Venezuela’s capture of Colombian “spies”, whom it accuses of being part of a US-backed plot to undermine its socialist government, has escalated a simmering conflict between the neighbouring Andean nations.
Venezuela on Tuesday night arrested two Colombians near the border and alleged they were intelligence agents. Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president known for his staunchly anti-imperialist rhetoric, accused Colombia of using the bloody massacre of an amateur Colombian football team near the border last week as cover to gather military intelligence to destabilise his regime.
Colombia’s security agency, DAS, stated that its staff were not authorised to operate in Venezuelan territory.
The controversy sparked by the execution-style killings, believed to be the work of leftist guerrillas, comes as Colombia prepares to sign a military agreement with the US this week. The deal allows US forces to use seven of Colombia’s bases in an attempt to combat drug trafficking and guerrilla insurgents.
The massacre revived speculation over the extent of the presence of Colombian Marxist rebels in Venezuela, following persistent accusations from Colombia and the US that Venezuela harbours terrorists and provides safe haven to drug smugglers. Mr Chávez strenuously denies this.
Indeed, Venezuela’s flamboyant president warned that the increased US military presence in Colombia could lead to an invasion of Venezuela. “It would be very painful to have to fight against our brothers, but we would have to do so. The heroic land of Venezuela was born to be free,” he said during his weekly television show on Sunday.
Mr Chávez mocked Colombia’s defence minister Gabriel Silva – who he described as “mentally feeble, if not mentally retarded” – for claiming that his government had succeeded in controlling its cocaine trade while accusing Venezuela of allowing smugglers to land planes in its territory to transport drugs further afield.
“Perhaps those planes come from the moon?” asked Mr Chávez. “Drug trafficking has doubled since Plan Colombia began, because where the yankee troops go also goes drug trafficking: just ask Afghanistan and Vietnam,” he said, referring to the US-backed anti-drugs initiative which has provided some $5bn in military aid to Colombia.
Mr Chávez protested that Venezuela – which has a long and porous border with Colombia but which does not grow coca, the raw material for cocaine – was a victim of the international drugs trade.
Venezuela has frequently complained that DAS operates in its territory, even accusing it of being involved in drug trafficking. Colombia has said it will disband DAS after becoming mired in accusations of involvement in serious humans rights abuses and illegal wiretapping of the government’s opponents, journalists and judges.
Squabbling between the countries flared up again in August, when Mr Chávez froze diplomatic and trade relations following news of Colombia’s military deal with the US.
Colombia is the second biggest source of Venezuelan imports after the US, with Venezuela mainly buying cars and food from its neighbour in exchange for oil and chemicals. Since the spat broke out, bilateral trade, which exceeded $7bn last year, has taken a significant blow.