HASTA LA VICTORIA SIEMPRE

2008

 

I am starting to feel a little paranoid. I see irregulars, guerillas and paramilitaries at every table.  I am beginning to feel surrounded. The problem is that we are in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and the war, they say, is over the border in Colombia.

As I collect my laundry, three chicos are in the shop at the same time.  It is a regular routine in this part of town, the Mariscal, or the ‘zone’ as it is known locally, where the majority of foreign tourists hang out. All three men are in their early twenties, dressed New York Latino style: baggy trousers, t-shirts, sneakers, everything except the hoods. Nothing noteworthy, nothing more than a bit of a swagger, a hint of cool, a suggestion of danger. It is not that unusual.

But there is something unusual about these three. They are not tourists. Their Colombian accents, their severe, military style haircuts give them away, lend more than an edge to their swagger.  After they leave, I speak to the woman who owns the place. ‘I didn’t know the Colombian army holidayed in Quito,’ I say, using a cautiously low tone. ‘ I don’t trust Colombians,’ she replies. ‘Don’t you think there’s a lot of them around.’ ‘Yes, but not like these. No, not like these.’

Are they military? Probably not, not with this kind of look and attitude. More likely they are guerrillas or paramilitaries.  But then who knows. And that is the problem, you never do. What you can be certain of is that all sides are here: on holiday, taking a break from life in the forest or the mountains, looking for someone or other, for information, threatening, coercing, intimidating.

Part of the fallout from Colombian attack on Ecuadorian territory on March 1st is that we now know, for those who didn’t already, or were unwilling to think about it, that the Guerilla, the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to be more precise, are here, somewhere, amongst us, like fish in water. Before Raul Reyes, the FARC second in command, was killed in the raid, he came and went, unrecognized, dressed, like these three, in civilian clothes. What we also know, is that where the FARC are, the paramilitaries are sure to be close behind. They are also hard to see, impossible to recognize, or at least be certain, unless you know, unless, like Maria Agusta Calle, they put a gun in your face.

Calle is a representative of the governing Alianza País party in the Constitutional Assembly, presently debating the new constitution in Montecristi, close to the port of Manta on the Pacific coast. According to the Colombian government, documents found in the now famous computer belonging to Reyes, link her to the FARC. Messages from ‘Alicia’ (Calle’s cell name, according to the Colombians) were published together with photographs showing her in the company of Reyes’ daughter, and a well known FARC representative in Ecuador, who was said to have been killed in the March 1st raid. Calle has strenuously denied the accusations, and has stated that as a journalist it was part of her work to interview people. And then again, if photographs count as proof of FARC sympathies, ex President Lucio Gutiérrez (who once promised to be the US’ most faithful ally in the region) would be suspect number one: he was photographed with Raul Reyes himself.

Conveniently, from the Colombian government point of view, Calle is also the Ecuadorian representative of the Venezuelan regional news channel Telesur , which allows them to make a putative link with Venezuela. Although, to be honest, Telesur Representative is more of an honorary title than anything else; the network has few subscribers in the country.  That is small comfort however, when you are looking down the barrel of a gun, when your children’s lives have been threatened.

Later the same week I am in a local café watching the Champions League semi-final between Manchester United and Barcelona. The place is full, and I am sharing a table with a couple who support Barcelona. There is something familiar about the woman. I am pretty sure I do not know her personally, but her look is certainly familiar: pleasant, straightforward, somewhat earnest face, straight unadorned black hair, polo neck sweater and plain flat shoes. To me she looks like a guerrillera. We talk about the game; she likes football. I can’t make out her accent: she and her companion speak softly. He is wearing a silk bomber jacket with a Magpies logo emblazoned on it. ‘Newcastle?’ I ask. ‘No, I got it in the Philippines’ he says. I’m tempted to mention that I also know a few people in the Philippines, to drop a few names just to judge the reaction, but in reality there is little opportunity. The game absorbs us until the final minute.  Manchester win, Barcelona sink deeper into a bad season. My ‘friends’ are disappointed.  I wish them good luck, and add conspiratorially ‘Hasta la Victoria Siempre’. But, of course, it could be that they were simply tourists, and bemused by my odd attitude. Who knows?

