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Victory for Colombia, theater in Caracas

By Michael Radu

27.03.08 | Dr. Michael Radu is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and Co-Chairman of FPRIís Center on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and Homeland Security. | On the night of March 1, the Colombian military, in a brilliant land and air operation, obliterated a terrorist camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia--People's Army (FARC) one mile inside Ecuadorian territory and killed Luis Edgar Devia Silva, better known as Raul Reyes, a member of FARC's seven-member Secretariat, and 22 others, including a number of foreigners, at least four of them Mexicans. Seven days later in central Colombia, the bodyguard of Manuel de Jesus Munoz Ortiz, a.k.a. Ivan Rios, another Secretariat member, surrendered to the government, bringing with him the severed hand of his boss, whom he had murdered, and claiming the $2.5 million reward on his head. Thus, in less than a week FARC lost two top leaders in combat after four decades in which it has never lost one. In both cases, the military also captured laptops (three on Reyes, one on Rios) full of explosive political and military information.

The operation against Reyes, because it took place inside Ecuador and, secondarily, because it resulted in the wounding of one and the deaths of four Mexicans, resulted in a brief but noisy international incident with interesting implications.

To begin with, the ostensibly aggrieved party, Ecuador, found out about the event from a call Colombian President Alvaro Uribe placed to his colleague in Quito, Rafael Correa, informing him and apologizing for the technical infringement of his country's sovereignty. Since such incidents, albeit much smaller, have occurred before, and during previous governments Ecuador itself has closed some 100 FARC camps, matters could have rested there, were it not for the noisy intervention of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a supporter of Correa, sworn enemy of Colombia, and FARC sympathizer.

Chavez appeared on TV to threaten Colombia with war if a similar attack ever took place inside Venezuela, ordered the deployment of 10 armored battalions to the border, withdrew his ambassador to Bogota, and warned that he may nationalize Colombian businesses in Venezuela. Meanwhile, Ecuador broke diplomatic relations with Colombia, in which it was immediately imitated by another fully owned subsidiary of Chavez, Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua, and demanded an emergency meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS). The latter complied, and on March 5 condemned Colombia's violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty, without even mentioning the extensive presence of FARC in Ecuador, which has been declared a terrorist organization by the European Union, UN and the United States. Nor was UN Security Council Resolution 1373 mentioned. That resolution requires all nations to "deny safe haven to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts." Significantly, with the exception of El Salvador and, somewhat more ambiguously, Peru (itself the target of Chavez-subsidized efforts to undermine its government), no Latin American government supported Colombia.

It appeared that the "progressive" bloc of Venezuelan allies had won a diplomatic and public relations victory against the most pro-American government in the region--until it rapidly started unraveling. Indeed, at the Santo Domingo Summit of the Rio Group, which includes the OAS members minus the U.S. and Canada, on March 7, after a few sharp exchanges between Uribe and Correa, all of the sudden those two, along with Ortega and Chavez, embraced, kissed and made up! Immediately thereafter, all ambassadors returned to their posts, troops pulled out from the Colombian borders, and all seemed forgiven and forgotten. The reason soon became apparent: the extraordinary revelations found on Reyes' laptops, made public by the Colombian police.

One important issue left unmentioned in Santo Domingo were the reasons for the Colombian attack--its legitimate right to self-defense and Ecuador's failure to enforce its sovereignty along the border. That Ecuador had no military presence, let alone control over that sector of the border with Colombia was demonstrated by the fact that its government found out what had happened from a call from Uribe after the fact. One can only speculate, but Correa may have left the border unguarded on purpose. After all, the Reyes documents also proved that FARC has contributed some $100,000 to his 2007 presidential campaign. That also explains the facility with which the Mexican and Chilean terrorist groupies moved from the capital of Quito to Reyes' camp. Equally important, Ecuador's Minister of Security, Gustavo Larrea, was in constant contact with Reyes, and even offered to "remove law enforcement officials who are hostile to the communities and civilians [i.e. to FARC] in the area, for which they [the Ecuadorians] are asking us to provide information."[1] This went beyond tolerance for Colombian terrorists. It was direct cooperation against Ecuadorian officials protecting their own country against a foreign presence! Moreover, even the Ecuadorian press admitted that Reyes' presence in the country was often mentioned by the Colombians, and denied as many times by Quito.[2] When , a few days ago, it turned out that among the dead was an Ecuadorian citizen and, according to Bogota, FARC member, President Correa raised the tone of his complaints, instead of recognizing that the insurgents are more than an occasional presence in his country--they have roots in it.

