On Saturday, March 1, Colombian military forces attacked an encampment of the FARC, the largest Colombian guerilla group, across the Ecuadorian border. The strike, in violation of international law, reportedly killed up to 20 guerrillas in their sleep. Among those killed was Raúl Reyes, a top FARC commander. The attack has sparked a regional crisis and raised fears of a spreading armed conflict.
The move against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was immediately denounced by leaders across Latin America as an attack on Ecuador’s territorial sovereignty. These two central facts — that Colombia initiated the crisis and that the attack was widely condemned — would be hard to glean from the pages of the New York Times and other major U.S. media.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez joined Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa in denouncing the attack, warning that a similar attack on Venezuelan soil would be cause for war. On Sunday, Chavez ordered 10 battalions, a total of 8,000 troops, to the Colombian border. Ecuador also sent troops to its border. In addition, both countries recalled their diplomats from Bogotá, Venezuela closed its embassy, and the Colombian ambassador was expelled from Quito. On Monday, Ecuador and Venezuela broke all diplomatic relations with Colombia.
Colombia at first denied entering Ecuadorian territory. According to Correa, Uribe informed him that there had been a clash between FARC and troops near the border. But Ecuador found 15 guerillas dead and two wounded when troops were sent to the border to investigate. Colombian troops actually entered up to 10 kilometers into Ecuadorian territory. To this revelation, Correa responded, “President Uribe was either misinformed or was lying.”
Striking back, the Colombian government claimed to have found information on Reyes’ laptop proving Ecuadorian government support for the FARC, a charge that the Ecuadorian government quickly denied. The Colombian government also claimed to have seized evidence proving that Venezuela had provided over $300 million in funding to the FARC. Colombia also announced that it would denounce Chavez in the “International Criminal Court for sponsoring and financing genocide.” The Colombian government’s charges do not have much credibility in the region.
U.S. Backs Colombia
Governments around the world, and particularly in Latin America, expressed their opposition to Colombia’s incursion. On Tuesday, Correa began a five-nation tour across Latin America to build support for Ecuador’s position.
A White House spokesperson, however, failed to mention the attack’s location, stating, “This is an odd reaction by Venezuela to Colombia’s efforts against the FARC, a terrorist organization that continues to hold Colombians, Americans and other hostages.” The White House is currently pushing the U.S. Congress to pass a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, despite widespread concerns that this would only offer support to the government, paramilitaries, and companies who are responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of trade unionists, activists, and civilians.
Reports are circulating that the United States, beyond supporting Colombia’s attack, provided intelligence on the guerillas’ location.
The United States has a large role politically and militarily in the region. The Colombian military receives over $500 million a year in military and police aid from the U.S., far more than any other country in the hemisphere. Venezuela and Ecuador are both wary of US military power in the region. In 2002, the U.S. supported a failed right-wing coup in Venezuela. In Ecuador, Correa’s government — in response to social movement demands — will not sign the lease on the US military’s Manta Base when it comes up for renewal in 2009.
Chavez and others are calling Colombia “the Israel of Latin America,” accusing Colombia of doing the United States’ bidding in the region. On his weekly television program Aló Presidente, Chavez said, “I told Correa, count on Venezuela for whatever you need, in whatever circumstance. We don’t want war. But we will not let the North American empire — which is the master here — along with their lapdog Uribe and the Colombian oligarchy divide and weaken us. We are on alert and will help Ecuador in whatever circumstance.”
On the campaign trail, Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton demanded that Chavez cease all “provocative actions” in the region, calling the movement of Venezuelan troops to the border “unjustified and dangerous.” This is an interesting interpretation, given that it was Colombia’s illegal entry onto Ecuadorian territory that provoked both Correa’s and Chavez’s actions in the first place. Since September 11th, US policy towards Latin America has been increasingly framed as part of the War on Terror. Senator and Democratic candidate Barack Obama offered a somewhat more measured response, calling on the “presidents of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela . . . to ensure that events not spiral out of control, and to peacefully address any disputes through active diplomacy with the help of international actors.” Yet he placed the blame for the violence on the “terrorist insurgency,” saying that “the Colombian government has every right to defend itself against the FARC.” Clinton, notoriously hawkish, has repeatedly called Obama “naive” for his willingness to meet with leaders such as Chavez.
