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Soccer team's murder leaves villagers scared

The murder of an amateur soccer team has heightened tensions between Colombia and Venezuela.

CHURURU, Venezuela — This sleepy town on Venezuela’s border with Colombia has been “candela” — or “on fire” — after a local soccer team was massacred.

Two weeks ago, 12 men — 10 Colombians, one Peruvian and one Venezuelan — were kidnapped from a soccer field on the main road between Tachira state capital San Cristobal and Barinas.

The bodies of 10 of the victims, most of them from the Colombian city of Bucaramanga, were discovered last week in several locations in the nearby town of El Pinal, shot through the head, execution-style. An 11th body was discovered a few days later.

The massacre of the soccer team isn't the only reason Chururu's residents are on edge. Also last week, six Colombian men were discovered in graves in Barinas, killed by mechanical asphyxia.

The massacres have shaken towns on both sides of the border. But more than that, they've aggravated the already tense relationship between Venezuela and Colombia. And the residents are stuck in the middle — afraid for their safety as each country blames the other.

The neighboring countries suspended relations and reduced bilateral trade earlier this year over a Colombian plan to allow U.S. troops to use its military bases. That agreement was signed Friday in Bogota. Venezuela regularly accuses Colombia of spying, while Colombia blames Venezuela for allowing leftist guerrillas to take refuge across its borders. Responsibility for the soccer deaths is the latest tit-for-tat in that squabble.

Colombian Manuel Junior Cortes, 18, the sole survivor of the massacre, described to the Colombian daily El Tiempo how the soccer team was taken from the field by force and chained together in pairs in a camp on a mountain for two weeks by a group whose leader was nicknamed "El Payaso" or "The Clown."

They were told they would be freed, but instead were taken to a spot where they were shot several times. Cortes said he was shot once in the neck and survived by playing dead. He walked away from the scene and stumbled upon a farmer after three hours. He is currently in a hospital in Caracas.

The men were playing in a local soccer league on a makeshift soccer field on the outskirts of town when an armed group appeared and asked to see the list of players, according to Wilmer Flores Trosel, director of the CICPC, the Venezuelan equivalent of the FBI.

“They called out the players' names, lined them up and took them to an unknown destination," Flores said.

A resident of Chururu, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, said the victims made a living selling snacks and knick-knacks to travelers on buses headed for the Colombian border. Their team was known as "Los Maniceros," or "Peanut Sellers."