For me it’s almost become a game: spot the combatant. Fortunately, it’s a game with few consequences in the capital. Quito is generally quiet and, as far as we know, no one has been killed by the enemy, at least in the ‘zone’.  And we all like football here.  If my football fanatic table companions are indeed FARC, then I have no doubt they are not alone. It is quite possible that the well muscled Israeli men I can see over at another table are security ‘advisors’ to the Colombian Military, or that in a café just down the street, possibly talking to other gringos, their counterpart paramilitaries were enjoying the game, just like us. And perhaps Colombian or US military intelligence agents were also watching. Maybe they knew the result before the game was over.

Quito may be relatively peaceful, but closer to the Northern border the environment becomes more complex and dangerous.  Later that same week I find myself at a meeting about 100 miles from the frontier, in a community center situated in a steep valley where a white, presumably clean, river rushes and bounds over the huge boulders that try to block its path. When the gathering is over, the interminable speeches finally terminated and the entertainment under way, we move inside to the community hall as the rain starts to fall.

The motive for the celebration is victory over a Canadian mining company that was finally forced to leave due to pressure from the locals. The battle was long and far from easy, everyone is understandably in a good mood, and we sing and dance well into the evening. Amongst the crowd, I spot a man I had spoken to earlier in the day when we were held up by a landslide on the road into the village. At least I think it is the same man, his face is familiar, but this time he is dressed in green fatigues and wellington boots. A couple of people from the area who are paying attention, and are still relatively sober, remark that he looks like he is FARC.

I say hello and he invites me to step outside to talk. He suggests that I go with him to a local farm with a ‘veterinarian’ who is travelling with him, and a driver who stands close by, saying nothing. I decline politely, saying that I will be staying the night in another community close by.  They seem to lose interest and I see nothing more of them. When I ask, no one seems to know who they are. ‘Do you see anything of the FARC in these parts?’  I ask my hosts later, as we drink our hot chocolate and eat home-made cheese before turning in.  ‘No, not around here, not as far as we know…….’   But I wonder if they do know, and consider it ‘unwise’ to say anything. After all, we are not too far from the border and the guerrilla probably has a fair number of sympathisers  in the area. In retrospect it seems  more likely than not that my ‘friend’ was indeed a guerrillero, and that I unknowingly had an interview with kidnappers. I was lucky. With a few more drinks under my belt, at this moment I might be enjoying lunch with Ingrid Betancourt.*[1]

[1] Colombian presidential candidate who was held by the FARC for 8 years.

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IN SEARCH OF ANTANAS MOKUS: The light is green but no-one is moving

09 September 2010

I was recently in Colombia. I like Bogotá. It’s a big city that seems to have everything: good writers, a Botero Museum, lots of places to drink good coffee, people who actually want to help you, a mass transit system that seems to function, at least most of the time. Colombia is also the land of deserts, heaven for the sweet toothed.  But apart from personal vices[i], the visit had other highlights. The country’s bicentenary was being celebrated (20th July) and the visit also coincided with the period between the recent Presidential elections and the inauguration of Juan Manuel Santos as the country’s new head of state (August 9th). An interesting time. Not least because of the surprisingly populous march held by the regime’s opponents the day after the official celebrations[ii], and the friction between Venezuela and Colombia resulting from still President Alvaro Uribe’s accusations that the neighbouring country was sheltering terrorists, more commonly known as the FARC.

The visit was not work related, but I did have a goal: to interview Antanas Mokus, the Green Party Candidate who lost the Presidential election, but was supported by more than a quarter of Colombian voters, i.e. those that did actually vote[iii].  Despite the loss, there was a sense at the time that something important was happening. The Mokus Green Party campaign was different, a veritable lungfull of clean air, offering  hope for a country plagued by the decades of internal violence, drugs and corruption.  It could make things happen.