The Reyes documents were even more damning for Chavez, if not exactly surprising in their general lines. To begin with, they proved that Chavez's close relations with FARC go all the way back to when he was just an inmate following his failed coup. In 1992, he received $150,000 from the Colombian terrorists; more recently, the same source mentioned a Chavez promise of $300 million in financial aid to FARC. In addition, the two had a common strategic interest and were cooperating in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Colombia, coordinating efforts by Chavez to convince the Europeans to remove FARC from the EU list of terrorist organizations and give them belligerent status with the organization's selective release of a few of its 700 hostages--most prominently Franco- Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, a cause celebre in Paris. Despite her poor health, she was not released because, as Reyes put it, she was FARC's main ace up their sleeve.

It is in light of these revelations that one must see Chavez' previous public demand that FARC's terrorist designation be lifted, his declared "respect" for Reyes (shared by Ortega), and his request for a moment of silence in the Venezuelan Parliament. All of these are hard proof of longstanding cooperation between his regime and a Marxist- Leninist terrorist organization openly seeking the overthrow of Colombia's government.

It is clear that the contents of the Reyes laptops have a lot to do with Chavez' sudden retreat. A neutral Interpol team is examining the hard disks, and the publication of the entire contents will further damage Chavez' credibility with anyone outside the fringes of the Left. The military threat to Colombia was a bluff to begin with--the Colombian army is not just twice as large as Venezuela's, but it is better trained, has extensive combat experience, and a proven leadership, even if it lacks the air power of Venezuela's. All these facts were probably presented to him by his own generals--or the Cubans.

The fact that even the new Cuban leadership, unlike the retired Fidel Castro, was surprisingly discreet during the entire crisis also suggests a more general lack of sympathy for Venezuela. So did the measured tone adopted by the region's major countries--Chile, even Argentina and, most of all, Brazil. None of that means that the mercurial Venezuelan will long remain quiet, or that his latest suggestion that FARC should lay down arms should be taken seriously. Sooner or later there will be another episode in this saga.

THE MEXICAN SIDESHOW

That FARC, the oldest Marxist guerrilla organization in Latin America if not the world, has attracted foreign recruits has long been known. The diary of a Dutch recruit, Tanja Nijmeijer, was captured by the military last year; an Argentine was killed while in FARC ranks a few years ago; and the group is said to recruit from as far away as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Greece.[3] The operation against Reyes demonstrated the extent to which FARC's Ecuadoran camps served as a recruitment, indoctrination, and international propaganda center.

The massive air bombardment of March 1 was so devastating that the Ecuadorians are still trying to identify the remains of some of the fatalities, but in addition to the Ecuadorian, four Mexican citizens were killed, as perhaps were other foreigners. One Mexican woman was spared by the Colombian commandos during the post-bombing clean up and was taken to a Quito hospital, and two Chilean communists who escaped in time admitted that there were also other visitors, Latin American as well as European.[4] They took pictures with Reyes (later found on his laptop), wore FARC uniforms--"because their own clothes were dirty" (a claim repeated by the wounded Mexican)--and generally behaved as sympathizers or members of the group, despite their denials. According to the Ecuadorian Defense Ministry, in the weeks prior to the attack "other groups of Mexicans, Italians, Peruvians, Chileans and Belgians regularly arrived at the camp"[5] in a type of pilgrimage that did not disturb the authorities.

Moreover, in a spectacular example of chutzpah, Jorge Luis Morett, a Mexican provincial university professor and father of Lucia Morett, the "drama student" at Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) pretending to do "research" on FARC in the Ecuador camps who was wounded in the attack, went so far as to pretend that the Colombian attack was an "act of lese-humanity" because there were "civilians"among the victims, and that the attackers should be punished "according to international law."[6] The father of Juan Gonzalez, allegedly an "expert in Latin American studies" and one of the fatalities, also demanded the support of the Mexican government "in defense of Mexican civilians_we believe it was a crime of lese humanity."[7]

The fact that four of the five Mexicans identified so far were former or present students at that country's UNAM, and were Marxist militants and FARC apologists, is not surprising, since FARC had a longstanding presence on the UNAM campus, whose Karl Marx Collective and the Revolutionary Brigade for Anti-Capitalist Unity expressed their solidarity with those "civilians."

The UNAM alumni and student pilgrims to Reyes' lair were just ideological necrophiliacs in love with the last murderously corrupt believers of Marxism Leninism. The only tragedy involving the Mexicans killed in Ecuador is that Latin America's, indeed the world's, largest university still produces such characters--at the Mexican taxpayers' enormous expense.

