At Large

Trouble in the Backyard

Colombia scores a hit on its lefty neighbors.

By 3.10.08

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In the course of six days Latin America went from the brink of war between Colombia and Ecuador/Venezuela to smiling handshakes and a pledge from Colombia's president "never to invade a brother nation again."

U.S.-trained Colombian special forces had tracked a rebel fighting group of FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) to one of their sanctuary encampments about one and a half miles inside Ecuador. The Colombians attacked, killing 22 along with one of FARC's top commanders, Raul Reyes. It would have been far better if Reyes had been captured alive, but the Colombian forces have a tendency to shoot first and ask questions afterward.

Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe considered it a great victory. His Ecuadorian counterpart, Rafael Correa, vigorously proclaimed it a shameful invasion of his country. And true to form, Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, denounced the action as another example of the United States' brutal ambition to control all of Latin America. Chavez did his best imitation of an outraged defender of democracy and swiftly threatened that this portended a widening regional conflict.

Venezuela's paratrooper president then ordered "brigades" of tanks and infantry to prevent Colombia's "Washington-guided ambitions" from spilling over into his country. With a growing scarcity of basic foodstuffs and a high inflation rate, this was just the political military excuse Chavez wanted to distract his increasingly disenchanted citizenry.

Venezuelans had voted against Chavez's s recent constitutional referendum, sought to abolish term limits for his presidency. Using the old Fidel trick of conjuring dangers from the United States -- in this case utilizing the one and a half mile border crossing -- he hoped to keep the lid on his own domestic dissidents.

President Alvaro Uribe characterized the Colombian special forces operation as a crushing blow against what he has termed in the past as "the narco-terrorist activities of the leaders of FARC and their Marxist/Leninist criminal gang." Uribe appeared quite confident his U.S.-trained and equipped forces could handle anything Chavez's military could throw at them.

Meanwhile, Ecuador's left-leaning President Rafael Correa, Chavez's political buddy, stomped around the continent seeking support for action to be taken at the Organization of American States condemning the Colombian invasion. He broke relations with Bogota with the loud approval of Chavez who also announced he would expel the Colombian ambassador to Venezuela.

Each of the three leaders was vying for a post-Oscar award for "Best Performance by a Latin American Leader with Enormous Ego."

AS TO BE EXPECTED, rumors are now flying throughout the region regarding the true nature of the affair. Perhaps the most intriguing comment comes out of Quito where the Ecuadorean public, starved for excitement, will encourage any story with an interesting twist. Purportedly, some of that nation's generals, unhappy with the Correa government's policy of providing sanctuary to the Colombian guerrillas, secretly passed the location of the FARC contingent to Colombian military intelligence.

In their heyday a few years ago FARC reportedly had been earning around $300 million per year from their activities involving protection for narcotics traffickers, kidnapping for ransom, and guarding coca farms. Operations against FARC have been assisted by the $5.5 billion U.S. program called Plan Colombia. This ongoing project provides, among other things, American military trainers and equipment for specialized units of the Colombian army.

Plan Colombia has been challenged by the Democrat majority in Congress as not effective against cocaine export in spite of the stepped-up effort against FARC and the narcotics traffickers. They are worried that the military and police solution undercuts local social and economic improvements.

The Colombian Army and President Uribe deny these charges. Good arguments can be given for both sides, but no one denies the substantial improvement of Colombia's armed forces and their anti-rebel operations in the past few years.

Perhaps the most interesting intelligence to come out of the successful cross-border operation is the reported recovery of a computer. According to the Colombians, the computer contained documentation indicating FARC had been attempting to obtain uranium with which to construct a "dirty bomb."

Whether this and other information confirming transfer of $300 million to FARC by Venezuela is true or merely some heavy-handed Colombian propaganda is up for scrutiny. Whatever the case, the entire affair has been plastered over by the kiss-and-makeup session among the three presidents during the Latin American summit in the Dominican Republic.

If you believe that theatrical performance, the Organization of American States has a canal across the Andes they'll sell you!

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.