by Andres Canizalez
(IPS) CARACAS --
is growing about
the emergence of paramilitary groups among rural
populations along the shared border between
Venezuela and Colombia.
Colombian guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers have clashed at different points along the 2,200-km common border, and the civilian population, caught in the crossfire, is increasingly seeking refuge and assistance in Venezuela.
The Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Machiques in northwestern Venezuela sent a letter in late January to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Caracas asking for humanitarian assistance for dozens of Colombian refugees in Venezuelan territory.
Joe Castillo, a lawyer for the Apostolic Vicariate, told IPS that at least 300 people had fled across the border from Colombia when their villages and towns were attacked by paramilitary groups.
But the government of Hugo Chavez denies that there is a problem within Venezuelan territory. Former foreign minister Jose Vicente Rangel, who was recently named defense minister, maintained yesterday that although Colombian citizens had indeed been displaced, they remained "a few meters from the Venezuelan border."
Rangel, who insisted on classifying the Colombians as "displaced in transit," only recognized the presence of two Colombian women and four children who had been admitted to the hospital in Machiques.
Castillo retorted that "it is not up to us to define whether they are displaced or refugees. They are sick, hungry human beings who have asked for help."
Cubas, coordinator of a local non-governmental
organization Provea, told IPS that the Venezuelan
government insisted on mixing up the terms, as
demonstrated by an agreement signed with Colombia
that refers to the individuals in question as
"displaced in transit."
"According to the international convention, the term displaced is applied when displacement occurs within the territory of the person's home country," said Cubas. "But when a border is crossed, the individual automatically becomes a refugee. The procedure for assigning the status that allows the individual to remain indefinitely in Venezuela is another question."
Cubas said the priority along the border was to facilitate humanitarian aid to the Colombian citizens in question, which required acknowledging their presence in Venezuelan territory.
The UNHCR office in Caracas, meanwhile, is working with the foreign ministry to organize a joint visit to the border area with local authorities in order to evaluate the gravity of the situation, UNHCR information officer Grace Guerrero told IPS. She added that her office was also seeking cooperation.
While along the northern border area Colombian citizens are fleeing the decades-old armed conflict in their country and seeking refuge in Venezuela, to the south there is another problem: the creation of armed groups by Venezuelan landowners "to protect themselves in the absence of the state."
The president of the Stockbreeders Federation, Jose Luis Betancourt, confirmed reports that the National Liberation Army (ELN) -- Colombia's second-largest rebel group -- had helped evict people who had invaded estates belonging to Venezuelan landowners.
Betancourt said landowners along the border had no option but to accept the help of the Colombian guerrillas in recuperating their property, after they had turned in vain to institutions of the state.
On the other hand, ranchers in the Venezuelan border state of Tachira, in the Andes mountains, have begun to organize their own private armies to defend themselves from extortion by other Colombian guerrillas, and from the lack of protection offered by the state, said landowner Otto Ramirez.
Analysts warn that the situation could lead to the emergence of paramilitary groups in Venezuela, given the weak presence of security forces in the area and the constant activity of insurgent groups and common criminals.
Rangel said he would put top priority on the hot situation along the border with Colombia, and that he would step up the presence of the military in the area when he takes up his post as defense minister three weeks from now. "It is the duty of the Venezuelan state to protect our fellow countrymen, their lives and their assets, along the border," he said.
"I am in favor of strengthening the theatres of operations, because they follow a policy that is not merely military in nature, but which has a very important strategic and logistic component as well. I am considering strengthening them, and giving priority to the entire border area," said Rangel, a long-time leftist activist and one of the closest associates of President Chavez, a former paratrooper officer.
February 12, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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