Oct 09
Miguel Lapo (center).

We are enormously saddened to learn of the murder, by unknown assailants, of two Ecuadorian community leaders along the border with Colombia last week.

CIP staff met one of the two, Miguel Lapo, last November when we accompanied Rep. Jim McGovern’s (D-Massachusetts) visit [.pdf] to the Ecuador-Colombia border region. Mr. Lapo was a founder of the border town of Barranca Bermeja, Sucumbíos, Ecuador. Barranca Bermeja is right on the border: one can look across the river from the center of town and see see Putumayo, Colombia.

Though we only spent a couple of hours with him, it was clear that Mr. Lapo had the respect and affection of hundreds of people living in a zone battered by the conflict in nearby Colombia – a conflict that many had come to Barranca Bermeja to escape.

Here is a statement about last week’s murders released today by Rep. Jim McGovern. We join in Rep. McGovern’s strong call on the Ecuadorian (and, if relevant, the Colombian) authorities to identify, prosecute and punish those who ordered and carried out the killings.

Statement by U.S. Representative James P. McGovern (D-MA-03)
On the murders of community leaders Miguel Lapo and Miguel Pinzón in Sucumbíos, Ecuador
October 9, 2009

It is with deep sorrow that I learned of the recent deaths of two prominent community leaders on the Ecuadorian border with Colombia.  Miguel Lapo and Miguel Pinzón were murdered by unknown perpetrators on September 28th and September 29th.

Mr. Lapo was killed in Barranca Bermeja, Ecuador – a town just across the river from Colombia that he helped found 20 years ago. Mr. Pinzón was assassinated in the nearby town of San Martín.

I met Mr. Lapo in November 2008, when I traveled to Barranca Bermeja to learn more about the spillover effects of Colombia’s armed conflict into Ecuador.  Mr. Lapo had organized a community meeting for my visit, at which I heard heartbreaking testimonies of the challenges faced by Colombian refugees and Ecuadorians living in the border region – the people Mr. Lapo dedicated his life to protect.

Although my visit with Miguel Lapo was brief, it was clear to me that he was a dedicated, intelligent, and caring man who fought for peace and the rights of both Colombian refugees and Ecuadorians living in his community.

While we don’t yet know the killers’ identities, I fear that these murders are part of an effort – whether by Colombian armed groups or narco-trafficking organizations – to intimidate all independent social organizations in the region.

I call on the Government of Ecuador to fully investigate the deaths of Miguel Lapo and Miguel Pinzón. The Government of Ecuador has recently taken important steps to provide legal recognition to the hundreds of thousands of Colombians seeking refuge within its borders. Identifying and prosecuting those responsible for the recent murders is essential if Ecuador is to achieve its stated goal of protecting vulnerable refugee communities and encouraging good governance and development in border communities.

At this moment, my thoughts, prayers and most sincere condolences are with the families, friends and colleagues of Mr. Lapo and Mr. Pinzón, and my attention and solidarity are always with the many Ecuadorian border communities that have so generously provided shelter and welcome to so many refugees from Colombia’s violent conflict.

For more information, contact:
Michael Mershon, Press Secretary
Cindy Buhl, Legislative Director
Phone: (+1) 202-225-6101

Oct 08

In an interview with BBC Mundo published today, Colombian Vice President makes a novel argument. The main reason Álvaro Uribe should be re-elected to a third term, Santos says, is because Colombia faces “generic” threats from outside its borders. Excerpt:

BBC: “And you, as vice-president of Colombia. Are you in favor of Álvaro Uribe’s re-election?”

Vice-President Francisco Santos: “Look, I am in favor of Álvaro Uribe’s re-election, given the situation of the continent. A very complex situation in which the threat to Colombia has become ‘trans-border.’ The threat to Colombia is outside its borders. There is an urgent need to continue and put an end to criminal and terrorist organizations. I believe we are in a moment in which it is needed simply to keep pressuring. And I don’t believe Colombia should now be experimenting, making a change and having learning processes (…). A third term for the president would not affect democracy. Those who say it would do not believe in democracy (…).”

