Column: Dispatches From the Edge: The Story Behind Colombia’s Attack

By Conn Hallinan
Friday March 14, 2008

Colombia’s March 1 attack on an insurgent camp in Ecuador appears to have been an effort by the right-wing government of Alvaro Uribe to derail efforts by Venezuela and France to free hostages held by the group, intimidate a growing movement against Bogotá’s close ties to rightwing death squads, and put the squeeze on the U.S. Congress to pass a joint trade agreement. 

According to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, the attack—which killed 24 people, including Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leader and diplomat Raul Reyes—spiked efforts to release French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 11 other FARC hostages. 

French diplomats say they were negotiating with Reyes with the full knowledge of the Colombian government. “In the framework of the efforts that we—Spain, Switzerland, France—were making, we had contacts with Raul Reyes,” French foreign ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani told Reuters, “and I can tell you the Colombians were aware of it.” 

The nighttime attack on the FARC camp was also aimed at undermining ongoing efforts by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to free these and other hostages. Uribe sabotaged a Chavez initiative last December by refusing to demilitarize the area where hostages were to be released. The hostages were finally turned over to Venezuelan officials Jan. 10, much to the embarrassment of the Colombian government.  

Three days after FARC released another four members of the Colombian congress, the Uribe government struck the Ecuador camp. 

“What was Colombia’s objective?” asks Ana Maria Sanjuan, director of the Center for Peace and Human Rights at the Central University of Venezuela. “Clearly the whole operation was planned and executed. I think it had a lot to do with the humanitarian exchange.” 

But scotching hostage releases was only one thing on Bogotá’s agenda. 

According to James Brittain and Jim Sacouman, two Canadian researchers and experts on the Colombian civil war, another target was a March 6 demonstration called by the National Movement of Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism, the International Trade Union Confederation, and social justice organizations. 

The groups are protesting close ties between the Uribe government and paramilitary organizations like the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (USDF) and the Black Eagles. Uribe, Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos, Uribe’s brother, Santiago, Uribe’s cousin, Senator Mario Uribe, plus almost 100 governors, mayors and politicians have direct and indirect ties to the death squads. According to human rights organizations, some 90 percent of the people who have died in the Colombian civil war have done so at the hands of the Colombian Army and USDF. 

According to the two Canadians, “media outlets, such as El Tiempo (which has long-standing ties to the Santos family), have been parading photographs of the bullet-ridden and mutilated corpse of Raul Reyes throughout the country’s communication media.” The photos, argue Brittain and Sacouman, are being used to “intimidate those preparing to demonstrate against the atrocities perpetuated by the state over the past seven years.” 

Urbie’s top political advisor, Jose Obdulio Gaviria, recently charged that the March 6 demonstration, and the groups supporting it, should be charged as “criminals.” In Colombia those are words that can get you killed. 

The Bush administration—and the timing here is suspicious—is using the crisis to press Congress to pass the free trade agreement. Democrats are holding up the legislation because of human rights violations by the Uribe government, in particular the murder of trade unionists. 

“If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down our close ally, we will damage our credibility in the region and we will embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere,” said Bush. 

But U.S. credibility is currently at an all-time low in Latin America, and the circumstances surrounding the raid suggest some level of U.S. participation, hardly something that will improve that image.  

The United States leases an airbase at Manta, Ecuador, flying reconnaissance missions into Colombia. It also supplies $600 million a year in military aid to Colombia, more than for any other country in the hemisphere. 

The Colombians claimed that the attack was a case of “hot pursuit.” Uribe said Colombian helicopters were fired on in Colombian territory and that the Army returned fire. But the FARC camp was 10 kilometers inside Ecuador. “President Uribe was either misinformed or he lied bare-facedly to the President of Ecuador,” said Correra. 

The bombing took place in the middle of the night, and most of the dead were in their pajamas, not garb soldiers normally wear into combat. Nighttime bombing attacks are extremely complex and notoriously inaccurate unless the weapons are laser or satellite guided. The weapons appear to have been cluster bombs, and the suspicion is that the U.S. was directly involved, both in pinpointing the camp and in aiding the air strike. 

“It seems that they used state-of-the-art technology to track the FARC group at night,” said Correa, “undoubtedly foreign powers assisted.”  

The Organization of American States (OAS) quickly denounced the attack as a violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty, and Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua temporarily broke relations with Colombia. Colombia’s only support has come from the U.S.  

There is also suspicion that the attack was aimed at torpedoing growing pressure in the region and in Europe for a negotiated settlement to the civil war. The United States and the Bogotá government classify FARC as a “terrorist” organization. “We do not have a war in Colombia,” says Uribe, “We have a terrorist problem.” 

But it is not a label that a number of other countries are comfortable with.  

The FARC’s tactics are irregular, but the organization controls 40 percent of the country and has been in existence since 1964. It also does not pose a danger to any country outside the borders of Colombia. 

“While there is little doubt regarding the global reach of terrorist organizations like al-Qadea,” argues political scientist Garry Leech, editor of the Colombia Journal, “there is no evidence that the FARC is anything but one of the armed actors in Colombia’s long and tragic domestic conflicts.” 

The Uribe administration, however, says it found a laptop at the bombed camp indicating that the FARC was trying to buy uranium. “This means that the FARC are taking big steps in the world of global aggression,” says Colombia’s National Police Director, General Oscar Naranjo. “We’re not talking of domestic guerrilla but transnational terrorism.” 

Colombian Vice President Santos accused FARC of trying to manufacture a “dirty bomb.” 

But according to Associated Press, “documents didn’t support the allegation, indicating that rebels were trying to buy uranium to resell at a profit.” Santos eventually backed away from his “dirty bomb” charge.  

In the end, the raid may backfire on the Uribe administration’s strategy of pursuing a military victory over FARC. 

Colombian journalist Simone Bruno and Ecuadorian journalist Edwardo Tamayo write that the attack is likely to increase the pressure for negotiations. Colombia’s neighbors are “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.” 

The attack came within weeks of a call by Venezuela and Ecuador for negotiations between FARC and the Uribe government. Mexican Deputy Ricardo Cantu Garza, Co-Coordinator of the Labor Party Parliamentary Group, has been pressing for negotiations, as have many countries in the OAS. 

There is also pressure within Colombia to demilitarize the civil strife. Polo Democratico Alternativo, the main opposition party, opposed the Ecuador attack, saying it would expand “the conflict to neighboring countries” and encourage “growing U.S. intervention, facts that affect sovereignty and democracy at the region level.”  

While Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador have defused the crisis, the raid, coupled with ongoing U.S. efforts to destabilize the leftist government of Bolivia, suggests that the Bush administration is using regional proxies to ramp up a more aggressive stance in the region.