But I was never able to find Sr. Mokus or, what seemed far more surprising, the Green Party.  I looked everywhere, I tried all the phone numbers and e-mail addresses I could find, I even found a man who gave me two telephone numbers he said would help, on the condition that I didn’t mention his name. That turned out to be less of a problem than I imagined: neither of the numbers was ever answered. I once even thought I had found the party´s head office. Two people, a local vendor and a security guard assured me that it was close by, just around the corner. And I found it. They were right. It was the party headquarters, of the Polo Democrático.  A friend finally suggested that his brother, who apparently lived behind  Mokus’ house, was willing to go and knock on his door. But apart from the invasion of privacy issue, by then it was too late. It was time to go back to Quito. So I contented myself with the few books I had bought, and the experiences the stay had brought.

With hindsight

Two months later the whole episode seems more curious than anything else. The world has moved on. Santos has installed a massive majority in the Colombian Congress, appears to have reunited the Liberal Party, has been making comforting noises internationally, heads a government more technocratic than ideological, especially when compared to the previous regime, and has distanced himself from his predecessor. Santos is his own man. And Alvaro Uribe? Well, he appears to have disappeared.  Off the map. Into the special house/fortress designed for him in a military sector of the city.

With time the search for Antanas Mokus and the Green Party also seems less puzzling.  I’m no longer surprised that I couldn’t locate either. As I now realise, the Green Party  doesn’t exist. Never did exist. It was an electoral apparatus. That is not to say that the objectives of the people that participated in, ran, and supported the Mokus- Fajardo campaign were a sham. Far from it.  The movement embodied a great deal of sincerity and hope, as well as counting on heavy weight political backers such as Luis Garzón and Enrique  Peñalosa, both ex mayors of Bogotá and, of course, on the vice presidential candidate, Sergio Fajardo, himself a popular ex mayor of Medellin. But there was never any infrastructure. And I can’t help asking myself what would have happened if Mokus had won. Perhaps the voters asked themselves the same question.

Perhaps everything would have been taken in stride. After all neither Mokus nor Garzón is a political neophyte.  Perhaps if he had won, everything would have seemed normal enough.  Perhaps the worst thing, at least in institutional, party political terms, was to lose. If the head of foam that surrounded the campaign in the first round had gone flat by the second, the beer itself has now drained from the glass. The party, such as it is, appears to be in a state of paralysis. Fajardo has gone, dissociating himself from the group after complaining of being treated with a lack of seriousness. The campaign, he has said, lost momentum when he also lost it, after falling from his appropriately green bicycle and fracturing his hip. The statement has the taste of sour grapes, but it does seem evident that he and his group do not fit into whatever plans the party might have.

For the moment at least, those plans are a matter of guesswork. The papers are full reports painting Mokus as a mayoralty candidate for Bogotá in 2011, or on the other hand that, he is not a candidate, that his wife, Adriana Córdoba is a mayoralty candidate, or that she is not a candidate, that Gustavo Petro, the presidential candidate for the Polo Democrático, and one of the few losers that came out smelling of roses, has been invited to join the Greens now that the floral aroma has become too rich for the other members of the Polo, or, that he has not signaled a desire to join, or that he supports the mayoralty candidature of Mokus’ wife, of course, should she actually be a candidate. In practice the only solid evidence of movement is the appointment of Garzón as Party President and spokesperson.

A lot of the sense of confusion and loss of direction could be press manipulation, not of the facts, but rather what is printed and what is not. The mainstream media in Colombia is heavily Santified and in large part falls under the influence of his family, and Juan Manuel is probably not too keen to see the Green Party and its people pick up an opposition mantle that is presently lying over a puddle in the road. It all seems such a shame, such a deception. Perhaps Mokus is right when he says that decisions must be timely but not hasty. Perhaps under Garzón the Party will be able to shake off the slightly Wizard of Ozzish image it has recently acquired.  Perhaps by the time of the municipal elections in 2011 the Greens will be able to take on the role that so many hoped they would. Perhaps I won’t have to write any more articles like this. That would be nice.

