At dinnertime this evening, I had just lit the grill when the phone started buzzing in my pocket. Two calls in a row from U.S. reporters.
How strange to be standing in my backyard, barbecue tongs in hand, answering questions about a criminal investigation of several colleagues and acquaintances. (I suppose, though, that there are many people here in Washington to whom this sort of thing happens all the time.)
Only a little while before, Colombian Prosecutor-General Mario IguarÃ¡n had announced that several Colombian politicians and peace facilitators, as well as a few citizens of Ecuador, Venezuela and the United States, were being formally investigated for ties to the FARC. The allegations are based on information culled from laptop computers and other media recovered at the site in Ecuador where, on March 1, Colombia’s army killed FARC leader RaÃºl Reyes.
While several of the names are unfamiliar, Prosecutor IguarÃ¡n’s list of those under investigation includes people who are well known for their efforts to convince the FARC to participate in negotiations. Because of their work, this weblog has interviewed or discussed some of them.
Those under investigation include:
- Liberal Party Senator Piedad CÃ³rdoba,
- Democratic Pole Party Congressman Wilson Borja,
- Democratic Pole Party Congresswoman Gloria InÃ©s RamÃrez,
- U.S. development consultant Jim Jones,
- Colombian politician Ãlvaro Leyva,
- Carlos Lozano, editor of the Colombian Communist Party newspaper Voz,
- Telesur reporter William Parra,
- Columnist LÃ¡zaro Viveros,
- Liliana Patricia Obando, director of an NGO called Frunceagro [edit 5/27: the NGO is Fensuagro, the National Federation of Agricultural Farming Unions],
- Venezuelan politician AmÃlkar Figueroa,
- Ecuadorian politician MarÃa Augusta Calle, and
- IvÃ¡n Larrea, brother of Ecuador’s interior minister.
Beyond expressing relief that I’ve never written the FARC any e-mails, I found it hard to offer any useful observations in this evening’s phone conversations. (As evidenced here.) There is too much that we don’t know, particularly about what the computer files say, and what possible criminal charges these individuals might end up facing.
But we can speculate, which is still a useful exercise because it shows how complicated this issue is. Let’s start by asking: What, in the end, might these people be charged with?
- Unauthorized contact with an armed group? If that is indeed a criminal offense in Colombia, they are all guilty, as is anyone else who has e-mailed, called or visited the FARC without express prior authorization from the Colombian government. If a law against such contacts exists, however, I have never seen it enforced before.
- Offering material support, like weapons, money or protection? In the case of those under investigation whom I know personally, I highly doubt it. All of them are repulsed by Colombia’s violence and alarmed by the conflict’s degradation. I cannot imagine them doing anything that would add to the killing. (According to El Tiempo, though, the Venezuelan individual – whom I don’t know – may have been a go-between in the FARC’s efforts to get weapons from Caracas.)
- Offering advice? Perhaps advice was offered, and this is where it gets tricky. Whether advice constituted support for the FARC depends on what kind of advice it was.
Tactical or strategic advice? This is unlikely – the list includes no military masterminds who would have much to teach the FARC about guerrilla warfare.
Political advice? Again, perhaps – but there are two kinds of political advice in question here, one malign and one benign.
- Political advice intended to help the FARC achieve power, including local power, or to enter into power-sharing alliances? If the advice is found to fit in this category, those who offered it are in some trouble. This is the sort of support that many of the “para-politicians” are accused of providing. (Though of course many of them are accused of far more serious crimes like conspiring to kill or intimidate opponents, or to steal elections.)
- Political advice to move the FARC’s thinking in a less militaristic, more flexible, more peace-friendly direction? Let’s assume the goal of a communication with the FARC is to encourage them to free hostages, be more open to negotiations, or simply to stop violating international humanitarian law. Clearly, one strong way to make the case is to convince the FARC that it is in their own self-interest to do so. That essentially means offering political advice.
If the advice comes out like, for example, “you can improve your image with the working class if you develop a more relevant negotiating agenda” or “you could really hurt Uribe politically by freeing Ingrid Betancourt,” this advice is going to read poorly in the context of an e-mail.
But however sympathetically they word it, there is a real need for people who are in a position to advise this isolated guerrilla group that the era of armed political struggle is over in Colombia and that it is time to come out of the jungle.
If the computer files reveal the “support” fits in this last category, then the prosecutors won’t have much of a case. It would reveal the accused to be well-intentioned, even if they violated the Colombian government’s legal monopoly on contact with illegal armed groups.
But again, we don’t know enough. We really have no idea what is in those files, and the rumored allegations surfacing in Colombia’s press include some troubling possibilities, such as that of would-be facilitators having visited guerrilla camps where hostages were held.
Those who have talked to the press so far – Borja, CÃ³rdoba, Lozano – insist that they have done nothing wrong and that they are willing to cooperate with authorities at the first opportunity. These investigations should proceed quickly, and the accused should promptly be able to confront the evidence against them.