In a few days, Interpol will likely certify the authenticity of guerrilla communications from computer drives and other media that the Colombian military recovered at the site where, on March 1, they killed FARC leader RaÃºl Reyes. In advance of this announcement, the Colombian government appears to be rolling out new information by spoon-feeding leaks to selected media outlets.
Major new leaks appeared in the May 1 Miami Herald and on page 1 of Friday’s Wall Street Journal. The Journal piece made such a splash that it appears to have driven up the price of oil by more than $2 a barrel, as traders worried that new indications of possible Venezuelan aid to the FARC might cause the United States to add Venezuela to its list of terrorist-sponsoring states.
As before, the documents in question are communications between guerrilla leaders. Several offer accounts of meetings with officials of the Venezuelan government, some of them high-ranking. No documents or writings from the Venezuelans themselves appear; the FARC communications only reflect the guerrillas’ version of events.
The documents do hint that these Venezuelan officials may have been committing – or at least offering to commit – some very improper acts. In chronological order:
- “A difficult guy”: Miami Herald: “The e-mails also suggest that as far back as 2005, the rebels attempted to win favors from ChÃ¡vez, a man they characterized as ‘a difficult guy’ in charge of a country ‘with important reserves, useful for our purposes.’”
This seems to confirm that while the FARC had contacts with the ChÃ¡vez government, they were not close – at least at the highest levels – until 2007.
By 2005, it was known that some Venezuelan arms were ending up in FARC hands and that local Venezuelan officials – probably more out of corruption than solidarity – were selling them weapons and allowing guerrillas to cross into Venezuela. Similar phenomena have been alleged in the remote border zones that Colombia shares with several of its neighbors. It is impossible to establish whether the permissive environment the guerrillas enjoyed in the border zone was the result of official ChÃ¡vez government policy.
There appear to have been some closer contacts with the ChÃ¡vez government’s top levels in early 2007, after ChÃ¡vez’s December 2006 re-election, as he began a new term with a noticeably more radical program than before. These became far closer, of course, after August 2007, when Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe “authorized” ChÃ¡vez to serve as a facilitator of dialogues with the FARC.
- Presence in Venezuela: WSJ: “[A]ccording to one 2005 email, from Jorge BriceÃ±o (known as Mono Jojoy, a top FARC military commander), the rebels at that time had some 370 guerrillas and urban sympathizers operating inside Venezuela.”
The figure of 370 FARC guerrillas and civilian sympathizers in Venezuela in 2005 tells us little about official Venezuelan support at the time. The guerrillas may have had similar numbers in Ecuador (which at the time had no leftist government), and perhaps smaller but significant numbers in Peru, Brazil and Panama.
- Guerrilla warfare training: Miami Herald: “In an e-mail dated Apr. 18, 2005, ‘IvÃ¡n’ writes to ‘RaÃºl’ that somebody he calls ‘Tino,’ who has a top responsibility for handling the Popular Defense Units — the armed civilian militias that ChÃ¡vez created to defend his Bolivarian revolution — is interested in getting his troop leaders trained in guerrilla warfare with the rebels.”
This is genuinely troubling. Again, though, it is impossible to determine whether ChÃ¡vez or any other top leaders were seeking this assistance, whether “Tino” was acting on his own, or even whether the guerrillas’ account of the discussion with “Tino” – whoever he is – is accurate.
- Loan request: Miami Herald: “The Herald also has seen one e-mail dated January 2007 in which a FARC leader named Jorge BriceÃ±o, also known as ‘Mono Jojoy,’ writes to the Secretariat that he proposes to ask ChÃ¡vez for a loan of $250 million, ‘to be repaid when we take power.’”WSJ: “In one document dated January 2007, one top FARC commander speaks of a ‘loan’ for $250 million to buy arms which the FARC will pay back once it has reached power. ‘Don’t think of it as a loan, think of it as solidarity,’ says Mr. [RamÃ³n] RodrÃguez Chacin, the interior minister, in another document.”
It hardly stretches the imagination that the FARC asked Venezuela for money, perhaps on repeated occasions. We still have seen no indication that the Venezuelans said “yes.”
On the other hand, RodrÃguez ChacÃn’s alleged comment would indicate that, at best, the Venezuelans had not said “no.” (It was RodrÃguez ChacÃn who, while helping retrieve released FARC hostages Consuelo GonzÃ¡lez and Clara Rojas in January, told one of the FARC captors on camera, “We are following your struggle. Maintain this spirit, maintain your strength and count on us. … Take care, comrades.”)
