The assassination of Raul Reyes, the number two of Colombia’s FARC rebels, has unleashed a serious political and diplomatic crisis, which had long been expected. The tensions between Ecuador and Venezuela on one side, where elected progressive governments are in power, and Colombia on the other, where the last outrightly pro-US government of the region survives, is the objectification of a series of disputes and misunderstandings, but especially of different readings of the Colombian conflict that had already brought these countries to harsh confrontations in the past.
Raul Reyes was not only one of the top leaders of FARC and its international spokesman, but also a fairly moderate element within the guerrilla organisation, who was starting to realise the devastating effects of the politics of kidnapping and violence to the image of his group. The climate of euphoria that has broken out in major Colombian cities following the news of his assassination are reminiscent of the celebrations that took place 15 years ago when the Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar was killed. Unlike that occasion, however, the murder of Reyes constitutes only a missed opportunity. As Bernard Kouchner, French foreign minister, has bluntly put a few days ago: “The killing of the man we were talking to for the liberation of Ingrid is not good news.”
The chronology and the exact description of the events is important, especially in the light of the political convulsions in the hours following Reyes’ assassination, and the confusion brought about by certain sectors of the Latin American press. In the night between February 29 and March 1, the Colombian army deliberately invades the Ecuadorian territory in the Northeastern province of SucumbÃos, and carries out a premeditated air attack on a FARC camp, located thanks to a satellite phone used by Reyes, detected by US intelligence, even though some accounts also point to the existence of some infiltrated element. Twenty-four guerrilla fighters, caught by surprise, are killed, among them Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias Raul Reyes, together with his personal assistant. Three young female fighters are also injured. Shortly thereafter, the bodies of Raul Reyes and his lieutenant are collected by Colombian soldiers and taken to BogotÃ¡, whereas the other bodies are left in the jungle. Ecuadorian President Correa is promptly informed by his Colombian counterpart about the trespassing, but in a somewhat misleading way: Uribe’s version points at an armed confrontation that began within the Colombian territory, and dragged itself reluctantly onto Ecuadorian soil.
On Saturday 1st March, Uribe triumphantly tells the whole nation about the successful operation and thanks Correa for his collaboration on the struggle against terrorism, but no apology for the invasion is made. The response of Correa (pictured) is not on the same line: “We will go to the last consequences, I repeat, to the last consequences to clarify this shameful fact, which is an aggression to our territory and to our country.” Concretely, he authorises the temporary return of the Ecuadorian ambassador from BogotÃ¡. The day after the escalation continues: ChÃ¡vez joins the dispute, harshly criticising the intervention of Colombia’s army on Ecuadorian soil, and warns that a similar act in Venezuela would be treated as a casus bellis. At the same time, Venezuelan diplomatic personnel in Colombia is withdrawn and troops are mobilised on the borders. A few hours later, Correa takes further measures, following the emergence of all the contours of Uribe’s lie. He declares the cessation of diplomatic relations with the neighbour country, and also provides for a mobilisation of troops along the frontier. Almost simultaneously, Colombia apologises for the episode, but insists that the trespassing was the product of a clash started in its territory. This line of defence is not supported by any evidence. In fact, the existence of a camp, the clothes worn by the guerrilla fighters found by the Ecuadorian army, the presence of one of the most important men of the group and many other elements are very telling, and point in the direction of a surprise attack.
Later, the chief of Colombian police, Oscar Naranjo, dictates the counter-offensive of the Colombian government and accuses both Venezuela and Ecuador of collaborating with FARC. In particular, he claims that in the three laptops found in possession by Reyes, some documents reveal a supposed financing of $300million received from Venezuela, whereas Ecuador’s Interior Minister, Gustavo Larrea, a long-standing human rights activist, is accused of having recently met with Reyes, and of having promised that he would alter the arrangement of police chiefs stationed in the North of Ecuador, in such a way as to favour the free movement of FARC troops. Larrea later admits to having met Reyes in a third country, but makes clear that the intention was that of mediating, together with France, for the liberation of 12 hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt, and that the Colombian government had been informed about that. Venezuela has denied all the charges in their entirety.