It is also revealing that the Mexicans and Chileans came to the FARC camp after attending the Second Congress of the Continental Bolivarian Coordinating Board (CCB) in Quito (February 24-28). The CCB, founded in 2003, with headquarters in Caracas, is a Far Left umbrella including organizations ranging from old communist parties, terrorist groups like FARC, and assorted old and new "revolutionaries" supported by Chavez' regime.[8] CCB is more than just a political platform for "progressives." Upon their return home, seven Peruvian delegates to the Quito Congress were arrested on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks. FARC is not just a member but the main object of "solidarity" expressed at the meeting. Ultimately, the CCB is an attempt by Venezuela to imitate the Cuban attempts of the 1960s to establish a pan-American radical center controlled and subsidized from Caracas, seeking the establishment of "Bolivarian" regimes everywhere, on the pattern of today's Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

THE MILITARY IMPLICATIONS

The developments of March 1-7 mark a radical change in the balance of forces in Colombia. It proved that the Uribe government's decision (made in 2007 at the latest) to go after FARC's leadership proved to be a success. The deaths of Reyes and Rios were only the most spectacular of a series of effective eliminations of important middle-level cadres in 2007. The relentless pressure on the terrorist group is having a serious impact on its strength and, most importantly, its morale.

The two main problems of FARC are closely related: high losses during the past few years and a decline in leadership quality. According to the well-informed Colombian weekly Cambio, between the end of 2002 and November of last year, there were 8,221 known desertions from the organization's files. That is just the known figure. It does not include an unknown number of guerrillas who just went home without formally surrendering; FARC also lost 6,792 killed in combat between 2003 and the end of 2007, for a minimum number of losses of 15,000.[9] In the first two months of 2008 alone the army claimed to have killed 247, captured 226 and received 360 deserters.[10] Whereas in 2002, when Uribe took office, FARC's strength was assessed at about 17,000, recently this author's Colombian sources estimate it at less than 9,000.[11] For the same period, the combined strength of the Colombian military and police grew by 50%, from 200,000 to over 300,000.

As Rios' captured laptop documents have shown, he was aware of another problem:

"Our Achilles' heel is the weak training of mid-level cadres, including members of the front's general staff_ More than the merit of the enemy, this is the cause of the large majority of the hits we have received._ We need to establish a school for the formation of cadres with understanding of the FARC doctrine."[12]

Rios was prescient: on March 4 he was killed and mutilated by his own bodyguard, who later surrendered and claimed a $2.5 million reward.

Militarily, in addition and related to the declining morale problem, FARC's various medium-size units ("fronts") "are not in communication with the Secretariat because military pressure prevents it," according to 'Olivo Saldana', a jailed cadre.[13] Specifically, the technological advances of the Colombian military allows interception and location of satellite and radio communications, such as the ones that led them to Reyes' Ecuadoran camp. The resulting unit isolation puts a premium on leadership quality and independent thinking at precisely the time when they are in decline, as Rios admitted. Furthermore, the deaths of such prominent leaders like Tomas Medina Caracas, known popularly as "El Negro Acacio," in September 2007, and of Reyes and Rios, as a result of military intelligence infiltration of terrorist ranks[14] further complicates internal security and undermines morale, in a vicious circle. Indeed, Rios himself executed more than 200 of his followers suspected of being military infiltrators. This is among the reasons his chief bodyguard killed him and surrendered.[15]

While according to a recently released hostage FARC is still capable of recruiting, mostly by offering material incentives, a number of factors suggest that its capability is declining. First, the deaths of top leaders have increased the risk for the rank and file as well, as demonstrated by the Rios episode. Indeed, the bodyguard who killed him explained his deed as a result of shock at Reyes' death, lack of food, and fear for his own life when his unit was surrounded by the military--all disincentives for potential recruits. Moreover, the Colombian economy is doing very well, thus limiting the number of unemployed and dissatisfied individuals available for terrorist recruitment. By being pushed out of heavily populated areas and toward the unhealthy, forested border regions, FARC's recruitment pool is further reduced. Finally, the organization's finances were badly hit with the loss of one major source of revenue: kidnapping for ransom, due to military and police control over cities, towns and most roads. What remains is FARC's bread and butter: drug trafficking.

It is in these circumstances that the loss of two of the Secretariat's seven members becomes even more important, since, as Carlos Lozano, director of the Communist weekly Vos noted, it puts a premium on the unifying and coordinating role of the ult°mate leader and FARC founder, Pedro Antonio Marin, better known as "Manuel Marulanda" or "Tirofijo"(Sureshot).[16] The problem? Marulanda is at least 78 years old and apparently in poor health. Just prior to Uribe's election in 2002, FARC was openly proclaiming that it has entered a new phase of conflict, the quasi- conventional "war of positions," and planning to increase its forces to 50,000; today it has lost the myth of leadership invincibility, is being pushed toward the borders, and increasingly has to use force in order to obtain supplies and recruits.