BBC: “You say that the threat to Colombia comes from outside its borders. What are you referring to?”

Santos: “The Colombian problem today has some connotations that generate complexities that you know well, you have seen them and reported on them. I don’t want to be specific in this sense so as not to generate diplomatic complications, but it is a reality that the world recognizes and that, for Colombia, brings about some political and, above all, diplomatic challenges to which it is urgent to begin to attend.”

BBC: “Might this concrete case [this week's Colombian Defense Ministry allegation that the FARC has encampments inside Ecuador] be what is being referred to when you spoke of trans-border threats against Colombia?”

Santos: “Essentially, no.”

BBC: “Then, what were you talking about concretely?”

Santos: “I’ll repeat. I prefer to leave that in generic terms, which is the best way to manage an issue as complicated as that (…), which is ever more clear about, that represents a threat to the continent, but for Colombia represents a challenge that is, above all, diplomatic (…).”

BBC: “You give the impression that you are making an indefinite accusation, like someone who throws a stone then conceals his hand, to say it flatly.”

Santos: “Well, this is what many do, and I believe that in diplomacy sometimes one has to talk to Juan so that Pedro understands. So I think it is important in that sense. But I believe that you as journalists who cover the world and reality, you know how things are.”

BBC: “You’re not willing to be more concrete.”

Santos: “No, no.”

Apr 14

Download the report: (PDF, 1.1 MB)

Over the past nine years, an estimated 300,000 Colombian refugees have crossed their country’s border with Ecuador, fleeing persecution, threats, disappearances, murders and deliberate displacement by the parties to Colombia’s long conflict. In November 2008, staff from the Center for International Policy accompanied Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) on a four-day visit to Ecuador’s northeastern borderlands. We found the humanitarian crisis to be more severe than anticipated, and the need for action – from the U.S. government as well as international humanitarian organizations – more urgent than is generally recognized.

The Center for International Policy’s new report, “Ecuador’s Humanitarian Emergency: The Spillover of Colombia’s Conflict,” documents the consequences of the spillover of Colombia’s conflict into Ecuadorian territory and the extent of the humanitarian crisis in Ecuador’s border provinces – Esmeraldas, Carchi and Sucumbíos. The Ecuadorian state’s presence historically has been minimal in the border region, yet the influx of hundreds of thousands of Colombian refugees – 85 percent of whom remain close to the border – has drastically worsened living conditions and stressed social services. And the fact that Colombian refugees live among the Ecuadorian population and not in refugee camps makes it difficult for humanitarian agencies, such as UNHCR, to extend their services to the entire population in need – not to mention the 250,000 Colombian refugees who remain “invisible” and therefore out of the scope of UNHCR’s assistance.

After spending time in Ecuador, Rep. McGovern told his colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives that “Colombia’s war is literally bleeding – violently – in Ecuador.” The CIP report offers six short- and medium-term recommendations for addressing Ecuador’s humanitarian crisis and ensuring the well-being of both the Colombian refugees in need of protection and the Ecuadorian citizens living near the border. These recommendations include:

1) The international community, including humanitarian NGOs, UN agencies and foreign governments, including the United States, must provide immediate emergency humanitarian assistance to the refugee population in Ecuador.

2) Colombia must address the needs of communities being displaced by violence within its territory, through “integral reparations” for the conflict’s victims as well as through full compliance with the guidelines set out in Colombia’s Constitutional Court decision T-025.

3) Social and development assistance must be provided to entire communities that receive refugees in order to cover the urgent need, among refugees and residents alike, for basic infrastructure, health, education, and a state presence in general.

4) The United States should increase its commitment to Plan Ecuador and similar Ecuadorian governmental efforts through Economic Support Funds and Development Assistance.

5) U.S. contributions for Fiscal Year 2010 through the Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) program of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), and through the contribution to UNHCR for the Western Hemisphere, should at least double over 2009 levels.

6) Assistance to protect populations from armed groups and crime, strictly conditioned on human rights performance, should be provided to the border region.

