Lessons from yesterday’s House vote Two cheers for the Senate
Jul 042005

“Colombia’s relations with Ecuador are ‘Venezuelanizing,’” proclaimed Sunday’s edition of the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. This is an overstatement, but things have definitely changed in Quito since an uprising forced President Lucio Gutiérrez to resign and leave the country in April.

His replacement, former vice-president Alfredo Palacio, has taken a much more critical stance regarding U.S. policy toward the Andes.

Though he ran as a leftist-populist in 2002, Gutiérrez had angered Ecuador’s left by taking a highly compliant attitude toward the Bush administration. Palacio has been more willing to challenge the U.S. government.

He promised closer oversight of the Manta naval base, where U.S. military and contract personnel maintain a presence under a 10-year counter-narcotics agreement. (The Defense Department has changed the name it gave to the Manta base from “Forward Operating Location” (FOL) to “Cooperative Security Location” (CSL).) His government refused to exempt U.S. military personnel in Ecuador from the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction, thus sacrificing all non-drug military aid, under U.S. law, for the foreseeable future. The Palacio government has taken a stronger line on aerial herbicide spraying in Colombian coca-growing areas near the Ecuadorian border, alleging that it is causing damage in Ecuadorian territory. The Ecuadorians have increasingly criticized Plan Colombia, which Gutiérrez had supported. “Plan Colombia, which is coming to an end after five years, has not achieved its desired results, and the situation remains as it was before,” said Interior Minister Mauricio Gándara in mid-June.

Relations with Colombia flared up last week, after the FARC staged a massive attack on military units guarding oil wells in Teteyé, a town just across the San Miguel river from Ecuador in the municipality of Puerto Asís, Putumayo. About 300 FARC guerrillas killed nineteen Colombian soldiers, making June 25 the deadliest day of Álvaro Uribe’s term in office. This was the third large-scale attack on a Colombian military target in Putumayo since February. Though the other two attacks were ambushes instead of a planned strike like Teteyé, many observers asked, as an El Tiempo article read, “How far has the government’s security policy really gone in Putumayo, a department which had been one of the central objectives of Plan Colombia?”

Some Colombian observers pointed their fingers at their neighbor to the south, arguing that the guerrillas used Ecuadorian territory to launch the Teteyé attack, and that the guerrillas avoided the army’s counterattack by crossing back into Ecuador. The mayor of Puerto Asís, Jorge Coral, argued that the guerrillas always “commit crimes here and go to hide over there (in Ecuador).” Visiting the site of the attack, President Uribe added that the guerrillas “take advantage of the nearness of our brother country.”

Ecuador then escalated the war of words. Interior Minister Gándara speculated about the possibility of repatriating Colombian citizens in Ecuador illegally (a number that, by most estimates, exceeds 400,000 people). In an Ecuadorian radio interview late last week, Quito’s foreign minister, Antonio Parra, insisted that “there is a civil war” in Colombia – a position the Uribe government emphatically rejects – adding that Colombia “has abandoned its sovereign duties along its southern border,” and that Ecuador “is neither with Uribe nor with the FARC.” He added further, “We are not going to get involved in the problem. We are going to limit ourselves to defending our own sovereignty, and we ask Colombia to do the same on its side of the border.” For his part, President Palacio said that he would do everything possible to maintain order in Ecuador without getting involved “in anybody’s warmaking process.”

President Uribe warned Palacios to use more “verbal prudence,” and the Colombian Foreign Ministry responded with a communiqué warning Ecuador that “No government can be neutral before a terrorist aggression against a democracy.” Scandalized, Semana magazine wrote, “In as many words, [Minister] Parra declared himself neutral toward the internal conflict. Even Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, had been forced to rectify a similar declaration.”

The Ecuadorian point of view, of course, is different. Columnist Grace Jaramillo, writing in yesterday’s edition of Quito’s El Comercio, noted that “Álvaro Uribe’s government, instead of lowering tensions, insists on pressuring the Ecuadorian Government to make a decision, much in the style of George W. Bush: ‘You’re either with me or against me.’”

While Uribe and Palacio will both be at a coffee-producers’ meeting next week in Costa Rica, the only interaction between both countries’ officials so far was a rather unproductive meeting last Thursday between the heads of both countries armed forces (Colombian Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina and Ecuadorian Vice-Admiral Manuel Zapater). While the Ecuadorians agreed to do what they could about armed-group activity on their side of the border, they refused to consider joint operations, which could involve Colombian troops on Ecuadorian soil and a much greater likelihood of combat between Ecuadorian troops and the FARC.

Though it only seems to be controversial now that Ecuador’s government has grown more critical, the FARC’s ability to operate on the Ecuadorian side of the two countries’ 400 mile-long border has long been common knowledge. Guerrillas, usually unarmed, have taken routine rest and relaxation in Ecuador for at least twenty years; border towns have an inordinate number of health clinics, pharmacies, grocers, bars and brothels catering largely to such “visiting Colombians.” According to Putumayo’s governor, Carlos Palacios, “For years, this entire border has been a corridor of FARC activity. They constantly go to Ecuador, that is where they do all of their logistics, their stockpiles of food, and where they have some encampments. In Ecuador the comandantes and low-ranking combatants are even getting health care.”

Analysts have long spoken of a “gentleman’s agreement” between the FARC and the Ecuadorian military: if the guerrillas do not harm Ecuadorians, the military will not fight them. Governor Palacios goes further: “Instead of permissiveness or complicity there is terror: the Ecuadorian Army is simply afraid of the FARC.”

