RUBIO, Venezuela — When Porfilio Davila hears his government deny that Colombian guerrillas are mobilizing in his part of western Venezuelan, he thinks about his father, whom he believed was kidnapped by such guerrillas nearly four years ago.
Dozens of people in this hilly, forested border region also have gone missing, and many here believe Colombian guerrillas are to blame. Despite the government's pledge to crackdown on groups terrorizing the border, few here think that will happen.
"The national government lies," Davila said. Colombian police have even told him they suspected the National Liberation Army, one of three guerrilla groups believed to be operating here, was holding his father.
"Here, Colombian guerrilla groups are operating, sometimes with the complicity of police," he said. "We live in a climate of terror fueled by the indifference of the state and the injustice of impunity."
Questions about the guerrilla presence in this region were at the heart of an international controversy that erupted this past week after Colombian troops bombed a jungle camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, in Ecuadorean territory.
Because of the growing presence of the guerrillas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez threatened war with Colombia if that country's troops entered Venezuelan territory in pursuit of Colombian guerrillas. Chavez also sent an estimated 9,000 troops, along with tanks, aircraft and ships, to the Colombian-Venezuelan border.
Colombia President Alvaro Uribe, who has the backing of the United States, has long complained that neither Venezuela nor Ecuador were doing much to prevent the Columbian guerrillas from taking shelter in their countries.
The tensions eased Friday after Colombia's government apologized for violating Ecuadorean territory and promised not to do it again. Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador also committed themselves to fighting destabilizing "irregular or criminal groups" in their countries.
Despite the promises, Venezuelans living near the Colombian border said they don't expect their government to move against the growing number of guerrillas using the region as a safe haven from the pursuing Colombian army.
Several residents said they found it hard to believe Venezuelan officials didn't know about the guerrilla infiltration, given the many military checkpoints that dot the region's main highway.
Adding to local skepticism was Chavez's defense of the FARC as a legitimate military force, despite the group's kidnappings and drug production.
Computer documents found at the FARC's Ecuadorean camp showed Chavez had given $300 million to the guerrilla group last year, Colombian officials said. Chavez has vehemently denied giving the money.
"The government is not doing anything because they have a friendship with these subversive groups," said local City Councilman Alejandro Garcia, who represented the families of Venezuelan kidnap victims in January talks with Colombian government officials.
"But there's no doubt about it, the groups are here and they're active."
Heber Aguilar, the top law enforcement official in the border state of Tachira, admitted Colombian guerrillas occasionally crossed into Venezuela but denied the presence of FARC bases. He added that right-wing Colombian paramilitary groups and not guerrillas were responsible for the kidnappings.
U.S. intelligence officials, however, said the FARC runs as many as 20 camps on the Venezuelan side of the border and has at times received perimeter protection from Venezuelan security forces.
"We think that over the years, Chavez has provided small amounts of arms and ammunition to the FARC" and the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, said a U.S. intelligence official on condition of anonymity. "Our view has been that there hasn't been a consistent government policy'' of supporting the two groups.
The movement of guerrillas is a fact of life in Venezuelan towns such as El Nula, about 20 miles from the Colombian border, said the Rev. Acacio Belandria, who heads a local parish.
Many here pay yearly extortion fees of up to $1,000, known as "La Vacuna," or the vaccine, to one or more guerrilla groups to protect themselves against kidnapping. Some say the payments no longer provide protection.
In some cases, the guerillas have become so dominant that they've taken on local government functions, Belandria said. The National Liberation Army (ELN) in El Nula, for example, adjudicates legal disputes over debts and divorces; disciplines school teachers who don't teach approved lessons and vets members of community government councils.
"They've become a threatening presence, an interventionist presence and a violation of national sovereignty," Belandria said. "We're suffering the effects of Colombia's armed war."
According to Belandria, the guerrillas, who include some Venezuelans, usually move locations every few weeks in the lightly forested hills around El Nula. One local man who had been taken hostage told Belandria he was forced to move 22 times during five months of captivity.
Belandria said he had never heard of permanent guerrilla bases in the region, much less the presence of foreign fighters like at least five Mexicans found at the FARC's Ecuadorean camp. Others said paramilitaries have taken over areas closest to the border and executed thieves and other petty criminals.
Garcia estimated 24 people from Tachira state are being held hostage, with the majority by guerrillas. Many hostages are taken in Venezuela and then transported to Colombia. While many are returned for ransom, some like Davila's father disappear without a trace.
Davila said he hasn't heard from his father's kidnappers since 2004 and has never received a ransom request. Pleas to the Venezuelan government for assistance have gone unanswered. Some hostages are held for possible exchanges for imprisoned guerrillas.
"We're losing our grandparents, our fathers," Davila said. "Our lives don't seem to matter anymore."
A local rancher, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for his safety, said he saw firsthand last year one ELN camp not far from his property while paying his yearly "vacuna."
While driving down a small forest road, the rancher said, he came across about 300 uniformed guerrillas, some of them appearing to be in their early teens, marching in two columns about 40 miles off the region's main highway.
Some of the troops even used rifle holders with the Venezuelan flag on it, the rancher said.
"All you can do is see and shut up," he said. "What can we say? If we say anything, they'll kill us."
Contributing Tyler Bridges, Pablo Bachelet and Juan Tamayo of the Miami Herald.