Nov 26

Here is the translated text of a note that an audience member passed to me two weeks ago in the Ecuadorian border town of Barranca Bermeja, Ecuador, after Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) visited and held a meeting with community leaders. Barranca Bermeja has been hit hard by the violence across the river in Putumayo, Colombia, with all armed groups making constant incursions and a steady flow of Colombian refugees seeking a safer place to live.

The note follows:

I ask the favor that you tell the new government of the United States that it should change that Plan Colombia. That it not send us any more weapons, airplanes or helicopters, and that the money it invests in such things be invested in agricultural projects. And that together with the Colombian government, that it give security to the campesinos so that they may return to their farms and their productive projects like cattle-raising, fish-farming and crops that we can export. But these crops must be profitable in order to combat coca and narcotrafficking. Thank you.

Well said, “Yen B.” Happy to share it.

Nov 14

We returned last night from our visit to Ecuador with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts). The delegation spent three days in Ecuador’s eastern Amazon basin region, near the border with Colombia. We visited sites that had been badly contaminated by oil production, the subject of ongoing litigation between U.S. oil company Chevron and thousands of citizens from the region. We visited towns bordering Colombia where local populations were dealing with continued high refugee flows, threats from illegal armed groups, and violence from a narco-economy that continues to flourish. And we spent a day in Quito meeting with officials.

We will post more about what we saw soon. In the meantime, here are some photos from the trip. More can be viewed here and here.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) at Yuca 5 oil well site, November 9

McGovern Ecuador Delegation
Visit to San Carlos, Orellana, November 9

Shushufindi 38 Oil Well Site, November 10

Shushufindi 38 Oil Well Site, November 10

IMG_3976Shushufindi 38 Oil Well Site, November 10

On a barge outside Lago Agrio, Ecuador, November 10

Visit to Cofán indigenous community in Dureno, Sucumbíos, November 10

Visit to Cofán indigenous community in Dureno, Sucumbíos, November 10

On the road between Lago Agrio and Barranca Bermeja, Sucumbíos, November 11

McGovern Ecuador Delegation
In Barranca Bermeja, looking across the San Miguel River at Putumayo, Colombia, November 11

Meeting with community leaders in Barranca Bermeja, Sucumbíos, November 11

Meeting with community leaders in Barranca Bermeja, Sucumbíos, November 11

Meeting with community leaders in Puerto Mestanza, Sucumbíos, November 11

McGovern Ecuador Delegation
Meeting with President Rafael Correa, Quito, November 12

Jun 25

The Colombian government this week scuttled a Jimmy Carter-brokered deal to set Colombia and Ecuador back on the road to diplomatic relations, which were broken following the Colombian raid into Ecuadorian territory that killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes. Here is an analysis, and a translation of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s strong comments, from CIP Associate Abigail Poe.

On March 3rd of this year, Ecuador pulled its ambassador from Colombia, halting diplomatic relations two days after the raid on a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory that killed Raul Reyes and 24 others. At the time, it was not clear when diplomatic relations would be restored – but it would have been hard to believe that two and a half months later, relations between Colombia and Ecuador would still be broken off, and on the verge of getting worse.

Tensions have stayed high, and the potential for restored diplomatic relations delayed, by documents from Raúl Reyes’ computer hinting that officials from the government of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa maintained ties to the FARC. However, two weeks ago, with the help of mediation by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, Ecuador and Colombia agreed to restore diplomatic relations at the charge d’affaires level. According to the two governments, the restoration of relations at this level was to happen sometime this week.

Over the weekend, though, the agreement to renew diplomatic relations between Colombia and Ecuador collapsed when Colombian Foreign Minister Fernando Araújo said his country would hold back its diplomats in responseto Correa’s “aggressive” comments published in an Argentine newspaper, Página 12, on Sunday. In the article, Correa stated that in order to reestablish full diplomatic relations with Colombia, the Colombian government would have to fully explain the March 1 raid, adding charges that the bombs used in the attack came from the United States.

Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador, who told El Tiempo last week that the restoration of diplomatic relations to the charge d’affaires level was “only one step in the total re-establishment of confidence between the two countries,” responded to Araújo with a declaration that Ecuador has dropped plans to renew ties with Colombia and is considering limiting bilateral trade “if the situation does not improve, above all in Colombia’s position toward Ecuador.”

Just last week, it looked like Colombia and Ecuador were on the path toward ending what has become one of the longest-lasting diplomatic standoffs in Latin America’s recent history. Unfortunately, today’s news makes it look like the bickering between two neighboring countries may continue for an indeterminate period, especially if Ecuador goes through with limiting trade.

Here is a translation of a portion of the interview with Correa that inspired Colombia’s government to postpone the re-establishment of diplomatic ties once again:

(From: “Ganar las elecciones no es ganar el poder,” by Mario Wainfeld, Pagina 12, 6/22/2008)

- What is the current situation with Colombia, given last month’s international aggression?

- We are the assaulted ones, we get to set the timetable. We have taken a step, to reestablish relations at the chargé d’affaires level. We have a very hot border, it is good to have fluid communications. But in order to establish full relations, we are going to demand that this attack be fully clarified. The bombs were North American and, according to reports by our armed forces, they could not have been dropped from Colombian planes. It is very probable that three of the wounded, according to forensic reports, were finished off after the attacks. The Ecuadorian citizens who were killed there died from blows to the neck and not from shots or bombs.

- To what point can Ecuador control the border militarily?

- Impossible. It is a very porous border. The United States can’t control the passage of immigrants to their territory and are building a wall. And there isn’t a jungle there. Here, there are 400, 500 kilometers of the Amazon jungle. The world has to understand that the problem is not Ecuador, that the problem is Colombia. And that each time a FARC patrol crosses into Ecuador, it means that it crossed out of Colombia. We have 13 military posts on the border, when we would need (in times of peace) one-fourth that amount. Colombia has two. Colombia’s strategy is to resolve the problem by removing forces from its southern border, they want to involve us.

-T he hypothesis is that Ecuador is a kind of wall…

- It is the Yankee strategy: they attack from the north to the south, leave the southern border unmanned so that we must make the effort. This also infuriates us. Do you know how many Colombian refugees we have in our country? Four hundred thousand Colombians, seventeen thousand with refugee status, there are many more requests. The problem is not with the Colombian people, the problem is with Uribe.

Mar 14
  • “Chemical Reactions,” a new report from the Washington Office on Latin America on the U.S. fumigation program in Colombia. The report, the culmination of a long research project over at WOLA, is the definitive dismantling of this failed policy, and does an expert job of questioning claims that the fumigation program poses no health or environmental risks.
  • Sorry not to have posted in 48 hours during such an eventful week; I spent my blogging time yesterday writing a post-mortem of the Venezuela-Ecuador-Colombia crisis that will soon be available on the opendemocracy.net website (not there yet). [3/17: here it is.]
  • In the wake of the crisis, the Bush administration has decided to go for the so-called “nuclear option” – introducing the Colombia Free Trade Agreement in Congress, setting in motion the countdown for a required vote, with no certainty that the accord can pass. In the middle of a presidential election campaign and an economic recession, no less.

How do you make such a difficult sale? Apparently, by making it a “national security” issue. The pitch uses language reminiscent of the Reagan adminstration’s 1980s appeals for aid to El Salvador and the Nicaraguan contras. Said President Bush: “The region is facing an increasingly stark choice: to quietly accept the vision of the terrorists and the demagogues, or to actively support democratic leaders like President Uribe.”

(So apparently, it’s Uribe’s way or the terrorists’ way. Needless to say, we reject this false, dishonest dichotomy in the most strenuous terms.)

The rhetoric is familiar – only this time, the “evil empire” in question is not Soviet expansionism but Hugo Chávez, who leads a country of only 26 million people and gets his dollars from our own oil purchases.

