Terror Close to Home
In oil-rich Venezuela, a volatile leader befriends bad actors from the Mideast, Colombia, and Cuba
U.S. News has also obtained documents that offer firsthand accounts--from people inside the camps--that illustrate the extent of Venezuela's backing of the Colombian rebels. According to debriefings of former rebels, some 60 Venezuelan soldiers, plus two Venezuelan officers, provide training to the FARC rebels at the Resumidero camp. Visitors to the camp have included Venezuelan civilians and Europeans. A 31-year-old FARC deserter who spent seven months at FARC camps inside Venezuela, says he witnessed Venezuelan officers arrive by helicopter. He says his unit twice ambushed the Colombian Army and then fled to sanctuary in Venezuela. He also asserts that "abundant ammunition"--a cache in April included 2,500 rounds of 7.62mm and .223-caliber ammunition for automatic rifles--has been shipped across the border to Colombia. Another guerrilla who turned herself in last July says she saw FARC leaders heading for a camp called Rio Verde in Venezuela. And a former guerrilla, a 32-year-old man, says he fled from battle to a camp called Sastreria in Venezuela.
Drug money helps fuel the fighting. Another FARC source told U.S. News that he witnessed a FARC logistics chief trade 8 kilograms of cocaine and cash for guns from a Venezuelan colonel, who arranged the shipments from Venezuelan Army stocks. Colombian officials have documented many such guns-for-drugs trades; they also confirm the existence of training camps--and even spots where hostages are held--along Venezuela's frontier from the flatlands of Arauca northward to the mountains of Perija. Adds a U.S. official: "It's no secret the level of cooperation that the Venezuelan government is giving to the Colombian groups, from the shipment of arms in, to the shipment of drugs out, to the movement of people in and out of Colombia." During an August visit to the region, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, went so far as to suggest that Venezuela's support for terrorists in Colombia was like Syria's support for terrorists in Iraq. "It is simply not helpful when countries don't fully support the antiterrorist fight."
The Chavez government's support of the Colombian guerrillas is no act of charity. After he was elected in 1998, Chavez vowed to bring about a "Bolivarian revolution" in Venezuela; the movement is named for Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century hero who defeated the Spanish in South America. But Chavez's popularity has plummeted, and Venezuela's economy is troubled. In April 2002, he survived a military coup--one that the United States prematurely applauded. Chavez has since purged the military.
The armed Colombian groups are helping Chavez create a force loyal to his regime. The FARC and ELN were "instrumental" in the formation and training of a 200-man Venezuelan armed group called the Frente Bolivariano de Liberacion that operates in western Venezuela, according to U.S. officials. The FARC has also provided training to the so-called Bolivarian Circles, an urban organization that Chavez set up to defend and promote his revolution.
Senior U.S. officials are concerned about the growing Cuban presence inside Venezuela. All told, some 5,000 Cubans have traveled to the country; in particular, many are turning up inside Venezuela's intelligence and paramilitary apparatus. Says one U.S. official: "The Cubans are deeply embedded in Venezuela's intelligence agency." Castro and Chavez are so close, they are said to talk by phone every day. Cubans also form part of Chavez's personal bodyguard detail. There is ample evidence, officials say, that "Cuba provides military training to pro-Chavez organizations" that have been set up to safeguard Chavez from coup attempts like the one he survived last year. None of this surprises U.S. officials who have been watching Chavez. "He decided to follow the Cuban model long ago," says one, citing speeches he made in 1994 and 1998. Chavez is sending some 53,000 barrels of oil monthly to help Castro's cash-strapped Cuba. And large numbers of Venezuelan military personnel have also been sent to Cuba for training.