Despite assurances by Colombia government that there are no rebel sanctuaries in Venezuela, the leader of a Venezuelan NGO has offered a firsthand account to several Colombian media outlets of FARC and ELN presence in the country.
Father Orlando Neira, director of Caritas Internationalis, a Catholic NGO dedicated to fighting poverty, told Caracol Radio that Colombian guerrillas operate with impunity in the Venezuelan border state of Tachira, and said that extortion is common in the region. "'Vacunas' (extortion fees) are demanded from hardworking people and those with great resources alike. No one is spared from paying them," said Neira.
The priest also said that small farmers and ranchers there live under constant threat of being kidnapped for ransom by guerrillas, and noted that abductions often last more than a year. "They demanded three million dollars for a girl who has no money in the state of Tachira," Neira said during an interview on RCN Radio.
The statement is the latest challenge to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ attempts at improving diplomatic ties with the Venezuelan government, which have relied on playing up Venezuela’s cooperation with Colombian security efforts. Last April Santos announced that Venezuela was free of FARC camps, saying, "We are certain those encampments no longer exist." He added that the government of Hugo Chavez has delivered on its promise to prevent the guerrilla group from crossing back and forth across the Colombia-Venezuela border.
Neira’s statement comes just days after the commander of Colombia’s armed forces, Admiral Edgar Cely, told a Colombian television station that FARC and ELN guerrillas are still hiding out in Venezuela, using the country in order to lie low and organize attacks. Cely’s remarks were swiftly denied by Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera, who praised Venezuela for stepping up attempts to capture and deport rebels.
But Father Neira rejected this, saying: "It is unfortunate that our Venezuelan government does not take responsibility. They say there are no guerrillas, that they do not come here. What they are saying is one thing and what happens on the ground is another.”