  • Will the Bush administration put Venezuela on the list of U.S. terrorist-sponsoring states? Probably not, for now at least.
  • At a House hearing yesterday, the Southern Command gave its annual “Posture Statement” (PDF). Southcom’s commander, Adm. Jim Stavridis, urged Congress to pass the FTA (an issue apparently popular [PDF] with Southcom chiefs) and presented plans to make Southcom into an “inter-agency coordinator” of U.S. policy toward the region.
  • Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa remains angry at the United States. “In Washington, they say we help the FARC. Let them come and put American troops on Colombia’s southern border,’ Correa said. ‘Let them suffer deaths and bloodshed, and we’ll see if they keep talking.’”
  • Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos was in Washington from Tuesday to Thursday, but he held no public events and didn’t even talk to reporters. This is either because of the seriousness of his mission, or because the Colombian government didn’t want him to say anything he’d have to apologize for later.
Mar 05

It is not news that Latin American sensitivities are high about issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Regional condemnation of Colombia’s incursion into Ecuador Saturday, which killed FARC leader “Raúl Reyes,” has been nearly unanimous. The move has been criticized by Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and even by more conservative governments like those of Alán García in Peru and Felipe Calderón in Mexico.

This makes for an interesting contrast with the United States, where even the two “liberal” Democratic presidential candidates defended the Uribe government’s action.

  • Barack Obama: “[T]he Colombian government has every right to defend itself against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The recent targeted killing of a senior FARC leader must not be used as a pretense to ratchet up tensions or to threaten the stability of the region.”
  • Hillary Clinton: “The Colombian state has every right to defend itself against drug trafficking terrorist organizations that have kidnapped innocent civilians, including American citizens. … Rather than criticizing Colombia’s actions in combating terrorist groups in the border regions, Venezuela and Ecuador should work with their neighbor to ensure that their territories no longer serve as safe havens for terrorist groups.”

John McCain, reports CBS news, sees in this crisis a reason to bring back the super-hard-line “Just Say No” drug policies of twenty years ago.

“I want to reiterate our partnership and friendship with President [Alvaro] Uribe and the government of Colombia. … They are a vital ally. … I hope that tensions will be relaxed, President Chavez will remove those troops from the borders – as well as the Ecuadorians – and relations continue to improve between the two. … [The FARC] are a terrorist organization and one that I believe we must assist the Colombian government in repressing.”

For his part, President Bush’s three-minute statement on the crisis yesterday was partly a show of support for Colombia, partly a call for a diplomatic solution, and mostly a “commercial” for congressional ratification of the Colombia free-trade agreement.

President Uribe told me that one of the most important ways America can demonstrate its support for Colombia is by moving forward with a free trade agreement that we negotiated. … Our country’s message to President Uribe and the people of Colombia is that we stand with our democratic ally. My message to the United States Congress is that this trade agreement is more than a matter of smart economics, it is a matter of national security. If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down our close ally, we will damage our credibility in the region, and we will embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere.

A State Department spokesman sent a more helpful message on Monday. After making clear that the U.S. government supports Colombia, Tom Casey called forcefully for diplomacy.

 ”[L]ook, I think right now our focus is on trying to encourage Colombia and Ecuador to work out diplomatically the concerns that have been raised about this military strike. Certainly, we expect that that’s how this is going to be resolved. And I don’t think anybody at this point ought to be talking about military action.”

This sentiment was echoed in a letter to the OAS (PDF), released Tuesday, which bore the signatures of fifteen members of the U.S. Congress. The message, calling for OAS leadership of a diplomatic solution, is the only Colombia-related letter in memory signed by both the hawkish Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana) and the dovish Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts).
While this letter was signed by both parties’ senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere (Burton and Rep. Eliot Engel [D-New York]), the ranking Republican on the full Foreign Affairs Committee was absent. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) put out her own, more bellicose statement.

The courageous men and women of the Colombian National Police, its intelligence unit and the country’s security services have shattered the myth that FARC’s leadership is invincible. … Recent State Department reports cite deepening ties between the Chavez regime and Iran and Cuba, and an unwillingness by Chavez to prevent Venezuelan territory from being used as a safe haven by FARC. These reports are alarming and require the careful attention of our government and those of our neighbors. … Rather than rattle sabers, Colombia’s neighbors need to play a more constructive role in bringing about a durable peace and removing FARC’s foreign sanctuaries that have been exposed by this operation.

