Venezuela and Colombia Square Off Over Rebel
Bogota's Demand For Extradition Strains Ties
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
CARACAS, Venezuela, March 16 -- The case of a captured Colombian guerrilla
has severely strained relations between Colombia and Venezuela, mutually
suspicious neighbors that face several cross-border issues with important implications for stability in the Andean region.
Venezuelan law enforcement officials working with Interpol and the Colombian
security agency arrested Jose Maria Ballestas, a member of Colombia's
second-largest leftist guerrilla army, at a Caracas shopping mall on Feb. 13. Ballestas was wanted for the 1999 hijacking of a Colombian commercial airliner carrying
42 passengers, the first of several mass kidnappings carried out by his group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
Soon after his arrest, however, Ballestas was released from custody
on orders from Interior Minister Luis Miquilena, one of President Hugo
advisers. Venezuelan officials denied Ballestas had been captured and dismissed as "magic realism" an account published by the Colombian magazine Cambio -- until
confronted by Colombian officials on March 8 with a video of the arrest.
Authorities today ordered the provisional arrest of Ballestas, who has
been charged with car theft and weapons possession pending a decision on
his application for
political asylum. But Colombian officials have requested his extradition, saying Venezuela has an obligation to turn him over under agreements signed by the two
countries. Venezuelan officials, at least so far, disagree.
"It is unacceptable for foreign police to interfere in Venezuela's internal
affairs," Miquilena said of Colombia's role in the arrest. "Of course,
this harms our national
The Ballestas case has renewed allegations that the Chavez government
is secretly supporting Colombia's various leftist insurgencies and ratchets
up the tension
between the historically unfriendly neighbors. Colombian and U.S. officials worry that Chavez, who has been accused of trying to export his "peaceful revolution" to
other countries, could complicate Colombia's delicate peace negotiations and the anti-drug strategy known as Plan Colombia by openly supporting guerrilla forces in
a decades-old civil war.
Both Colombia and Venezuela temporarily recalled their ambassadors last
year after Chavez allowed members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
or FARC, as the country's largest guerrilla army is known -- to speak at a forum in Caracas on Plan Colombia. Since then, Venezuela has been appointed as an
international participant in Colombia's peace talks with the FARC and ELN over the objection of Colombia's privately funded paramilitary army that battles the
Colombian refugees, kidnapping syndicates and fighting increasingly
are entering Venezuela along a simmering border. In an interview last week,
Colombia's paramilitary chief, said his troops are repelled frequently by the Venezuelan armed forces when pursuing Colombian guerrillas across the border. As a
result, Castano said, he has begun training Venezuelan farmers to start their own paramilitary army to confront Colombian guerrillas.
Chavez has remained silent about the Ballestas case, leaving his top
advisers to tell a contradictory story over the past week. The hijacking
of the Avianca airliner
was a major crime in Colombia. Of the 42 kidnapped passengers, the last two were released after ransom payments in November, ending 19 months in captivity.
Since last week, when Colombian Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez
released the video of Ballestas' arrest, Miquilena has described Ballestas
facing "political persecution" in Colombia. But Foreign Minister Luis Alfonso Davila said Ballestas had not filed an asylum application with his ministry, the usual
venue for such a request. Adding to the confusion, Miquilena then said the application was filed with the Interior Ministry.