The Venezuelan military launched a campaign two weeks ago against a rogue faction of Colombian guerrillas in this jungle region along the Arauca River. The guerrillas, known as the 10th Front, appear to have run afoul of the government in Caracas, which allegedly has had long-standing profit-sharing and protection deals with other leftist fighters in the area engaged in narco-trafficking and extortion.
The Venezuelan government “doesn’t seem to be defending its sovereignty, but protecting its drug-trafficking business,” Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano told Colombian National Radio last week.
Venezuelan officials put the death toll from the ongoing offensive at nine, including four soldiers, with 32 people arrested and nine camps destroyed. But refugees and human rights groups say Venezuelan security forces are falsely targeting civilians in their quest to find dissident guerrillas and their allies, and are engaging in extrajudicial killings as well as beatings and arbitrary detentions.
One refugee, Ana Maria Vásquez, 30, said a large group of Venezuelan soldiers arrived on March 21 at a slaughterhouse in the Venezuelan town of La Capilla where she and her husband worked. They accused male laborers, including her husband, of being in league with the guerrillas. Her husband was dragged into the street, she said, where he was severely beaten and later detained.
Vásquez said she fled hours later, risking Venezuelan military patrols to cross the fast-flowing Arauca River to reach Colombia. She told her story beside the tent here where she and her five children had slept for the past 10 days.