Helen Murphy and Matthew Walter
Colombia’s police chief alleged Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez helped fund Latin America’s biggest guerrilla group and has ties to the rebels going back more than 15 years.
Documents on a computer belonging to the second in command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia show Venezuela provided the guerrillas with at least $300 million, police Chief Oscar Naranjo said. Venezuelan Vice President Ramon Carrizalez denied the allegations.
“These documents not only imply a closeness, but an armed alliance between the FARC and the government of Venezuela,” Naranjo said in a televised press briefing in Bogota.
Colombia’s Security Council found documents on three laptops belonging to Raul Reyes, who was killed by Colombian forces in an attack inside Ecuador this weekend. The air strike prompted Chavez and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa to order troops to their respective borders with Colombia.
An expanded military presence along the Colombia-Venezuela border — a cauldron of paramilitary, drug trafficking and guerrilla activity where Colombian troops operate regularly — raises tensions between the countries to a level that a miscalculation could trigger a military clash. Both countries also recalled their ambassadors from Bogota.
Chavez, who yesterday went beyond his previous rhetoric to order 10 armored battalions to the border, said Colombia’s air strike on a rebel camp in Ecuadorean territory risks a regional war.
“This is an alarming degeneration in the region and has ominous overtones that could lead to provocative developments,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based research group. “This is a situation that’s unraveling and both sides need to stand back or it could degenerate into confrontation.”
Among Latin American countries that called for explanation from Colombia on the cross-border raid were Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, Argentina and Peru.
“We want to help both countries find a solution for this crisis,” Brazil’s Foreign Affairs Minister Celso Amorim said in Brasilia.
Naranjo said the computer files, which will be subjected to outside analysis, also provided details on the drug-funded group’s plans to obtain 50 kilograms of uranium to make bombs as part of a bid to branch into international terrorism. He didn’t provide details about the alleged plot.
The documents also allegedly show the FARC, as the group is known, had ties to Chavez going back as far as 1992 when he was jailed for spearheading a failed coup as an army lieutenant colonel.
Colombia also accused Correa of ties to the guerrilla group. The files indicated Ecuadorean Security Minister Gustavo Larrea had been in contact with Reyes on Correa’s behalf. They talked about getting Correa involved in the release of hostages to boost his political standing, Naranjo said.
Ecuador today broke diplomatic ties with Colombia.
“There’s no question of the enormous political tension now and any miscue could set off a conflict,” said Michael Shifter, a vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “It’s impossible to rule it out.”
Colombia said it would not reinforce its troops along either border.
The Colombian air strike on the camp of Colombia’s biggest rebel group took place 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles) inside Ecuador and killed at least 12 other fighters, the government said.
Chavez, who has a history of verbally attacking the U.S. and its allies, may be seeking to stir up nationalist sentiment at a time when he’s faltering politically, said Myles Frechette, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia from 1994 to 1997.
Voters in December rejected Chavez’s plan to solidify his power by overhauling the constitution, his first electoral defeat. Since then, crime and food shortages have cut further into his popularity. Venezuela’s dependence on Colombia for food imports and the Colombian military’s superior training make a wide-scale war unlikely, said Liliana Fasciani, a legal philosophy professor at the Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas.
“This is largely posturing and beating his chest,” Frechette said in a telephone interview. “The economic situation in Venezuela isn’t good.”