Tensions are high in the Andes following a Colombian military attack in neighboring Ecuador. A leading commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — FARC — and twenty other fighters were killed Saturday when Colombian troops crossed the Ecuadorian border in a pre-dawn raid. On Monday, both Ecuador and Venezuela rushed troops to their borders with Colombia and said they would cut their diplomatic ties with Bogota. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
Tensions are high in the Andes following a Colombian military attack in neighboring Ecuador. A leading commander of the FARC and twenty other fighters were killed Saturday when Colombian troops crossed the Ecuadorian border in a pre-dawn raid. Colombia called the attack a major blow to the FARC rebels. The commander, Raul Reyes, had been viewed as a possible successor to FARC’s seventy-seven-year-old leader, Manuel Marulanda.
On Monday, both Ecuador and Venezuela rushed troops to their borders with Colombia and said they would cut their diplomatic ties with Bogota. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro announced the expulsion of Colombia’s ambassador in Caracas.
[translated] In the number of measures we have taken to safeguard national sovereignty, the respect and dignity of our institutions, of our democracy, the Venezuelan government has decided to expel the Colombian ambassador in Caracas and all of the diplomatic personnel in the Colombian embassy in Caracas.
Colombia said it found evidence in the FARC camp that Venezuela had given the rebels more than $300 million. Colombia also accused Ecuador of supporting the rebels. Both Venezuela and Ecuador denounced the charges and accused the Colombian president of lying. This is Ecuadorian Defense Minister Wellington Sandoval.
WELLINGTON SANDOVAL: [translated] It’s a completely harebrained idea. We do not have, nor have we ever had, nor will we ever have, any ties with FARC. I must also say that in view that we have lost all contact and communication with the Colombian armed forces, I have asked the Foreign Ministry to end the agreement with [inaudible].
For more, we turn to Mario Murillo, a longtime journalist, author of Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism and Destabilization, co-host of Wake-Up Call on Pacifica Radio station WBAI, and a professor at Hofstra University, where he is joining us from right now.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Mario. Tell us about the significance of the killing of Raul Reyes, a man that you interviewed several times.
Well, it’s great to be with you, Amy. It’s a very significant development on many fronts. First of all, of course, this is the first time in over forty-four years of counterinsurgency warfare that the Colombian government and the armed forces actually knocked down one of the top commanders of the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Raul Reyes, as you rightly put forward in the introduction, is the — was the second in command. Basically, he was considered the official ambassador, diplomat of the FARC, who traveled all around the world, to El Salvador, to Latin America, to Europe, talking with all different kinds of leaders, and he was perhaps the most visible of all the FARC commanders, especially after the 1999 peace talks that began with President Andres Pastrana. So he was one of the most visible leaders. He was also, ironically, the person who most likely could reach some kind of an accord, because he was much more of a diplomat than he was perhaps a military strategist. In fact, some command — some people in the FARC in the early days made fun of him, saying that he wasn’t necessarily a strategist, he was more of a diplomat. So knocking him down, killing him the way he was killed, was a big public-relations victory for Alvaro Uribe Velez, the President of Colombia, especially in light of what has been going on over the last couple of weeks.
It came at an opportune time, because there’s been criticism of Uribe Velez for not really carrying out serious measures to release the hostages that the FARC have been holding for some time now. Just last week, four hostages were released by the FARC to the Venezuelan government because of the intervention of Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan government. And those people, when they got to Venezuela, those people who were in captivity for five, six years, immediately started criticizing and calling into question Uribe Velez’s positions, basically saying that, you know, we were walking through the jungles for 250 kilometers, and we didn’t see one soldier in sight. One of them actually said that — the FARC operate in the countryside — they move in the countryside and the jungles much like fish in water. So there was a lot of criticism as to the security policy of Uribe, not to mention the political strategy of refusing to negotiate with the FARC to eventually release the hostages.
Now that you knock out somebody like Raul Reyes, such a high visible figure in the FARC for so many years, it’s almost as if it’s a moot point, because it adds to the idea that Uribe Velez has been arguing for so long, that we can win this fight militarily, and we’re not going to sit down and negotiate with these, quote-unquote, "terrorists."
Mario, we’re going to play just a clip of an interview that you did with Raul Reyes in 1996. Can you just set the stage for us? Where were you? Where did you video him?
Well, it was kind of a strange period. This was — I mean, he was already a big figure in the FARC at that point when we interviewed him at this time in 1996 during the Sao Paolo Forum, which was a major forum for progressive and left movements throughout the hemisphere. It was before the World Social Forum that took place several years later. At this time, he was trying, of course, to do what he always did, which was build relations with progressive movements, with the FMLN, for example, in El Salvador, with other sectors who were struggling for social change on an international level. But he had not reached the kind of mythic proportions that he did in 1999 once he became perhaps the most visible spokesperson for the FARC during the peace negotiations. At this time, he was still kind of under the radar screen. And when we interviewed him, he was asked — he deliberately asked us to get him by — on profile as opposed to front forward, and it was an interesting discussion talking about some of the issues that were prevalent twelve years ago that in many respects haven’t really gone away in Colombia today.