As things are now, FARC has only limited options available. It could try to demonstrate that it remains a potent force by staging some spectacular attack - a difficult matter given its communications problem and vulnerability to air attack if it tries to concentrate large forces. It could try to make a political gesture--for example by releasing Ingrid Betancourt and hoping for a French, and European, reward, perhaps recognition as a belligerent. Or, the least likely scenario, it could demonstrate a serious commitment to peace. Finally, it could continue on the present course and lose more leaders, combatants and credibility.

The intelligence available to the government today is such that it has a fairly accurate idea of the location of most, if not all, remaining Secretariat members. It probably could eliminate them, except for the fact that FARC has some 700 hostages, some captured as long as a decade ago, and any air attack would likely lead to their death. This makes any mass release of hostages unlikely: they are now FARC's shield. It would be equally unwise for the government to release hundreds of jailed trained FARC cadres at a time when the group is missing them most.

WHAT NEXT?

It is probably too soon for Bogota to declare victory in its 44-year war with FARC, but one thing is clear: the insurgents' attrition strategy, which was predicated on increasing the isolation of the government, popular exhaustion and high costs in blood and money, has turned against itself. With Uribe in his second four-year term--and there is strong domestic pressure for a constitutional change allowing for a third--the Colombian government, for the first time ever, was able to devise and apply a winning long-term political and military strategy--Uribe is extremely persistent. The growing economy provides additional resources for the pursuit of the war and higher standards of living, which could be further advanced if the U.S. Congress would put U.S. regional security interests and influence ahead of trade union protectionism and the "human rights" lobby's longstanding hostility to Uribe, and approve the free trade agreement with Colombia soon.

The attitude of the Colombian population is also changing, from past demands for peace at any price to confidence in victory, with the result that Uribe's popularity is reaching new heights. A Gallup poll published on March 12 gave him 84 percent popular support. Even the regionally unpopular United States was favorably viewed by 67 percent of Colombians (an increase of 17 percent since January), mostly due to the unconfirmed opinion that it was US technical support that allowed the location of Reyes. Conversely, Chavez' unfavorable view by Colombians went from 76 percent to 90 percent for the same period.

The Colombian attack against a FARC camp in an uninhabited area of the Ecuadoran jungle and the reactions it provoked are yet another demonstration that the inter-American system does not function well. Years of Ecuadoran tolerance of a terrorist group on its territory brought no protests, just as Venezuelan support for terrorism in Colombia and anti- democratic groups elsewhere, or interference in elections in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Nicaragua, only produced silence. But when the only physical damage the Colombians did to Ecuador was the killing of some trees, the reaction was prompt and quasi-universal condemnation. All of this does not bode well for the inevitable next crisis to be provoked by Chavez, nor is Washington's quiet attitude throughout likely to embolden Chavez' adversaries.


Notes

[1] Memorandum from Raul Reyes to FARC Secretariat, El Universal, March 7, 2008.

[2] Cecilio Moreno, Tiro fijo a las FARC, http://www.vistazo.com/webpages/impresa.php?edicion=973&sID=2&ID=1718

[3] Sebastian Gottlieb, Dutch woman's FARC diaries, Radio Netherlands, Sept. 4, 2007

[4] Francisco Herreros, Entrevista a Manuel Olate, uno de los dos chilenos testigos de la muerte del comandante Raul Reyes, El Siglo, Mar. 14, 2008.

[5] Mexicanos en el campamento de las FARC en Ecuador, Milenio, March 10, 2008.

[6] Familias de mexicanos victimas de ataque colombiano quieren demandar a Uribe, Hoy (Quito), March 11, 2008.

[7] Ataque colombiano es crimen de estado, dicen mexicanos en Quito, Milenio, Mar. 11, 2008,

[8] For program documents and other information, see http://www.conbolivar.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=58&Itemid=63

[9] Farc estan debilitadas, Cambio, Domingo March 2, 2008,

[10] Colombia and its neighbours. On the warpath, The Economist, March 6, 2008.

[11] Michael Radu interviews, Bogota, November 2007.

12 El computador de 'Ivan Rios', Cambio, March 12, 2008.

[13] Jota Ochoa, La catalepsia de las Farc: agonicas o replegadas? Analistas evaluan la situacion de las Farc, Terra Colombia, March 14, 2008.

[14] Carlos Eduardo Jaramillo, Cuadros superiores de las Farc duermen con un ojo abierto, Cambio, March 14, 2008.

[15] Mas de 200 guerrilleros ordeno matar 'Ivan Rios,' Terra Colombia, March 13, 2008.

[16] Ochoa, La catalepsia de las Farc.



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