Soccer team's murder leaves villagers scared

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."

“You saw them all the time selling their peanuts and necklaces,” she said, adding that she had a close relationship with one of the victims, Angel Aldemar Leon Aricapa, 18, from Cucuta in Colombia. She declined to comment on who might have carried out the killings.

Colombia and the vociferous Venezuelan opposition blame guerrilla groups. They say Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez lets the groups operate with impunity in the country.

According to one account, the group that kidnapped the 12 soccer players "arrived in olive green uniforms, with clothing embossed with the face of Che Guevara.”

The Venezuelan government, for its part, maintains that Bogota has been attempting to ignite insurrections in Venezuela’s frontier states through its links with paramilitary groups and the Venezuelan opposition. Ramon Carrizales, the Venezuelan vice president and defense minister, suggested the 12 victims might have links to paramilitary groups.

“The way in which they got [to Venezuela] ... they had an identity as a group ... makes one think that it was part of the Colombian government’s infiltration plan supported by internal factors,” he said.

Tensions have continued to mount, with Venezuela arresting two Colombian citizens and accusing them of spying. And then, on Friday, in the Venzuelan state on Tachira, 1,000 small businesses didn't open after five Colombians were arrested for distributing flyers that threatened traders if they didn't pay protection money to armed groups.

The Venezuelan government has increased police presence in Chururu, a hot and dusty transit town on the main road between Barinas state and the Colombian border. Two roadblocks have been set up, manned by several dozen National Guard.

On Monday, two of those guardsmen were shot dead by four armed men on motorbikes. Rumors circulated that the attack was revenge for the arrests of the Colombians, with the Venezuelan government blaming Colombian paramilitaries. Two of the main border crossings were subsequently closed.

The Venezuelan-Colombian Chamber of Economic Integration is predicting that bilateral trade between the two countries will fall 50 percent in 2009. Venezuelan authorities have also been stopping cars passing across the border into Colombia and obliging them to empty their gas tanks in a bid to stem the sale of contraband gas. Many people make a living from smuggling gas across the border.

In Chururu, the sandy patch of ground where the victims were taken now lies abandoned, its single set of goalposts knocked over.

Asked what had happened there in early October, neighbors said were away when the incident occurred or refused to comment.

“People are scared," said one man who asked not to be named, "they won’t talk about what happened here."

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