Whether this is true or not, it is certain that combat is rare between Ecuador’s military and Colombian guerrillas (or paramilitaries, for that matter). Ecuador has another important reason for avoiding the ire of the guerrillas: its border zone, especially the province of Sucumbíos across the border from Putumayo, is Ecuador’s oil heartland, with numerous wells and a new pipeline going to the coast. To provoke the FARC into bombing Ecuadorian oil infrastructure would be to deal a strong blow to Ecuador’s economy.

The FARC have made clear that they will retaliate, as in a recent missive by Swedish journalist Dick Emanuelsson, who frequently interviews FARC leaders: “It could be that the war will cross the borders and the FARC will assist the first guerrilla presence [in Ecuador] if the Quito government takes part in Colombia’s internal war. It would be a historic error that could have fatal consequences for Ecuador.”

Meanwhile, Ecuadorian officials have a good point when they say that Colombia has not done enough to secure its side of the border. Speaking of his own department of Putumayo, Governor Palacios points out that “The guerrillas’ activity is strong, especially in rural areas because the urban areas are 90 percent controlled by the paramilitaries.” When asked what this leaves for the Colombian armed forces in Putumayo, Palacios responds, “If we compare the 18,000 men who are operating in Plan Patriota with the 2,500 that are today in the department to cover 25,000 square kilometers [about the size of Maryland] along the border with Ecuador and Peru, we can conclude that we don’t have the ability to respond today.”

Clearly, Ecuador has some strong incentives not to pick a fight with the FARC. And it has not done so, even though most U.S. military aid to Ecuador under Plan Colombia and the Andean Counterdrug Initiative has been aimed at strengthening the Ecuadorian armed forces’ presence at the northern border. Under Lucio Gutiérrez, this meant the opening of new military posts, lots of new vehicles and equipment, and the deployment of 8,000 troops and police to the border region (many of whom had been stationed at the Peruvian border since the brief 1995 Peru-Ecuador war). Nonetheless, this beefed-up presence doesn’t seem to have brought a major increase in Ecuadorian activity against Colombian armed groups.

Beyond possible “gentlemen’s agreements” or “fear” of the FARC, another reason is the lack of continuity in Ecuador’s own government and military. Ecuador has had six presidents in the last nine years and, complains Colombia’s Gen. Ospina, three armed-forces chiefs since he assumed command of Colombia’s military in late 2003. The change of presidents in April, though, is the one most strongly felt in Colombia. Though most Ecuadorians strongly disliked him, Lucio Gutiérrez was a favorite of the Uribe government, as he had deployed troops to the border and oversaw the capture of high-level FARC commander “Simón Trinidad” in Quito in January 2004.

The Uribe government and the United States will be campaigning hard, then, to keep Palacio from “going neutral” on them. It’s not clear, though, that they will have any influence. Ecuador’s new stand-offishness is largely the result of internal politics. Neither current U.S. policy toward the Andes nor Plan Colombia are popular with broad sectors of Ecuadorian society. They are especially disliked by Ecuador’s left and its well-organized indigenous movement, whose opposition to Lucio Gutiérrez was a strong factor in his removal. If he is to avoid that fate, Palacio, who comes from a center-left background anyway, will have to take those sectors into account, and this will mean keeping his distance from Plan Colombia and saying “no” to the United States more often.

Ecuador’s government is probably likely to choose its words more wisely in the future. Instead of “civil war,” its leaders are likely to say “internal conflict.” Instead of “neutrality,” they will speak of “avoiding military involvement.” The words will change. But the actions will not. For the foreseeable future, do not expect Ecuador to be an enthusiastic partner in President Uribe’s U.S.-supported hard-line military effort and fumigation campaigns in the border zone.

One Response to “No more Mr. Nice Ecuador”

  1. jcg Says:

    I don’t really think that Gutierrez was too sincere about his so-called “alliance” with Colombia and/or the U.S. (he didn’t allow joint operations either, for example). After all, apparently Mr. Gutierrez, when he was the darling of the Ecuadorian left, allegedly flirted with the FARC and reached some sort of unofficial, unwritten “agreement” of non-intervention against members of that armed group. I guess that helps to show that Gutierrez was more of an opportunist than anything else (and since he played with fire, he eventually burned himself).

    Now, Ecuador obviously has the right to limit its involvement in Colombia’s conflict (though imposing visas won’t exactly prevent guerrilla or military operations from crossing over), however, neutrality per se is a different thing (it implies granting the FARC international recognition and denying any sort of cooperation with current Colombian authorities, even in other matters not directly related to the border or the issue of fumigations, such as simple criminality, trade, etc.), and that’s the message Ecuador’s chancellor transmitted originally (even if not intentionally, in the end).

    Still, the fact is that FARC does have transit points in Ecuador and much of the southern border, so in all likelihood the mayor of Puerto Asis wasn’t exactly making things up. Yes, Colombia has its own (larger) responsibilities for the attack, its consequences and its buildup, but neither Ecuador nor the other neighboring countries are in a position to truly feign ignorance, full neutrality and/or indifference (not saying that they have, though some of their citizens definitely wish they did assume such attitudes).

    It’s true enough that the Palacios administration will probably not change its current position on the subject, for the sake of internal politics as it has been mentioned, but exactly where that’ll take the overall situation in the long run, is anyone’s guess.

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