Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Venezuela nabs 6 Colombian paramilitary suspects


CARACAS, Venezuela — Police apprehended six alleged far-right paramilitary fighters from Colombia, including a militia leader wanted in the killing of a Venezuelan mayor near the border with Colombia, authorities said Tuesday.

Johnny Marquez, a federal police investigator in the western state of Tachira, said officers arrested the militiamen during a sting operation near the town of La Fria. He said the group was deeply involved in hired killings, extortion and kidnapping among other crimes.

The leader of the criminal organization, Sandra Barrero, is wanted in Venezuela for her alleged involvement in two murders, Marquez said.

Barrero and the other suspects were being questioned by police investigators and prosecutors, he said. State television said authorities were searching the region for additional members of the group.

Marquez said Venezuela would contact Colombian authorities to determine if the suspects were wanted for crimes in the neighboring country. Paramilitary groups are outlawed in Colombia.

The arrest came as Venezuela and Colombia are tangled in a dispute over Colombian allegations that leftist rebels receive safe haven on Venezuelan territory. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia on Thursday because of its claims.

The number of Colombian paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas operating in Venezuela, particularly the border states of Tachira and Zulia, has increased significantly in recent years, according to opposition politicians and the governors of those states.

During a radio program broadcast Tuesday, Zulia Gov. Pablo Perez urged Chavez's government to "investigate the allegations" regarding a growing rebel presence in Venezuela that Colombia's government presented at the Organization of American States last week.

Chavez's critics say the government is cracking down on paramilitaries that cross the border to operate in Venezuelan territory, but contend authorities largely ignore the presence of leftist Colombian rebels who take shelter in Venezuela.

Chavez denies harboring rebels, saying his administration does all it can to keep them out.

In another development Tuesday, Venezuela's justice ministry announced the capture of a purported Colombian drug trafficker, Gloria Esther Chavez Ceballos, alias "Gloria Amparo." Chavez Ceballos leads a group of smugglers known as "Los Indios" that moves drugs to the Caribbean and Europe, it said. Esther Chavez, who police nabbed in Tachira's capital of San Critobal, is wanted on drug trafficking charges in the nearby Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba, the statement said.

Venezuela is a major hub for traffickers smuggling Colombian cocaine to the United States, Europe and the Caribbean.