The Colombia - Venezuela - Ecuador tangle

Adam Isacson
17 March 2008

At around midnight on 1 March 2008, a thought may have flitted through the minds of Colombian government officials: "What is the worst that could happen?" But nothing in their calculations could have envisaged the extraordinary events that were to follow, which were to create a crisis across the entire region and take Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela to the brink of war. The reverberations are still unfolding, even as a "peace without borders" concert on the Colombian-Venezuelan border on 16 March affirmed the desire of thousands of citizens of the two countries for peace.

Adam Isacson is director of programmes at the Center for International Policy, Washington DC.

Also by Adam Isacson in openDemocracy:
"The United States and Colombia: the next plan" (12 March 2007)

At that midnight moment, the Colombian military was certain that it had located "Raúl Reyes" (the nom-de-guerre of Luis Edgar Devia), one of seven members of the Secretariat, the highest echelon of command in the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia / Farc). The leftist Farc is one of the world's oldest, largest and wealthiest insurgent groups. In forty-four years of fighting them, the Colombian government had never captured or killed a Secretariat member. Reyes was a particularly big target: often described as the Farc's "number two", he was the de facto spokesman for a group with little outside contact, the comandante whom the guerrillas nearly always designated to meet in jungle hideouts with journalists, diplomats, and peace mediators.

Now the military had Reyes's location. There was one problem, though: that location was across Colombia's southern border, nearly two kilometers inside Ecuador.

The Colombians decided against alerting the government of Ecuador, whose president, Rafael Correa, is a politician of the left who maintains friendly relations with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Instead, they must have calculated, they would risk the consequences of an incursion into Ecuadorian territory to take out Reyes. Perhaps Ecuador would call its ambassador for consultations, send an angry diplomatic note or demand that Colombia apologise for violating its sovereignty. To the government of Colombian president, Álvaro Uribe, a pro-Washington conservative, these likely seemed like small prices to pay for dealing the guerrillas such a great blow.

The ensuing pre-dawn raid killed Raúl Reyes and about twenty others at the guerrilla camp in Ecuador. The Uribe government had a major victory. But contrary to its calculations, it had also triggered one of the worst diplomatic crises in modern Latin American history.

The week of March 2-8 was extraordinarily tense in South America's "northern tier". In Venezuela, President Chávez called a televised moment of silence to commemorate the slain Farc leader, then ordered tank divisions to the border zone. Calling Uribe a "mafioso" and the United States's "poodle", Chávez warned Colombia's government that if it tried a similar incursion into Venezuela, it would mean war. "We'll send you a few Sukhois", the Venezuelan president threatened, referring to the fighter planes Caracas had recently purchased from Russia.

In Ecuador, meanwhile, President Correa also deployed troops to the border, telling reporters that following Colombia's logic would require the rest of Latin America to bomb the presidential palace in Bogotá, "because paramilitaries and narco-traffickers are hidden in there."

Colombia's response was a bit more reserved: no border troop deployments and very little bellicose rhetoric (but no apology either). Instead, Bogotá's security forces began releasing the texts of guerrilla communications apparently recovered from laptop computers found at the site where Raúl Reyes was killed.

Though they provided only a very partial reading of the guerrillas' version of events, they appeared to indicate that the Farc had met clandestinely on several occasions with Venezuelan and Ecuadorian government officials. Beginning around December 2007, some of the communications make reference to what appears to be a Venezuelan donation to the Farc; Colombian officials contend that the amount involved was $300 million. Based on this somewhat murky evidence, Colombia threatened to charge Venezuela with abetting genocide at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Even at its worst moments, though, the crisis seemed unlikely to slip into war. Trade between Colombia and Venezuela is at an all-time high and growing rapidly; a closing of the border would cost tens of thousands of jobs. Neither citizens nor military brass in any country were particularly gripped by "war fever." And indeed, there was no war. When the three countries' leaders met at an already-planned summit of regional presidents in Santo Domingo on 6 March, they eventually shook hands, embraced, and declared the crisis to be over. Colombia agreed not to go to the ICC, and all countries reopened their embassies.

Hugo Chávez and the Farc

The threat of war has been averted, but the crisis lingers. A whole herd of elephants continues to occupy the room.

Colombia has not renounced its intention to carry out similar cross-border raids in the future. Ecuador and Venezuela have not committed to expelling the guerrillas who, since decades before Correa and Chávez arrived on the scene, have used neighboring territory for rest, relaxation, and trafficking in arms or drugs. And most worryingly, the relationship between the Farc and the Chávez government needs to be clarified.

While periodic contacts probably happened for years, the relationship between Caracas and the Farc began to warm considerably during the fall of 2007. Between August and November, President Uribe took the surprising step of allowing Chávez to facilitate a possible agreement to win the freedom of civilian hostages whom the Farc has held in jungle camps for years. For a brief moment, Colombian-Venezuelan relations - historically cordial but distant - were as close as they had ever been.