Mar 04

At this point in the ongoing Colombia-Ecuador-Venezuela crisis, a central issue requiring clarification is the nature of Venezuelan support for the FARC. Has Hugo Chávez’s government merely been engaging in political and hostage-exchange dialogues with the guerrillas, or has he begun providing them with material support?

The Colombian government, obviously, thinks that Caracas has begun to fund the FARC, and is saying so publicly for the first time. President Álvaro Uribe’s representatives have approached the International Criminal Court, the UN Security Council and the OAS with charges that President Chávez arranged to provide the FARC with money, perhaps $300 million. The Venezuelan support, they say, might have been in the form of oil or some other goods that would be sold, the profits laundered through front companies.

These charges are based on files found on laptop computers recovered at the site in Ecuador where the Colombian military killed top-ranking FARC leader Raúl Reyes early Saturday. The evidence, according to Colombian Police Chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo, “not only implies closeness, but an armed alliance between the FARC and the Venezuelan government.”

But what do those files say about Venezuela financially supporting the FARC?

The files do make it appear that some sort of scheme was underway. But it is extraordinarily serious to charge that Venezuela has begun to finance the violent overthrow of a neighboring state. One had better be extra certain before making it; the world now knows that acting on faulty intelligence can have highly tragic results.

Several points need to be clarified:

  • Whether President Chávez or top Venezuelan officials approved of any payments. The intercepted communications talk of contacts with a Venezuelan “boss” who is code-named “Ángel.” He is apparently someone important, but is “Ángel” Hugo Chávez? The Colombian government thinks so, but the documents made available are far from clear.
  • Whether any payments were delivered. The last communication, from mid-February, indicates that they were not, that discussions about how to deliver the goods were ongoing with the code-named individuals.
  • How serious Venezuela was about this offer. We are reading the accounts of FARC leaders who are eager to make the deal happen. We do not have a sense of the real level of enthusiasm on the part of “Ángel” and the Venezuelans.
  • Why this would be a good deal for Venezuela. If Hugo Chávez’s goal is to spread leftist “Bolivarian” politics in Latin America and Colombia, why would he believe that the FARC would be the right vehicle? Why lavish $300 million on a force that is widely despised in Colombia, and which has seen its military capabilities reduced from a late-1990s peak? It simply doesn’t make sense.

Here are translations of relevant excerpts from 36 pages of FARC communications that Colombia’s main newspaper, El Tiempo, posted to its website today (PDF). Draw your own conclusions.

  • December 23, 2007 – from FARC Secretariat member Iván Márquez, who met publicly in Caracas with Chávez in November when Chávez was an official peace facilitator, to the rest of the Secretariat:

    For two days we met with Rodríguez [most likely Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín]. … With relation to the 300, which from now on we will call “dossier,” efforts are now going forward at the instructions of the boss to the cojo [slang term for a handicapped or feeble person, similar to "cripple"], which I will explain in a separate note. Let’s call the boss Ángel, and the cojo Ernesto. [El Tiempo claims that the "boss" is Chávez and the "cojo" is a former Venezuelan foreign minister serving as a go-between.]

  • January 14, 2008 – From someone identifying himself as “Jorge,” to the FARC Secretariat:

    The “dossier” is under collective, delicate, hard-headed, able and responsible direction.

    1. Who, where, when and how will we receive and guard the dollars?

    Continue reading »

Mar 03

It has been business as usual today at Venezuela’s border crossings with Colombia.

It is not hard to imagine the Colombian military’s calculation, if indeed there was any.

Their intelligence had located top FARC leader “Raúl Reyes” about a mile inside Ecuador’s national territory. “Should we clear this with Ecuador before we act?” someone may or may not have asked.

Had there been a response, it would have probably run along the lines of, “No, we can’t trust the Ecuadorians not to alert the FARC. It’s better to strike now and deal with the consequences later. What is Ecuador going to do, send us an angry diplomatic note? We can live with that if it means killing ‘Raúl Reyes.’”

