Chavez Roils Latin America as Friend of Cocaine-Peddling FARC

Helen Murphy and Matthew Walter

Last year, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — one of the world’s oldest and biggest guerrilla groups — was a fading insurgency. After a five-year Colombian offensive, the FARC had retreated to the jungles, its ranks thinned by casualties and desertions.

Then Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez publicly befriended the group, negotiating freedom for some of its 750 hostages, helping disseminate its propaganda and touting his regular correspondence with FARC founder Manuel Marulanda. The intervention by Chavez, a self-described revolutionary socialist long suspected by Colombia of supporting the rebels, revived the FARC with a modicum of legitimacy.

It also set the stage for events that have roiled Latin America, after Colombia’s insurgent-hunting incursion into Ecuador prompted Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to send troops to the border. Chavez threatened war if Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s troops entered Venezuela, where Colombia thinks Marulanda, 77, hides.

Without Chavez’s embrace of the FARC, the raid “wouldn’t have gotten all this worldwide attention and wouldn’t have become an international crisis,” says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington research group. “Without Chavez, who knew how to grab the international attention, this would have been handled very differently.”

Turmoil in the area helped drive up crude oil prices 3.3 percent last week to $105.15 a barrel in New York, even after Colombia and Ecuador agreed to have the Organization of American States investigate the March 1 raid. Venezuela supplied 14 percent of U.S. oil imports last year.

Economic Boom

The tensions eased March 7 when the three presidents agreed at a regional summit to respect each other’s borders and after Chavez ordered his troops to pull back. Still, the conflict threatens the economic boom in Colombia — South America’s second most populous country, with 44.2 million people — that was spurred by Uribe’s anti-FARC offensive.

Foreign direct investment in Colombia soared in 2007’s third quarter to $2.4 billion, up 11-fold from the same period in 2002, while the economy grew 6.8 percent in 2006, up from 1.9 percent in 2002. Trade between Colombia and Ecuador and Venezuela totals $8 billion a year. Chavez threatened that commerce by warning he might seize Colombian companies’ assets in his country and close the border.

The crisis may have helped Colombia’s bid for a free trade accord with the U.S. On March 4, President George W. Bush urged Congress to approve the deal, saying it’s “a matter of national security.” Congress has yet to schedule a vote on the pact.

Band of Terrorists

The FARC, which today is considered a band of terrorists by the U.S. and the European Union, was founded in 1964 as a rural, peasant, Marxist insurgency. It initially received support from the Soviet Union, Cuba and the Communist Party of Colombia, says Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington research group.

To finance more recent operations, it has kidnapped and ransomed hundreds of hostages, while also holding prominent politicians and U.S. contractors as bargaining chips. The FARC traffics in cocaine for the bulk of its revenue, according to the U.S., which has sent Colombia $5 billion in the past seven years for its anti-insurgency campaign. The FARC controls most of Colombia’s production of coca, a key ingredient of cocaine, the State Department says. More than 80 percent of the drug sold in the U.S. comes from Colombia.

Efforts to resolve the four-decade conflict peacefully foundered under 10 previous Colombian presidents. Then Uribe, 55, took office in 2002 on a pledge to crush the FARC. He boosted troop strength by 44 percent and imposed a war tax to pay for it. His offensive cut kidnappings by 83 percent to 486 last year and terrorist attacks by 76 percent to 387 in 2007, the Defense Ministry says.

Rebel Defections

A record 2,480 FARC rebels defected last year, almost a third of the total desertions since 2002, shrinking its ranks to about 8,000, the Colombian government says. Many FARC fighters are coerced to join the group with threats, former members say. Human Rights Watch estimates that as many as 30 percent of the fighters are under 18 years old.

The FARC used to regularly set off deadly explosions in Bogota. Now its operations are confined mostly to remote jungles. Disease and combat casualties have undercut its strength further. Frontline commanders are demoralized and their movement verges on collapse, says Stephen Donehoo, Latin American specialist at Washington-based consulting company Kissinger McLarty Associates.

Last week, two of its top leaders were killed, prompting Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos to say the FARC is “falling apart.”

Powerless

Despite the success of Uribe’s anti-FARC offensive, which contributed to his 80 percent January approval rating in a Gallup Colombia poll, the president has been powerless to free the hostages.

On that score, Chavez saw an opening. Last August, he offered to help negotiate the release of some hostages and later had his state news service start disseminating FARC statements.

His aim was to upstage Uribe and foment dissatisfaction with his rule to make way for a socialist regime, says Ray Walser, a Latin America policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Uribe is a close ally of the U.S., a country Chavez regularly denounces as an imperialist empire.

Uribe supported Chavez’s efforts until November, after deciding that the Venezuelan had violated their agreement by talking directly to a Colombian general.