A final anecdote: one that in other circumstances might be considered hilarious, but in the present situation strikes a somewhat sadder, although quite telling, note. The writer cum political analyst Daniel Samper Pizano, brother of ex President Samper and columnist for El Tiempo, tells that Antanas Mokus was to have attended a recent international meeting of Green Parties in Europe, but unpacked his bags on learning that most of them were full of environmentalists and left wingers.[iv]


[i] And without wanting to ignore in any way the very serious problems of poverty and violence the city suffers from.

[ii] Judging from the banners most of the marchers were from rural areas and while no literature or information was available about the organizers, or the demands, the mere size of the march, and its open hostility to Santos/Uribe was impressive. The march must have been at least ten thousand strong, but did not receive major coverage. El Tiempo mainly commented on accusations of damage created by the marchers, although this observer saw no violence. The march was in fact heavily patrolled by its own marshals.

[iii] The election was marked by extremely high levels abstention. In the first round only 42.9% voted, while in the second 44.41%. However, this is not a record. For example, when Ernesto Samper was elected in 1994 only 34% of the voting population found their way to the booth.

[iv] Daniel Samper Pizano Los verdes: biches y extraviados El Tiempo Jueves 04 de septiembre 2010

LESS THAN MEETS THE EYE: Venezuela and Colombia at the UNASUR meeting.

Quito 02 August 2010

 

The headlines in the Quito’s major newspaper said it was all a failure. According to the daily El Comercio, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño was responsible for the lack of success in reconciling Colombia and Venezuela over the supposed presence of Colombian guerrillas in the latter’s territory. But who’s kidding who? There was never much hope, and this fact was widely accepted beforehand: that everyone would come out smiling from the meeting of the UNASUR foreign ministers held in the Quito on Thursday of last week (29th July). Despite the accusations that Venezuela reneged on a joint declaration, no agreement, or softening of positions, was ever likely to be reached before the August 7th inauguration of Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian president elect. The Colombian delegation was not looking for reconciliation.

Agreement or not, the meeting had its value. The mere fact that the gathering came so close on the heels of the meeting of the Organization of American States, shows how keenly felt is the need to provide a regional forum that does not include the United States and its seemingly perennial Canadian ally. It was of course inevitable that Colombia would first go to the wider forum where it could count on the US for support, but resolution there was even less likely than at the UNASUR meeting, which, if anything, is the more rational forum for discussing the issue and, in the long run, the one more likely to produce results. A meeting of presidents is now on the agenda.

Regarding the supposed presence of Colombian armed groups on the Venezuelan side of the border, and the support that the Venezuela government supposedly gives them, it seems highly likely  that the guerrilla are in Venezuela . The border is long and easily crossed  – just ask the US what that means  – and guerrilla movements are, if nothing else, very good at undercover movement. But making the leap from a probable presence to implying that Chavez and his government both know where they are, and is conscious of their movements, is going too far.  Ideologically the Venezuelan president may have sympathies with the guerrilla; don’t they, at least officially, stand for the same sorts of social goals?  But that’s a far cry from active support, and meanwhile Chavez has a country to defend. That is his clear priority. He called for the FARC to disarm around the time of the Colombian forces attack on their base in Ecuador, and has now done it again.

