1. Archive

Venezuela hopes new town will deter rebels, cocaine

The terms are a homeowner's dream: $200 down, as little as $10 a month for a three-bedroom home of your own.

But real estate is all about location, and the new town of Ciudad Sucre is a desolate, government-created bulwark against rebels, drug traffickers and kidnappers.

Angel Rodriguez doesn't mind. One of 210 new homeowners, he says the concrete, tin-roof house is bound to be better than the Caracas-area housing complex that he and his wife and five children are leaving behind.

"Ciudad Sucre is like a gift that fell down to me from heaven," said the 48-year-old Rodriguez from Guarenas, near Caracas. "It's more dangerous where I live."

Venezuelan authorities hope the heavily guarded settlement will help tame and secure Apure state, where soldiers chase Colombian rebels and drug traffickers through forests.

Free land, new schools, a hospital and low-interest business loans are luring families to the outpost 700 miles southwest of Caracas.

The Spanish colonial-style neighborhood plunked down in Apure, a region about the size of South Carolina, includes an elementary school, a basketball court and a nearly finished plaza.

Rows of homes, awaiting a homeowners' touch, line four asphalt streets. Last week, President Rafael Caldera presented homeowners, who pay $3,600 for a modest, single-story home, with their keys. A church, government center and hotel are planned.

The new life has its risks.

Drug crackdowns in Colombia, the world's No. 1 cocaine producer, have made the lightly patrolled Colombia-Venezuela border appealing to traffickers, who send their wares on to the United States and Europe.

Rebels _ some also involved in the drug trade _ have kidnapped affluent ranchers in the area, demanding ransom for themselves or their struggle to overthrow the Colombian government. Many ranchers regularly pay rebels not to kidnap them.

Venezuela considers the region dangerous enough to have suspended some constitutional guarantees _ the right to free travel and protections from searches or detainment _ to help them fight the rebels. Clashes are frequent, though civilians rarely get caught in the crossfire.

Rodriguez says he isn't worried: "I don't think they're going to kidnap a poor guy like me."

Authorities also play down the danger, noting they have increased the number of soldiers protecting Apure's 200,000 residents from 1,500 to 5,000.

About 800 people applied for the first 210 homes, with preference given to people with skills needed to get the town started such as agriculture experts who could help get coffee and cacao farms started. Rodriguez, an electrician, plans to work in a palm oil plant that is under construction.

Depending on what happens at Ciudad Sucre, authorities say they may create similar towns along the 1,300-mile Colombia border.

About a fourth of the new residents are city dwellers who are fed up with crime, cramped apartments and dim job prospects.

Rodriguez dreams of getting out in the open space, spending more time with his children _ the youngest of whom is just a week old _ and raising chickens, turkeys and rabbits.

He's tired of the 20-mile bus ride into work, requiring 2{ hours to wind through Caracas's clogged streets. Rodriguez's $500 monthly salary is barely enough to feed, clothe and house his family.

In his apartment building he is boxed in by drug dealers and gang members "above, below and next door." His four oldest children, ages 4 to 14, stay inside most of the time. In the past eight years, he has been held up three times.

As soon as his wife recovers from giving birth, Rodriguez said his family will head to their new frontier home.

"We're the pioneers," he said.