Venezuela Blows Up Two Bridges Along Colombia Border

Venezuelan forces destroyed two pedestrian bridges that spanned the border with Colombia, further heightening tensions between the two countries that have been at odds since Colombia agreed to allow the US military to expand its presence on Colombian bases.

The Guardian reports that Eusebio Aguero, a Venezuelan general in the border state of Táchira, confirmed that Venezuelan forces destroyed the bridges, which he said were used for illegal smuggling.

“They are two foot bridges that paramilitary fighters used, where gasoline and drug precursors were smuggled, [and] subversive groups entered. They are not considered in any international treaty.”

However Colombia denounced the action as a violation of international law that would worsen the diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

Colombia’s defence minister, Gabriel Silva, said Bogotá would lodge a complaint with the United Nations and the Organisation of American States over the “aggression”.

El Universal, a Caracas newspaper, reports that Venezuela’s Vice President and Minister of Defense Ramon Carrizález Rengifo echoed Gen. Aguero’s comments, and claimed that Venezuela’s actions were legal. “Border passages between two places are agreed upon by the two governments in such places where there is presence of both States. … Any other passage in the more than 2,000 kilometers of border we share with Colombia is an illegal crossing,” he said.

Relations between Colombia and Venezuela have deteriorated since Colombia and the US negotiated to allow US forces to have access to seven Colombian military bases. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in August claimed that the base-sharing deal was the first step in an American military campaign in South America, and froze relations with Colombia as a result. Colombia, which finalized the agreement with the US late last month, says that the plan is merely an expansion of US-Colombian efforts to fight drug trafficking. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the plan caps the number of US military personnel in Colombia at 800, though the agreement does appear to allow the US to launch operations beyond Colombian borders.

Maruja Tarre, a Caracas-based consultant and a former international relations professor, told the Los Angeles Times in an interview that Mr. Chavez’s opposition to the expanded US presence in Colombia may be derived from a fear that it would allow the US to better monitor Venezuelan activities. Ms. Tarre speculates that the US military might then be able to prove that members of the FARC rebel group, which Colombia is battling, are operating from within Venezuelan territory:

Up to now [Chávez] has had carte blanche in Latin America to do what he wanted, including help for the Colombian guerrillas, and people seemed to look the other way. So with the vigilance and advanced technology at these bases, it won’t be so easy for Chavez. Opposition Gov. Cesar Perez of the [Venezuelan] border state of Tachira has said Colombian guerrillas have camps in his state, that Chavez does nothing, but no one could document it. Now it will be easier to document. This is why Chavez is nervous. They are going to monitor him more.

Tarre adds that Chavez might welcome a shooting conflict with Colombia, as it would allow him to move against his political enemies within Venezuela.

[A border incident] would justify him getting rid of two opposition border governors [Perez and Pablo Perez of Zulia state] by allowing him to appoint some military governor over them. Chavez is already isolating Tachira and Zulia by claiming the two states are traitors and want to secede from Venezuela. He did the same thing with opposition mayors, taking their budgets, police, offices and powers and naming someone above them.

Bloomberg reports that Mr. Chávez ordered more troops to the Colombian border earlier this month, and said that he may declare a state of emergency in response to the killing of two border patrol officials by unknown assailants. The ongoing hostilities have some predicting an eventual outbreak of combat between the two nations, though one that will fall short of a full-fledged war.

“There’s a strong domestic policy incentive on both sides” to have a border skirmish, said [Adam Isacson, director of the Center for International Policy in Washington].

Approval ratings for both heads of state have fallen. Elections to choose 167 lawmakers in the Venezuelan National Assembly will be held in September 2010. Uribe may run for a third straight presidential term next year if a referendum is approved by a national court and in a popular vote. …

“We’re not going to see an all out war,” Isacson said. “But we could see a several-day running battle – an actual shooting battle – between official forces, that claims a lot of casualties and ends quickly with one side trying to show its superior military prowess.”