragunov sniper rifles that Venezuela plans to buy from Russia could end up in rebel hands, leading to higher casualties among Colombian soldiers.
“If narcotics are crossing the border – and I think most everyone agrees that they are – then it is only logical to assume that ammunition, arms, etc. may be crossing as well,” the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, told AP.
Venezuelan security forces “know of the major cocaine-processing labs but don’t bother them at all,” said Antonio, who said he had led a FARC unit given the task of smuggling partially refined cocaine from Colombia into Venezuela.
The world’s cheapest cocaine is processed across the border from El Cruce in Colombia’s Catatumbo region, using cheap Venezuelan gasoline, U.S. and Colombian anti-drug and military officials say.
Several El Cruce residents, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear, said disproportionately large quantities of food, gasoline and cement – the latter two used in converting coca leaves into cocaine – move through the region toward the hills on the Colombian frontier where guerrilla camps are located.
AP journalists saw smugglers on motorcycles, heading toward Colombia shouldering backpacks laden with gasoline-filled plastic containers.
In the border hamlet of Simon Bolivar, council president Juan Carlos Maldonado said rebels pass through frequently.
“Their problem isn’t the Venezuelan government,” he said. “Their problem is the Colombian government.”