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As Guerrillas Make Life Difficult...A Rancher Refuses To Buckle (Int'l Edition)


International -- Spotlight on Venezuela

As Guerrillas Make Life Difficult...A Rancher Refuses to Buckle (int'l edition)

Paul Gutierrez has chilling evidence that he's on the Colombian guerrillas' kidnap list. Last year, the National Liberation Army (ELN) invaded his 3,500-hectare cattle ranch in Machiques in Venezuela's northwestern Zulia state, locked the 50 workers in the farmhouse, and lay in wait for him to show up. Instead, a neighbor arrived to borrow a tool. Sensing something was amiss, he alerted police. A shootout ensued, but the rebels escaped to the nearby sierra. Gutierrez, 34, knows it's a matter of time before they come for him again. "If they're out to get you, they'll do it," he says.

It's a story all too common along the Venezuelan side of the 1,752-kilometer Colombian border. Kidnapping of ranchers, businesspeople, and even tourists for ransom has become a major source of financing for the continent's oldest insurgency, dating to 1964. That's not to mention the money guerrillas extort from farmers in return for not abducting them, known as "vaccinations." Then there were the killings of three U.S. Indian rights activists in March. They were found dead on the Venezuelan side of the border, though the guerrillas deny killing them, and some observers suspect right-wing groups.

The economic impact of the "Colombianization," as Venezuelans angrily call it, is staggering. Some $26 million was paid in ransom and protection money in 1996, the latest year available for Venezuelan police statistics, when 40 people were recorded as kidnapped. Police say the number is going up slowly but steadily. In some border areas, such as southern Apure state, fertile land has become almost worthless: Farmers are desperate to sell, but buyers are predictably scarce.

The Venezuelan government believes the answer lies in populating the isolated border area. But that policy has proven hard to implement. Last year, Caracas offered free land and housing to pioneers who would move to its newly established border town, Ciudad Sucre, in Apure. But the government ran out of money to finish the project, and many new arrivals have departed.TAKE CARE. Venezuela's new President, Hugo Chavez, has also proposed declaring a demilitarized zone straddling the border, but the guerrillas are unlikely to walk away from such a lucrative business. The definitive solution, says Zulia Governor Francisco Arias Cardenas, is peace in Colombia, and "that is the responsibility of the Colombian government." Talks are under way but show little sign of success. In the meantime, the Venezuelan Army provides armed soldiers free of charge to escort ranchers to and from their farms. "That has been our salvation," says Ivan Gutierrez, Paul's cousin, also a third-generation rancher.

The farmers have also learned to live with danger: spending hours on their ranches instead of days, using code in phone calls, questioning strangers to the zone, and always varying their routines. So life on the farm, says Ivan, 36, now is largely a childhood memory. Adds Paul: "I have another farm closer to the border, but today it's so dangerous, I can't go there at all."

Carlos Marquez didn't think it could happen to him. Ignoring advice about army escorts, he went to his cattle ranch daily, accompanied by only a private bodyguard. It was an easy ambush for the well-trained ELN soldiers, who force-marched Marquez, 36, 80 km into Colombia last July before demanding $10 million ransom. Over the next six months, Marquez was moved 26 times, living in isolation and "extreme poverty" although his 16-man guard treated him well enough, even kidnapping a doctor to treat him for dysentery. "The torture was not knowing anything," he says. He occupied himself teaching illiterate guerrillas to read and write and arguing their philosophy with university-graduate leaders.

Meanwhile, his father was bargaining down the ransom and looking for bank loans to pay a seven-figure sum--in dollars only. Released in January, 32 kilograms thinner, Marquez refuses to buckle. Still visiting his farm almost daily, he is focusing on bringing it back up to par and sowing African palm on land even closer to the border than his cattle pastures, albeit with stepped-up security. Anger has now replaced relief. "Why do they have to destroy families, innocent people not even from their country?" he asks. "They're common criminals."EDITED BY HARRY MAURERReturn to top


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