The death of “Raúl Reyes” “Ángel” and the “dossier”
Mar 032008

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.

20 Responses to “The Andean standoff”

  1. boz Says:

    I agree that war is unlikely. As I noted over on my blog, both sides are likely to lose and neither has a strategic objective that can be accomplished through an inter-state conflict. Other than being angry at each other, there is no real reason for one to attack the other.

  2. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Probably there won’t be an all out war, like that of the US to Iraq, but for those who keep well informed and have not sill dropped their brains over the pavement, US wants Chavez ousted as soon as possible.

    Interstate wars in SA are extremely rare but oil is at stake this time, and uncle greedy won’t stop short on his goal, to obliterate the communism menace in SA. while taking some economical profit therefrom. It has been like that before and not likely to be different now.

    The one pulling the strings is up north not down south.

  3. Santiago Says:


    Thanks for the much-needed update. In this time of crisis, I (and I am sure others as well) would really appreciate if you keep posting regularly. Rapidly developing events are leaving all of us outside Colombia thoroughly confused.

    Thanks. As you know, I may not always agree with you, but, boy do you provide some much-needed cold-headed analysis.

  4. jcg Says:

    I’m actively keeping track of this myself, and would of course also appreciate any continuing updates and commentary from Adam, as long as circumstances allow.

    Not much else say, at least at this time…way too many new things are still coming up every couple of hours or so.

  5. LFM Says:

    There’s so much stuff going on right now that it’s impossible to comment on even a tiny fraction. However, I will make a tiny little comment on one tiny little aspect of the whole thing, clearly not the most important aspect. The Colombian government has just said that it will accuse Chavez of sponsoring “genocide.” Whatever the merits of the case, I find it startling the lack of professionalism of Colombia’s diplomacy. I always thought that our diplomats were top-notch, even during administrations I dislike. But this time seems that passion has prevailed over professionalism. Here’s why: although I don’t know anything about international law, looks like the “genocide” charge will not fly in any court. To be sure, the FARC are guilty of heinous crimes, that’s not the point. But “genocide” is a carefully defined term in international law and, under no rigorous definition you can describe the FARC’s crimes as genocide. To bring charges against Chavez based on such a charged term, runs the risk of getting Colombia laughed out of court.

  6. Jaime Bustos Says:

    LFM, just so you know, Colombia’s government has been periodically criticized even by its most unconditional local media collaborators for the lack of professionalism and ineptness of its diplomatic staff.

  7. jcg Says:

    LFM: I’d guess that’s just a rhetorical aspect and the real accusation will involve sponsoring “terrorism”, not “genocide”, or actually both…but that’s just my view.

    Still, I agree…that’s not exactly a sign of professionalism, let alone prudence.

  8. PoliBlog ™: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » More on Ven v. Col Says:

    [...] Isacson at Plan Colombia and Beyond has an excellent rundown on the situation and I agree with his overall assessment of the likelihood of actual armed conflict between the two [...]

  9. rainer cale Says:

    I wish Adam would not use the ominous-sounding term “troop build-up” without clarifying that the ten battalions Chavez has sent to the Colombian border amount to 3,000-5,000 troops–a tactically insignificant number. The “build-up” in Ecuador I imagine is much less. Let’s all keep that in mind, shall we.

  10. Randy Paul Says:


    Nice job on the Brian Lehrer Show today. I was calling in to add my two cents, but languished on hold.

  11. Kyle Says:

    What other term should be used? Troop increase? What do you think a build-up is? Ecuador has sent roughly 3,000 troops to its border last I read. The point is, who cares whether one says troop build-up or not, we know that we are referring to 3,000 troops going to Ecuador’s border and roughly 5,000 to 7,000 going to Venezuela’s border. A battalion is usually around 500-600 troops I believe; how we describe it is moot for such a insignificant issue.

    And so yeah, they’re not going to war. Unless Venezuela invades Colombia, there will be no war.

    Colombia will not initiate anything with Venezuela and knows diplomacy will work best, and may actually be their only option for their actions. Ecuador will not invade Colombia and nor will Colombia encroach upon Ecuador’s territory anymore militarily. Like I said, unless Venezuela initiates war with Colombia, there will be no war. And I cannot see Venezuela doing that either, though Chavez tends to be a little hot-headed.

  12. Kyle Says:

    Oh yeah, LFM you are right; genocide is ridiculous in the Colombian context and that actually might literally be laughed out of the court. Though it is not the first time the government has thrown the word around. Last year, when 5 children were killed by landmines in Ricuarte, Narino, which were allegedly placed by the FARC, the government said the FARC were carrying out a genocide against the Awa people. Of course, the term did not fit in any sense, and it seems like if the FARC were doing that, the government did very little to stop it…

  13. Chris Says:

    LFM…I would argue your assertion that the FARC’s actions can not be defined as genocide. Actually, that debate is one nobody wins simply because of how we each view the situation.

    The same occurs in the international courts…it’s all really summed up as: what’s the flavor of the day. For example, the Serbs are accused of genocide, but not the Turks in Armenia all because it’s about who’s in charge and what interests are at stake.