How much Chavez and his people really think a US intervention is likely, and how much the threat is useful as internal propaganda in the midst of an evidently serious economic downturn[i] is anyone’s guess. The threat is conceivable enough to make it a believable. The seven Colombian bases recently handed over to the US make it seem a legitimate fear, although in the long run the US isn’t likely to be that concerned about Venezuela.  The Obama administration is highly unlikely to make that sort of move as long as the oil keeps flowing, and as long as Chavez, aided by Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, doesn’t try too hard to export his political model to any other Central American countries. The Honduras affair seems to have sent out a clear message regarding that possibility. In any case, the major long term concern for the US is not Venezuela, but Brasil, with its increasing economic clout, its Amazon resources and its so-called sub imperial pretensions;  Washington noses were definitely put out of joint by the recent Brasilian efforts to mediate an end the US – Iranian nuclear dispute.

Whatever the geopolitical implications, the Colombian ‘proof’ of guerrilla presence in Venezuela is hardly convincing, something that has not escaped the notice of all Colombians[ii] , and could easily be a mock up, as the Venezuelan government has already claimed[iii].  But that is not the point. The major concern is why the issue was raised at all, especially only a few weeks before Alvaro Uribe’s Presidential term ends.  Lula da Silva, the Brasilian President has suggested  that the whole thing is nothing more than a personal spat. But that is hard to believe. Even harder to believe is that Lula himself believes it. There is little doubt about the level of animosity between Uribe and Chavez, but there is clearly more to this than fragile egos and delicate feelings.

Two possibilities come to mind. The first is that this is an attempt by Uribe and his US allies to put Juan Manuel Santos in a policy straightjacket, as it were, by denying him the option of relegating the issue of Chavez and the guerrilla to a secondary plane. Uribe’s  comments about not giving way to a mellifluous and slippery (baboso) style of diplomacy, combined with his recent exhortations to the Colombian military to take the fight with the guerrilla to the last possible moment, suggest that  there is some truth to the assertion.

The other possibility is that the strategy is to put Chavez in a straightjacket. To turn his discourse about the American threat against him, using it to force him choose between one side and the other: the guerrilla or the country. It is that simple. As the threat of US intervention is somewhat credible and is a central theme of the Chavez government US, the issue is internally sensitive, particularly in light of the country’s upcoming legislative elections.

The strategy employed by the Colombians and the US is not new. It worked in the Ecuadorian case, where it was not necessary to prove that the Ecuadorian Government was involved with the FARC: the mere accusation was enough. The burden of proof was placed on the Correa regime. Ecuador was forced to act to prove it’s innocence, reinforcing the northern border to protect itself from military infiltrations any kind, and in the process doing exactly what the US , and Colombia wanted: making it more difficult for the FARC to cross the frontier.

In this latest case the cost for Colombia, and the particularly the US, of forcing Venezuela into a similar type of situation is much lower than it was in Ecuador. There Colombia paid a relatively high price in the diplomatic arena for its attack on the territory another sovereign nation. This time most of the work has already been done, the attack on Ecuadorian territory and the possible installation of the US bases[iv] have served to set the stage, and an all out verbal attack such as the one launched by Uribe will likely suffice to produce a similar result.


[i] Despite the lack of reliable figures due to reporting bias on all sides, it appears that the Venezuelan economy will be the only Latin American economy not to grow in 2010.

[ii] Alfredo Molano Bravo, Hipótesis de trabajo. Diario El Espectador, Bogotá, 01 August 2010.

[iii] Pruebas sobre presencia guerrillera en Venezuela son falsas, dice Fiscal de ese país. El Espectador 01 August 2010.

[iv] The matter of the constitutionality of the agreement is now before the courts, but it would be a surprise if the judges did not find in favour of the government position.

THE END OF THE BEGINNING: Antanas Mokus and the second round of the Colombian Presidential election.

June 15 2010

There is now just less than a week to polling day in the second round of the Colombian Presidential Election, and it appears almost certain that Juan Manuel Santos, the candidate of the ‘U’ and Alvaro Uribe’s ex Minister of Defence, will win fairly comfortably. The polls give him some 65% of the vote, compared to the 27% of his opponent, the Green Party candidate, Antanas Mokus. The polls could be wrong of course. They could even turn out to be as far off the mark as they were in the first round, when Santos won by a wide margin after the survey numbers showed that he and Mokus were in a technical dead heat. But that seems unlikely.

