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