    Rainer cale….good point. A lot of people are talking about war, yet no country is ACTUALLY mobilizing for war. Like Adam said, this is all sabre-rattling.

  14. lfm Says:

    Hi All:

    Glad to see we are in some sort of agreement about that small detail. I don’t think it’s purely academic. Chris, granted, you can stretch and twist definitions in international law quite a lot, but in this case, any definition will snap before you twist it and stretch it to fit genocide.

    I also agree that this isn’t the opening act of a war. The problem is that, absent a comprehensive peace plan, one that includes the three countries, the US and the FARC, the “cold war” will remain as a festering ulcer in the region for years to come. We need Lula, we need Lula, we need Lula!

    On the same topic, but with a twist, anybody here that follows the readers’ comments in El Tiempo and other media outlets? People are already making plans to attack Maracaibo!! Well, it would be funny if it weren’t that serious. I guess it’s of a piece with a pattern among many Colombian uber-hawks: they call voting for Uribe from the safety of Bogota their contribution to the war effort so I guess that now their postings in the internet will count as “sacrifices for the fatherland.”

  15. rainer cale Says:

    Oh, and does anyone besides me consider it, well, conspicuous to say the least, that Reyes’ laptop survived the bombardment intact?

  16. Nobcentral Says:

    The use of the word “Genocide” was rather silly but I found their suggestion that they would refer the issue to the International Criminal Court particularly clever. Even if they can’t win a case against Chavez, the process will bring an awful lot of independent scrutiny to his activities vis-a-vis the FARC.

    It also is not a given that they couldn’t win a case against Chavez. The ICC has 4 areas of jurisdiction: 1. Genocide, 2. Crimes against humanity, 3. war crimes, and 4. the crime of aggression.

    Sponsoring imprisonment in violation of international law, among other things, is a crime punishable by the ICC. How the case would be argued and prosecuted is up for discussion, but I don’t find Colombia’s intent to be implausible. Just the genocide part is implausible.

    And Turkey isn’t actionable under the ICC because the ICC isn’t a retroactive court. The Armenian Genocide happened like 80 years before the formation of the ICC and about 30 years before the codification of the UN Charter – meaning that any discussion of it being a “genocide” or not is just that – a discussion.

  17. Tambopaxi Says:

    ..Ecuadorian MinDefense said last night in press conference that GOE is sending 3,200 additional troops to the northern provinces to back up approximately 12,000 military and cops who’ve been up in those provinces for some years.

    Colombian press says that GOC will not/not be sending troops to its borders in effort to keep things cool. Ironically, in the past, the GOE has complained to the GOC that it hasn’t stationed security forces in its southern provinces sufficient to keep the peace, and that this has resulted in instablity in the area which has sent Colombian refugees into Ecuador. I haven’t been up to the border in a couple of years, but I was at three Ecuadorian border crossings with Colombia in early 2005. At that time, while the Ecuadorian sides of the crossings bustled with uniforms, the Colombian sides were eerily quiet, almost deserted. I shouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same even now….

  18. Randy Paul Says:

    Oh, and does anyone besides me consider it, well, conspicuous to say the least, that Reyes’ laptop survived the bombardment intact?

    Not knowing where it was kept and where it was found, I’ll reserve judgment.

  19. Jose David Says:

    Read the script:
    1. Chavez and Correa negotiate for hostage swaps with the FARC
    2. Colombia tries to derail talks
    3. Talks succeed, and some hostages are released, with more in the offing
    4. Colombia is politicaly embarrased for its hypocrisy
    5. Colombia locates and attacks FARC leader inside Ecuador to regain political ground
    6. Uribe lies about it to Correa, but is quickly found out
    7. Correa and Chavez are outraged, cut off diplomatic ties, and send troops to the border
    8. Colombia claims to have found laptops with the FARC containing:
    a) Correa and his interior minister have met with the FARC and a doing deals (never mind that, while true, the deals were towards freing the hostages, and the Colombian government knew about it without any “laptops”.)
    b) Chavez is paying the FARC millions of dollars, HUNDREDS of millions!!!
    c) Because the first two distortions and lies will eventually prove to be hollow and pathetic attempts at smearing the two outraged presidents, Colombian authorities concoct a scare campaign around the FARC having uranium, thereby “proving” that they “really are terrorists”, and probably have links with Al Qaeda, or Iran, or Hezbollah, or someone (maybe it’s Mossad, or the Grinch, or someone. Vanunu?). This accusation has the added advantage of being utterly unprovable, but helps feed the scare campaign (read: “terrorism”) being doled out by the Colombian government and U.S.

    There won’t be a war, by the way. This was all an attempt by Colombia to derail the talks for hostage swaps, disrupt their communications with western countries (like France), and put pressure on the FARC militarily in the vain hope that Uribe’s prefered solution – military, a lot of military – will work.

    It is also aimed at undermining possible support for the March 6 international protests for Peace and Justice in Colombia.

    Not gonna work.

    by the way, for the hope of fairness and justice, Uribe is also going to hand himself over to the Intl. court, along with his mass-murderers henchmen.

  20. msg Says:

    Check the videos when the laptops were found. They were inside a special protecting Pelican case. Virtually indestructible, waterproof cases.

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