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Report alleges rebels trained in Venezuela

By Steven Dudley | The Miami Herald

Posted on Sun, Oct. 23, 2005 | QUITO - An Ecuadorean military intelligence report alleges that leftists from Ecuador and seven other Latin American nations received guerrilla training in Venezuela this year from backers of President Hugo Chávez.

The report does not link Chávez personally to the training in explosives, weapons and urban guerrilla tactics. But it notes that part of the training took place in two Caracas military bases, one used by the army reserves and another that houses the Defense Ministry.

And in a concluding section, it says that backers of the Venezuelan president, ``with covert support from the government of Hugo Chávez . . . have strengthened incipient subversive movements.''

The Herald repeatedly sought the reaction of Venezuelan Vice President José Vicente Rangel, who most often speaks for the government, and Gen. Julio Quintero Viloria, commander of the reserves. Neither responded.

However, after the Ecuadorean newspaper El Comercio broke the story earlier this month, the Venezuelan Embassy here issued a statement denying the story and saying Chávez ''is against all groups or organizations that support the use of violence.'' The president himself later dismissed the newspaper's story as part of a U.S. government propaganda campaign against him.

If the allegations are proved to be true, however, they would bolster a rash of recent U.S. complaints that Chávez's self-proclaimed socialist and revolutionary government has become a destabilizing factor around Latin America.

VENEZUELAN ROLE

In its story, El Comercio broadly cited military intelligence documents but gave few details about the alleged Venezuelan link.

The Herald independently obtained a copy of an intelligence report that focuses on the Venezuelan link.

The report's key assertion of guerrilla training could not be verified independently by The Herald. But a senior civilian government official here with access to intelligence information verified the existence of the report and described its contents as ''undeniable.'' Several military intelligence personnel here also told The Herald that the report was indeed the work of their agency.

U.S. intelligence officials are known to be aware of the report and to believe that its allegations are true.

Ecuador's intelligence agencies are considered relatively reliable because they had Israeli and U.S. training during a successful drive in the late 1980s to break up a leftist guerrilla group, according to a U.S. security consultant, who asked for anonymity because he often works here.

CONTACTS DISCUSSED

El Comercio's Oct. 2 story quoted a spokesman for the previously unknown Alfarist Liberation Army, or ELA, an underground leftist group, as stating that members had indeed traveled to Venezuela. When asked if it was for military training, the spokesman was quoted as responding: ``In our contacts, there are exchanges of experiences, methods and mechanisms. And in fact one passes through those experiences.''

But in a later interview with El Comercio, the spokesman, who used only the nom de guerre Sebastián Sánchez, issued a qualified denial. ''We've never received logistical or financial support from the Chávez government,'' he said, not ruling out support from Chávez's supporters. The Herald could not reach him or other ELA members for comment.

Although the report does not implicate Chávez personally in the guerrilla training, it argues that his leftist ideology is allowing kindred Latin American groups to go to Venezuela and ``take advantage of the space and facilities that the government . . . provides.''

''The Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement created by the Venezuelan Republic,'' the report adds, ``is formalizing its process of consolidation in Latin America, taking advantage of the revival of the leftist political parties and popular movements, with which . . . they are attempting to organize paramilitary political forces that reach power.''

Chávez was democratically elected in 1998 on a promise to break with Venezuela's historically corrupt and elitist politics and launch a peaceful revolution on behalf of the country's poor majority.

Since then, he has poured billions of dollars into health and education programs, forged a tight alliance with Cuba, and increased his country's economic ties to nations throughout Latin America.

After handily winning a recall referendum last year, he declared himself a socialist and stepped up a campaign to create a Latin Americanwide bloc that opposes U.S. policy, which Chávez says has only caused poverty. But he also became the target of increasing U.S. complaints that he has been using the windfall profits from high oil prices to support radical leftists in neighboring countries.

OFFERS FROM CHAVEZ

Ecuadorean President Alfredo Palacio's government has downplayed El Comercio's stories. Chávez has offered to buy Ecuadorean bonds, provide this country with oil and build a refinery here -- and the leak of the intelligence report might indicate some opposition to the relationship with Chávez.

The report obtained by The Herald does not identify whether the information it contains came from a defector, an infiltrator or another source.

But it tells a detailed story of subversion, outlining a four-week training course in Venezuela for 20 unidentified persons -- three from the ELA and 17 from Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Venezuela. Except for Colombia, none of those countries are known to have guerrilla movements.

RESERVE UNIT'S BASE

Training started April 16 in the base of the army's Queseras del Medio reserve battalion in the 23 de Enero neighborhood of Caracas, the report states.

A reserve battalion by that name does exist in that neighborhood.

The initial trainers are identified as an army sergeant major and Juan Contreras, the top leader of the pro-Chávez Simón Bolívar Coordinator. The sergeant could not be located, but The Herald spoke with the well-known Contreras.

''The training as described never took place, and I don't know anyone from that movement [the ELA],'' he said.

``As far as I know, no one here is doing anything like that -- it strikes me as crazy. We [the Coordinator] are involved in public activities, including training with the reserves, but nothing more than that.''

The Coordinator was founded in 1993 by former members of leftist guerrilla groups from the 1960s and '70s, but says its activities today are centered on government-financed social work with the poor that is aimed at boosting ``popular power.''

The Ecuadorean intelligence report says that the Ecuadorean trainees, alongside pro-Chávez Venezuelan militia members, also took target practice at Fort Tiuna, a sprawling Caracas base that is home to the Defense Ministry and key military units.

One member of Spain's ETA, the violent Basque separatist group, trained the group to fire weapons, the report adds, without specifying whether that training occurred in Fort Tiuna. Several ETA members are known to live in Caracas under a safe-haven agreement between previous Spanish and Venezuelan governments.

On April 24, the report states, Contreras blindfolded the three ELA members, put them in a car and took them to an unidentified rural spot in the western state of Táchira, where the 17 other ''delegates from subversive organizations'' had gathered for training.

There, four members of Peru's Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a leftist urban guerrilla group known by its Spanish acronym MRTA, trained the group in security, recruiting, intelligence-gathering, urban guerrilla tactics and the use of weapons, the report continues.

The list of possible targets discussed includes U.S. military bases and embassies as well as refineries, electrical towers and banks.

The report states that MRTA members also showed the students instruction videos featuring al Qaeda attacks on unidentified military bases, embassies and airplanes, and gave additional lessons afterward.

Trainees, the report says, also watched videos about bank robberies -- a traditional way for Latin American guerrillas to finance their activities.

On May 8, the report states, a man who identified himself only by the nom de guerre Antonio began to give the group instructions on explosives.

And the next day, the students allegedly practiced with dynamite and TNT and learned how to make hand grenades from metal pipes.

PERUVIAN INCIDENT

The report says the Peruvian trainers are wanted for participating in MRTA's holding of 72 hostages for 126 days at the Japanese Embassy in Lima in 1997.

All 14 hostage-takers were killed in a government raid, and the group has had little presence in its homeland since.

One top Peruvian security official told The Herald he did not know of any MRTA members living in Caracas.

Some MRTA and ELA members met after the course and talked about carrying out a kidnapping together in Ecuador, the report adds -- presumably to raise funds from the ransom. It is not known whether the two groups in fact carried out any joint actions.

The report concludes by stating that the Ecuadorean armed forces should direct all of their attention toward thwarting this allegedly nascent regionwide insurgency.

''It constitutes a threat to the security and stability of the people,'' the report says.

sdudley@herald.com



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