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FOCUS

Our Focus programme brings you exclusive reports from around the world. From Monday to Friday at 7.45 am Paris time.

Latest update : 2009-12-30

Neighbourly friction

Ever since Bogota announced the arrival of more US troops in Colombia to combat the drugs trade, Venezuela has been convinced that a military attack is being hatched to topple its controversial leader, the very anti-imperialist Hugo Chavez. In the border town of San Antonio, the war against Colombia is no longer a bluff.

Ever since Bogota announced the arrival of more US troops in Colombia to combat the drugs trade, Venezuela has been convinced that a military attack is being hatched to topple its controversial leader, the very anti-imperialist Hugo Chavez.


“If you want peace, prepare for war”, repeats Hugo Chavez, over and over. In San Antonio del Tachira, right on the border with Colombia, the reinforcements have already arrived. Every day, Venezuelan army vehicles drive up and down the streets... jeeps, armoured cars, more than a hundred troops in all... It's a routine mission for these soldiers of the Bolivarian National Guard, responsible for border security.The locals look on, bemused. Here we just get on with family life, says a passer-by, Norega Vega, we're not doing anything wrong.”
 
In San Antonio, the war against Colombia is no longer a bluff. The electricity supply between the two countries has been cut off..And this customs post is usually closed.
 
Some, like the strongly pro-Chavez mayor of San Antonio, believe a US attack is imminent. “We know what they did in Panama, explains Juan Vicente Canas mayor of San Antonio del Tachira and what they did in Genada, or even in Iraq and Afghanistan. So we have to prepare for every eventuality, including war, and not just psychologically. It's a question of patriotism.”

Every day, the Venezuelan army combs these poor neighbourhoods, inhabited by Colombian immigrants suspected of smuggling fuel or spying for the enemy.

A man is accused of petrol smuggling. His behaviour seems suspicious, so he's arrested. “He's my only grandson, says a anonymous relative of smuggler. He's a builder's mate. And now they've taken him from me.”

For several weeks now, San Antonio has been on full alert. In principle, the National Guard is here to combat the fuel smuggling. Petrol is virtually free in Venezuela. But in reality, they're searching these neighbourhoods for US intelligence agents and Colombian paramilitaries.“ The smugglers carry on all their criminal activities under the noses of the Colombian police and local authorities says Commander Hernandez Da Costa. Everything crosses the River Tachira, with no respect for our border.”

And National Guard commandos make regular raids on the frontier, a narrow strip of water between the two countries, chasing off the smugglers who abandon their petrol canisters. The Venezuelan army spreads out and marks its territory, in the face of an invisible enemy.

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