That same month, Chavez, 53, appeared at a joint press conference in Caracas with a top FARC chieftain, Ivan Marquez. Colombia’s defense ministry said in 2006 that Marquez was hiding in Venezuela. At the press conference, Marquez declined to say how long he’d been there.

Six Years

On Jan. 10, Chavez won the release of two Colombians held for about six years — ex-lawmaker Consuelo Gonzales and former vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas.

A video of the women’s handover to Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin belied Chavez’s depiction of his government’s role as only a mediator: “We are very aware of your struggle,” Chacin tells a rifle-toting FARC commander. “You are the ones that have to maintain this effort,” he adds.

The guerrillas then headed back into the forest. The women thanked Chavez in front of state television cameras on a Venezuelan Red Cross helicopter flying them to freedom.

The next day, Chavez went further in public support for the FARC than any other head of state. He praised the rebels for sharing his goal of a socialist, Bolivarian revolution for Greater Colombia — the country that in the early 19th century included present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama.

A `Real Army’

He also called the FARC a “real army” and asked governments worldwide to change its status from terrorist to belligerent, an international-law designation afforded to military units that respect human rights. Only Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega agreed.

Days later, the FARC kidnapped six more hostages, four of whom were released March 6. Chavez has continued working to free captives, persuading the FARC let four more go Feb. 27.

“For a group that has no political support in Colombia, this has given them a new stage regionally, if not in the world,” says Cynthia Arnson, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin American program in Washington.

Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy center, says there long have been suspicions that Chavez’s ideological alliance with the FARC went beyond talk. “His recent actions simply reaffirm the suspicions,” he says.

Going Public

Colombia went public with its suspicions about Chavez and the FARC on March 3, when national police commander Oscar Naranjo accused him of supporting the rebels for years. He said the allegation was supported by files on a laptop computer that belonged to Raul Reyes, a rebel leader killed in the Ecuador raid. Naranjo said the files showed that Chavez had funneled at least $300 million and assault rifles to the group.

President Uribe on March 4 said he would ask the International Criminal Court in The Hague to press charges against Chavez for backing the FARC.

Chavez denied providing the FARC with anything other than moral support, condemning “kidnapping and any terrorist act” on a Jan. 16 trip to Nicaragua. Chavez called Colombia’s allegations “laughable” on March 5.

Former FARC fighters say they were told that Venezuela supplied their arms. “Most of our guns and ammo came from Chavez,” Juan Humberto Manaideke, 19, said in an interview. “The talk was that he was our biggest supporter.” Manaideke says the FARC pressed him to join at age 11, and he escaped three years ago.

Friend or Foe

Along the Venezuelan side of Colombia’s 1,771-mile border, Chavez’s soldiers aren’t sure whether they should consider FARC fighters friend or foe, says retired Venezuelan General Raul Baduel, Chavez’s defense minister until he quit in July.

In 2004, Chavez ordered force used against the FARC after an attack on soldiers protecting state oil-company workers, Baduel said. “After these expressions of solidarity and support from some in the Venezuelan government, you can assume the guerrillas have increased their presence in our territory,” says Baduel. “If these forces are Venezuela’s friends, what’s the protocol if they cross into our territory? It’s a big dilemma.”

Omar Barboza, a director of Venezuelan opposition party Un Nuevo Tiempo, says he abandoned his 600-acre property in the northwest after guerrilla activity made the area dangerous. “They act freely, and it’s already spreading into the cities,” Barboza says.

Willful Ignorance

The U.S. and Colombia have accused the FARC of involvement in drug trafficking along the Venezuela-Colombia border. A top U.S. drug enforcement official, John Walters, told reporters in Bogota on Jan. 20 that Venezuela willfully ignores more than 200 metric tons of cocaine moving across its Colombian border. Chavez ended anti-narcotics cooperation with the U.S. in 2005, accusing American Drug Enforcement Administration agents of spying.

Mildred Camero, Venezuela’s top drug-enforcement official from 1999 to 2005, says she was fired after telling higher-ups that corrupt Venezuelan officials protected the leader of Colombia’s biggest cocaine cartel, Wilber Varela, as he moved between the two countries.

“We had evidence, through informants, that Varela was actually moving around Venezuelan territory with complete ease,” Camero said in an interview. “He even had a Venezuelan I.D.” Varela was found shot to death in western Venezuela on Feb. 1.

On state television on Jan. 28, Venezuela’s current anti- drug chief, Nestor Reverol, pointed to a 2005 United Nations World Drug Report to defend the country’s record. It shows Venezuela is No. 3 in cocaine seizures. Reverol’s press office didn’t respond to interview requests.

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