A Long Conflict
The FARC was formed in 1964 as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party. In the 1980s and 90s, wealthy landowners began to form right-wing paramilitaries to protect their property from guerrillas and violently root out social dissent. In 1985, the guerillas formed a political party called the Patriotic Union (UP) as part of peace negotiations with the Colombian government. Thousands of UP candidates, leaders, and supporters were assassinated by paramilitaries in the following years. Over the last two decades, the FARC has lost much of its political support — and ideology — and have been accused of involvement in drug trafficking. It is quite important to remember, however, that paramilitaries and the Colombian military have committed over 90% of human rights violations in the country.
It is telling that in the U.S. and Colombian media only the FARC are represented as terrorists. State and paramilitary violence are rendered invisible.
President Uribe came to power in 2002 amid promises to militarily crush the FARC and the ELN, a smaller guerilla army. In Colombia, social movements and the “democratic left” demand a negotiated solution to the conflict and have declared their neutrality from all armed actors.
Relations between Colombia and Venezuela have deteriorated over the past months since Colombian President Alvaro Uribe initially scuttled Chavez’s attempts to mediate a prisoner/hostage release with the FARC. Until recently, relations between the two countries had been surprisingly cordial, given that Venezuela leads a movement for what is often called “Socialism of the 21st Century” while Colombia is governed by a far-right leader with close ties to paramilitary death squads and the Bush administration.
The negotiations were called off on December 31st when the FARC accused the Colombian government of engaging in military operations in violations of the negotiated agreements around the prisoner release. The prisoners were eventually released to Venezuelan officials on January 10th, a huge boon to Chavez and a major embarrassment to Uribe. The FARC unilaterally released four congresspersons on Wednesday, three days before the attack.
Organizations throughout the region are strongly opposed to increased armed conflict. According to William Sánchez, an analyst based in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil, “President Correa’s response, to recall his ambassador from Colombia and to expel their ambassador, was just and logical. It was a just protest against a violation of our sovereignty. Nevertheless, I hope that things don’t intensify. Uribe’s government should understand that he can’t involve us in a conflict for which they alone are responsible.” It appears that the chance of war between Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador is low given strong regional commercial ties along with a host of regional leaders strongly pushing to avoid armed conflict.
Paradoxically, this attack could spell a diplomatic victory for the FARC, although it constituted a major military defeat. According to an article by Colombian journalist Simone Bruno and Ecuadorian journalist Eduardo Tamayo, widespread denunciation of the attack could lead to increased pressure on the Colombian government to move towards a negotiated solution to the Colombian conflict. The analysts argue neighboring countries are “already exhausted . . . with the entry of a number of armed actors in their territory. They have also had to take in displaced people and refugees, which in Ecuador alone have reached a population of over 300,000.” For neighboring countries, it is increasingly clear that the Colombian government must pursue a negotiated solution to the conflict.
The leftist Polo Democratico Alternativo, the main Colombian opposition party, called for peace and denounced the Colombian attack. In a statement released on Sunday, they said that they are “worried about the expansion of the conflict to neighboring countries and growing US intervention, factors that effect sovereignty and democracy at the regional level. We reject any extraterritorial action on the part of the Colombian Armed Forces and also ask insurgent groups to respect the territorial autonomy of bordering states.”
That the attack took place just three days after the FARC released four prisoners clearly represents a rejection of dialogue on the Colombian government’s part. The future response of a war-weary Colombian people — and a war-wary region — are, however, difficult to understand and impossible to predict.
Daniel Denvir is an independent journalist from the United States and a collaborator at the Latin American Information Agency (www.alainet.org) in Quito, Ecuador. He is also an editor at the forthcoming journal Caterwaul Quarterly (www.caterwaulquarterly.com).