During this moment, however, Chávez and the Farc clearly got to know each other well. The captured documents and the Venezuelan leader's speeches indicate that the bond solidified after President Uribe abruptly "fired" Chávez from his facilitation role in late November 2007. It remains unclear, though, why Chávez would have found the Farc to be a potential vehicle for spreading "Bolivarian socialism" in Latin America; the group is hugely unpopular in Colombia due to its constant abuses of civilians, and it has been significantly weakened militarily. Nonetheless Chávez, by January 2008, was publicly calling for the guerrilla group to receive international political recognition.

If the documents are correct about Chávez offering money - and this is a big "if" - the region is in big trouble. There are very few places in the world today where a state is funding the violent overthrow of a neighbouring state, a clear violation of Article 2 of the United Nations charter. While the captured documents released so far are not sufficient evidence to bring this case to the UN Security Council, they do hint at something very serious that Venezuela must clarify.

The regional fallout

This episode had its winners and losers. Despite having triggered the crisis, President Uribe won big; his army killed a Farc Secretariat member (and then, in an unrelated military operation, a second member, whose nom-de-guerre was Iván Ríos, was killed by his own men on 3 March). Chávez's attacks caused even many of Uribe's sceptics to rally around the president; a Gallup poll published on 13 March gives him an all-time high 82% approval rating. Charges of ties between Uribe supporters and paramilitary groups are off of Colombia's front pages, and it appears ever more likely that Uribe might seek a constitutional change allowing him to run for a third term in 2010.

Also in openDemocracy on Colombia's politics and internal violence:

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit"
(25 October 2005)

Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's elections: the regional exception" (10 March 2006)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's testing times" (29 March 2006)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (29 May 2006)

Jenny Pearce, "The crisis of Colombia's state" (14 May 2007)

Ana Carrigan, "Pawns of war: the Colombian hostage crisis"
(15 November 2007)

Myles Frechette, "Colombia: interrupted lives"
(21 January 2008)

Catalina Holguín, "Colombia: networks of dissent and power"
(4 February 2008)Elsewhere in Latin America, however, Uribe's government sustained some damage. In a region where sensitivities about territorial sovereignty run high, every major state in the region - including "non-leftist" governments like those of Mexico and Peru - publicly condemned Colombia's incursion into Ecuador. The supportive words of United States officials, including the two Democratic presidential candidates, fed regional suspicions that Colombia is "too close" to Washington.

Hugo Chávez gained very little from the crisis. Perceptions of him as a polarising figure in the region were greatly reinforced. Alarmed questions about the nature of his relationship to the Farc linger throughout the region, if not the world. Coming off a stinging defeat in the constitutional referendum of 2 December 2007, the Venezuelan president failed to rally Venezuelans behind the cause of confrontation with Colombia. An opinion poll taken just before the crisis found 89% of Venezuelans - and 80% of Chávez supporters - opposed to war with Colombia, with 69% (44% of "Chavistas") considering the Farc to be terrorists. Chávez's problems at home continue to mount, meanwhile, with rising inflation, shortages spurred by government price controls, and worsening crime and narco-trafficking.

The other leftist president involved in this drama, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, clearly fared better. Ecuadorians rallied around him as he aggressively defended the country's sovereignty, one of the only issues uniting a very divided society. Correa won more points by spending the crisis week carrying out an energetic regional diplomacy, personally visiting Latin American leaders to rally for their support. Despite questions about guerrilla documents indicating contacts between his government and the Farc, Correa's domestic popularity is high amid preparations for an assembly to rewrite the country's constitution.

The next flashpoint

The Organisation of American States (OAS) and other regional proponents of diplomacy, particularly Brazil, Chile and Argentina, emerged with increased prestige. By making clear their strong opposition to war and belligerent rhetoric, and by quickly shepherding a resolution through the OAS, the region showed itself to be fully capable of resolving its own security crises.

The United States was largely absent from this episode. Washington was relegated to the margins because it was seen as so close to Colombia, and because Chávez was likely to do the exact opposite of whatever the United States asked. From the margins, the Bush administration chose a largely prudent course. While making clear their support for Colombia, officials avoided inflammatory statements, openly backed a diplomatic solution, and made clear their opposition to a war. The only sour note occurred on 4 March, when President Bush turned most of his three-minute statement on the crisis into a commercial for the US-Colombia free-trade agreement (FTA) awaiting approval in Congress. The tensions gave Bush a new sales pitch for the FTA: its ratification, he now says, is an issue of "national security"

The intercepted guerrilla communications have increased discussion among US conservatives about adding Venezuela to the United States's shortlist of terrorist-sponsoring states. The decision to do this is unlikely to come soon, as it would have some impact on US fuel prices in the middle of an election year. But this - along with the free-trade agreement - could be flashpoints of a more aggressive US approach to Colombia and Venezuela in the Bush administration's waning months.

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