The international community has immediately taken its first steps to intervene in the crisis. Unsurprisingly, Colombia has received the approval of the US, but among Latin American nations Ecuador seems to have the greater support. In order to ensure that, Correa has undertaken an international tour to Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic, which is to conclude by the end of this week. Crucially, Correa has been able to secure a more or less explicit condemnation of the violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty by key players such as Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, and Chile, even though some of these have been cautious to distance themselves from Venezuela’s more unequivocal rhetoric.
The reaction of the European Union has been somewhat ambiguous, as has that of the United Nations, as they have both expressed their concerns without really siding any of the two parties. The permanent council of the Organization of American States, gathered extraordinarily in Washington, has reached on Wednesday an agreement to find a way out of the crisis, in which the violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty is acknowledged, yet not condemned. This by no means guarantees the cessation of hostilities. Meanwhile, Colombia has declared that it will proceed to denounce Venezuela to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, for ‘sponsorship and financing of genocide’. This appeal is not likely to succeed. Also, it has tried to advance the idea that FARC were trying to get hold of uranium to produce a small atomic bomb. Such a hoax seems to be fruit of the anti-ChÃ¡vista Miami-based journalist Patricia Poleo, already well known for spreading similar rumours.
Even though the spectre of a war has been greatly exaggerated, the tensions that have accumulated in the past years in this turbulent region have reached a dangerous peak. The Colombian government has tried to keep the problem as a national one insofar as the medicine is concerned, but has also been very much prone to externalise it in terms of costs. In other words, the politics of ‘it’s my problem, but you also pay for it’ can be no longer sustained. The conflict over Colombia has been extremely costly for its neighbours, in terms of displaced people, in terms of aerial fumigations of crops, in terms of killings, and in terms of repeated violations of sovereignty. The Ecuadorian government cannot be seriously accused of collaborating with FARC, after devoting its energies to dismantling 47 of their camps as recently as 2007, as affirmed by President Correa. The conflict is no longer a national one, but almost a regional one. As Correa and ChÃ¡vez have repeatedly claimed in a genuine, if somewhat provocative fashion: “We do not border with Colombia, but with FARC.” This is why the requests to find a political solution and not a stubborn military one should not be neglected. Ecuador and Venezuela are directly affected by the conflict, and especially by the ‘democratic security’ politics of Uribe. That is why they are entitled not only to express their opinion, but also to actively participate in the resolution of the dispute, by resorting to the more subtle tools of negotiation and dialogue.
Nor should other essential aspects be overlooked. The killing of Raul Reyes indicates a clear political logic: the government of Uribe is showing itself to be little interested in a humanitarian exchange to free FARC hostages, as their liberation, the fruit of somebody else’s effort, would be of little help to corroborate his thesis. Even worse, it would be the real proof of the scarce results obtained by his hard line, which has not been able to defeat FARC, and even less to tackle the drugs trade. But what else to expect from somebody who, as a mayor of MedellÃn in the 1980s, was a close ally of Pablo Escobar and whose father was involved in drug-related activities with the MedellÃn cartel? His constituencies have not significantly changed, as various scandals have proved. But he has somehow skillfully been able to direct the attention of the whole country to a single problem.
This is a country where the military and paramilitaries, as highlighted by Guido Piccoli in an Italian newspaper, have murdered and massacred people from 3 to 5 times more than the guerrilla, displaying an unprecedented degree of scientific and pitiless repression, favoured by a bureaucratic apparatus that has maintained impunity and connivence, where tortures, killing of children, beheading, and even episodes of cannibalism have been recorded. This is not an attempt to deny the responsibilities and sins of FARC, but just to shed some light on the political orientation of a government which, backed by the most reactionary factions of the US, is trying to perpetuate the same power structures that have historically governed Colombia.
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This post was written by Samuele Mazzolini