- “Bazookas”: WSJ: “In another email dated early 2007, FARC commander IvÃ¡n MÃ¡rquez describes meetings with the Venezuelan military’s intelligence chief, Gen. Hugo Carvajal, and another Venezuelan officer to talk about ‘finances, arms and border policy.’ Mr. MÃ¡rquez relates that the Venezuelans will provide the guerrillas some 20 ‘very powerful bazookas,’ which Colombian military officials believe is a reference to rocket-propelled grenade launchers.”
- Arms shipments: WSJ: “At the meeting with Gen. Carvajal, another Venezuelan general is described as offering the port of Maracaibo to facilitate arms shipments to the guerrillas. The general suggests piggybacking on shipments from Russia — from which Venezuela itself is buying everything from Kalashnikovs to jet fighters — to ‘include some containers destined to the FARC’ with various arms for the guerrillas’ own use.”
- “Rockets”: WSJ: “One email, apparently sent by a FARC commander known as ‘Timochenko’ to the guerrillas’ ruling body in March 2007, describes meetings with Venezuelan naval-intelligence officers who offer the FARC assistance in getting ‘rockets.’ The Venezuelans also offer to help a FARC guerrilla travel to the Middle East to learn how to use the rockets. Colombian military analysts believe the reference is to shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles.”
- “Rest areas”: WSJ: “Another email describes a November  meeting between two FARC commanders and Mr. ChÃ¡vez. The commanders, Ricardo Granda and IvÃ¡n MÃ¡rquez, report back in the email that Mr. ChÃ¡vez gave orders to create ‘rest areas’ and hospital zones for the guerrillas to use on the Venezuelan side of the border.”
- Training in guerrilla tactics: Miami Herald: “‘[Venezuelan Interior Minister RamÃ³n] RodrÃguez ChacÃn inquired about the possibility that we share our experience in guerrilla warfare, something that they call assymetric war. They want operational tactics, explosives, bolivarian education, jungle camps, ambushes, logistic, mobility . . . , all of it thinking about an adequate response to a U.S. invasion,’ writes ‘IvÃ¡n’ in the e-mail, dated Nov. 14, 2007.”
These are the first guerrilla documents indicating offers of Venezuelan material support before December 2007, when the discussions of a possible offer of “300″ (300 what? The Colombians think “millions of dollars”) apparently began.
In light of this additional information – and in the likelihood that more is probably coming – here are three observations.
1. There is little doubt that the documents are real and untampered with. Interpol is very likely to conclude that, and it stands to reason – it would be hugely embarrassing for Colombia to be discovered to have been tampering with the computer files. We have to proceed on the assumption that these guerrilla communications are real. Venezuela’s denials of their authenticity constitute a weak defense.
2. More questionable is the accuracy of the guerrillas’ version of events. We are forced to rely on accounts from far-flung guerrilla leaders who have a strong incentive to portray their overtures to Venezuela as successful. For the FARC, getting material support from Caracas was probably the main benefit they hoped to win from these contacts, so anything that even appeared to hint at progress toward getting arms or cash was prominently reported, possibly in an exaggerated way.
The Venezuelans do appear to have welcomed contacts with the FARC and to have discussed – and certainly not refused – possible material support. But we must not view guerrilla communications as the literal truth. This is the same guerrilla leadership, after all, that promised in December to turn over a child hostage who had in fact slipped out of their custody two years earlier. Too much of their information is hearsay and the reports of commanders seeking to put the most positive possible spin on events.
3. Venezuela may still have been up to something improper. Is the proof solid enough to seek sanctions? There is a compelling reason to hold out for a higher standard of evidence: the consequences are serious.
If Venezuela was truly conspiring to aid a group seeking to overthrow a neighboring government, then Latin America is facing its greatest security crisis in many years.
Venezuela would be in direct violation of Article 2 of the UN Charter. (”All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”) Colombia would have the right to go to the Security Council to seek international sanctions against Venezuela.
Venezuela would also be offering material support to a group on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The State Department would then be compelled to add Venezuela to its list of terrorist-sponsoring states (alongside Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria). The list of resulting sanctions would include requiring all trade with Venezuela – including all oil purchases – to be specifically licensed by the Department of the Treasury.
This would generate enough uncertainty to roil already volatile global oil markets, further driving up U.S. gas prices in the midst of an election year.
That is probably reason enough for the U.S. government to hold out for more solid evidence on Venezuela-FARC ties. The guerrillas’ side of the story is worrisome, but does not go far enough “beyond a reasonable doubt” to justify the harsh response that U.S. and international law would require.