The response, of course, has gone well beyond a diplomatic note.

  • The governments of both Venezuela and Ecuador have sent troops to their borders with Colombia and recalled their ambassadors (or in the case of Venezuela, they’ve closed their embassy in Bogotá).
  • Yesterday Chávez, after observing a minute of silence in Reyes’ honor, made clear that if Colombia carried out a similar raid on Venezuelan soil it would mean “war.”
  • Colombia, for its part, released guerrilla communications captured at the site of Reyes’s killing indicating that the FARC had been in contact with high Ecuadorian government officials. This afternoon, Colombian Police Chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo released further documents hinting that the FARC received, or was to receive, $300 million from Venezuela.

Events continue to unfold. The question people have been asking us all day runs along the lines of, as one reporter put it hyperbolically, “is World War III is about to start in the Andes?”

No, war is not imminent. What is happening right now is saber-rattling. Venezuela and Ecuador are determined to increase the consequences for Colombia of its incursion into Ecuador’s territory. Those consequences have already gone well beyond what Colombia probably expected. But they are highly unlikely to include inter-state armed conflict.

Inter-state wars in Latin America are exceedingly rare. This crisis is not likely to be an exception; conflict can easily be averted.

  • Trade ties between Colombia and Venezuela are very close, and neither leader wants to jeopardize them. Venezuela in particular has begun to rely increasingly on food imports from Colombia, while a breakdown in trade would mean tens of thousands of lost jobs on both sides of the border.
  • Neither country’s military is enthusiastic about a cross-border war. Being ordered to engage in combat with Colombia would sorely test the “Bolivarian” commitment of Venezuelan officers who began their careers well before Chávez was first elected. Colombia’s armed forces, meanwhile, would no doubt prefer to continue concentrating on fighting guerrillas at home, rather than opening up a new external battle front.
  • Neither country’s population appears to be consumed by “war fever.” Colombians may be deeply angry with Chávez, but most would rather not see Colombians die fighting Venezuela. While the escalating war of words may appeal to the Chavista base in Venezuela, most Venezuelans – including even many ardent Chavistas – are no doubt unenthusiastic about either war with Colombia or allying with a militarily declining, chronically abusive force like the FARC.

While it is unlikely, though, the possibility of armed conflict cannot be dismissed.

  • An increased military presence in border zones means a greater likelihood that small incidents – shots fired, small skirmishes, even just aggressive behavior – can escalate out of control. (A DMZ exists between the two Koreas largely to avoid such incidents.) Right now, especially with so many diplomats expelled, mechanisms are not in place to quickly resolve any misunderstandings.
  • By setting up Venezuelan border units as a “tripwire” against cross-border incursions to fight the FARC – even in hot pursuit – Chávez is implicitly offering the guerrillas a safe haven in Venezuelan territory. (Unless, as is unlikely, the military units posted to the border zones ask the FARC to leave Venezuela.)

If this is so, its would be the first evidence of military (not just political) support to the FARC coming from a direct presidential order (not just the result of some local arrangement). Harboring an insurgency seeking to overthrow a neighbor’s government is certainly enough to guarantee, at minimum, a prolonged “cold war” between the two countries. And Gen. Naranjo’s allegations about the $300 million donation could cause this “cold war” to heat up, as advocates of inter-state war seek to make them a casus belli.

It is urgent that these allegations be explained, debunked or otherwise cleared up as soon as possible.

The U.S. State Department responded correctly today, calling for a diplomatic solution involving the Organization of American States. We understand that a bipartisan group of U.S. members of Congress is sending a letter to the OAS asking for their rapid involvement in defusing the crisis. It is very positive that the Bush administration has chosen not to throw gasoline on the fire by aggressively taking Colombia’s side. The call for a multilateral diplomatic response is very appropriate.

Because of the U.S. “baggage” in the region, however, this diplomatic response will require energetic backing from other governments in the region, especially those of larger countries like Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Chile. Let’s hope the OAS is up to the task of defusing a potential military confrontation. This is, after all, one of the main tasks for which the OAS was founded.