This is just a short clip of the now slain FARC commander, Raul Reyes, in 1996.
RAUL REYES: [translated] For peace, there has to be a policy that comes from the state. That means there has to be guarantees for the insurgency to sit with the government and to discuss about the new Colombia we should all construct. Right now, there are no guarantees. Right now, continued threats against the leaders of the guerrilla movements, the proliferation of murderers and massacres, continues.
That is, well, the now slain FARC commander, Raul Reyes. I wanted to ask you, Mario, a high-placed official in the Colombian Defense Ministry said, on condition of anonymity, it was the US intelligence agency that first told Bogota several weeks ago that Reyes was sporadically using a satellite phone whose signal could be pinpointed.
There is no doubt. I mean, it’s interesting. Obviously, we’ve still got to wait a little bit before we get more details as to the way this operation unfolded, a cross-border operation. We should continue reminding people that it was a cross-border incursion by the Colombian government. But it’s eerily reminiscent of what happened in 1993, when the Colombian forces, with United States intelligence assistance and direct cooperation, killed the leader of the Medellin Cartel at the time, Pablo Escobar, who was a fugitive from justice at that time.
And what we see right now in 2008 is a process where the US military assistance, eight years of Plan Colombia, six years of Uribe’s total war carried out against the FARC, and a real stepped-up improvement in the communications technology that the Colombian armed forces are using, resulting in this kind of attack leading to the death of Raul Reyes, it would be hard to imagine that this kind of cross-border incursion could have occurred without the knowledge, without the understanding of the United States, especially given the large presence that the US has particularly in the southern part of the country.
The military assistance that the United States has directed has been presented as a counter-narcotics aid package of over $5 billion over the last eight years in Plan Colombia. But there’s no doubt that it has been really geared towards attacking the guerrillas. It’s been a counterinsurgency assistance package that continues to maintain the same levels that it did even in 1999 and 2000, when Plan Colombia first started.
Mario, I wanted to go to Helga Serrano. She’s an Ecuadorian activist with the international network for the abolition of foreign military bases called No Bases. What is the response in Ecuador to this cross-border raid by the Colombian troops that killed the FARC commander, Helga?
HELGA SERRANO: Thank you for the call. We are outraged in Ecuador. We cannot imagine that our country that is a neighbor and that we have about 500,000 Colombians here, which our country has received in solidarity, because they have been displaced because of the conflict of the war in Colombia, and that President Uribe pays us like this, by bombing our country, by being a puppet to the Bush administration, by using military bases like the Tres Esquinas in Colombia to carry out the attack. And we are asking and demanding an investigation to see if the base in Manta was also used in this attack.
We are outraged, and we are having a big demonstration on Thursday, March 6 at 6:00 in the afternoon. There are demonstrations already going on yesterday. There will be another one today. And many organizations are calling — are supporting President Correa’s position. He has got a very firm position. And we are demanding, once again, the closure of these military bases, which we feel are the structure from which these kinds of activities are carried out.
We’re also joined by Arlene Tickner, who’s a professor of international affairs at the University of Los Andes in Bogota. The responses inside Colombia, Professor Tickner?
ARLENE TICKNER: Unfortunately, the response has been full support of President Uribe. The case is being presented as a justified incursion into Ecuadorian territory in pursuit of terrorist groups that haven’t been persecuted by the Ecuadorian government. This is basically the position of the government. And as I say, both the media and opposition parties have also fully supported the decision of the government to present the case in this way.
Mario Murillo, we’re going to go back to you and end with you, with the troops on the border now, Ecuador sending troops to the border with Colombia and Venezuela. What is the possibility of open conflict?
I think that’s a lesser possibility, and I hope I’m wrong in this assertion. I think the bigger problem is the consolidation of what’s going on right now with Uribe. Uribe, as our previous speaker just said, is 83 percentage points popularity in terms of this action or support of this action.
And it comes just a few days before this massive mobilization that’s taking place on March 6, this big mobilization to call to question the impunity and the double standard of, quote-unquote, "human rights, democracy and justice in Colombia,” a massive mobilization to call into question the relationship between the Colombian government and paramilitary forces in the country that has been responsible for the vast majority of the displacements, the vast majority of the human rights abuses that have gone in Colombia for the last twenty years or so. Uribe now, with this action that has taken place, with the killing of Raul Reyes and the international kind of uproar that’s occurred, it’s made it as if this March 6 mobilization against the paramilitaries, against the Uribe administration, is going to be almost like having a homecoming parade on the first day of spring break at a university. Nobody’s going to be paying attention because of the level of the propaganda success of this operation against Raul Reyes.
We have to leave it there, and I thank you all for being with us. Mario Murillo’s book is called Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism and Destabilization. Helga Serrano, joining us from Quito, Ecuador. And Professor Arlene Tickner, joining us from Colombia, from Bogota.