A vote for transition

To put it mildly, the first round was a major surprise. Red faced pollsters were left scrambling to find credible answers and salvage at least a little of their profession credibility. Others spoke of a possible fraud, after all the results came in remarkably quickly. But the gap was so great, more than three million votes between the two leading candidates,  that it would not have been fraud at all, it would have been a coup. In any case, the failure of the polls also extended beyond the principal candidates. The Conservative Party candidate and ex Colombian Ambassador in the UK, Noemi Sanín, ended up in fifth spot rather than the third place she seemed assured of.  In the end, Germán Vargas Lleras of Cambio Radical overtook her, as did Gustavo Petro the candidate for the left of centre Polo Democratico.

In retrospect the key was probably the four debates that took place in the week before the elections, when the pollsters were not allowed to publish their findings. The candidates’ performances were more varied than expected: Mokus and, to a lesser degree Sanin, undermined their campaigns, while Vargas Lleras, and Petro did rather better than predicted. There is also a certain amount of truth to the observation that for Mokus to have won, the ethical revolution he spoke so much about would have needed to have already taken place. For her part, Senator Piedad Córdoba, an active participant in negotiating the freeing of FARC hostages and a leading member of the Polo Democratico, argued that the Mokus wave was a fiction manufactured by the media and the establishment in order legitimise the election.

Córdoba also spoke of hundreds of cases of fraud, and that there was some fraud is not hard to accept. But Colombian institutions are fairly strong and not so easily manipulated. The running battles with the Supreme Court and Attorney General can be taken as proof that President Alvaro Uribe and his regime do not have it all their own way.  It is also worth remembering that Uribe once lost a referendum. Besides, widespread fraud is not an intelligent option if you are convinced that your candidate is going into to the second round, and going in with a good chance to win. And if the final round is tight, as it was in Mexico or the United States a few years ago, then the vote would certainly need to be well scrutinised.

In any case, the evident enthusiasm for Mokus on the street and the internet, and the very real sense that he stood for something new, clean, and refreshing in Colombian politics, belies Córdoba’s opinion. Her statements, and the fact that the Polo has somewhat surprisingly (a fit of pique?) called on its supporters to abstain in the second round, have as much to do with political rivalry as anything else: the Green Party candidate has stripped the Polo of its status as the main opposition force. An indication of the problem the left wing party group was the statement of Gloria Gaitán, daughter of the slain Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and a high profile member of the Party, publicly stated her support for Mokus.  It was not she said, because the Mokus campaign represented what she truly believed in, but that “a vote for you is a vote for transition, and that your government can pave the way for a true democracy in Colombia”[i]

It is possible that it was all a farce, but the most likely explication is that, besides his inability to shine in the debates, Mokus was simply out organized by the Santos-Uribe people once they realised they had a fight on their hands. And they did have a fight on their hands. According to the polls Mokus overtook Santos at one point, and the U party campaign either believed the percentages or at the very least was taking no chances. The party machinery went to work, importing the Venezuelan negative campaign specialist, JJ Rendón, who had also worked with Porfirio Lobos, the de facto Honduran President. Rumours then began to circulate about Mokus’ plans to cut popular social programmes, and about his being an atheist, which may be no crime but is not a positive factor in a catholic country such as Colombia. The other major factor was clearly Uribe himself. The President had endorsed Santos as his preferred candidate for the Party of the ‘U’, and the intent of his continual statements about protecting the gains made by his policy of Democratic Security was hard to miss. On the more creative side, some Santos’ radio ads featured the voice of someone who sounded exactly like the President.

The most disheartening aspect

The Mokus campaign, and the Green Party he represents, had, and has, has none of the financial clout or political machinery backing Santos. But he is not totally bereft of political support or material to work with. Backed by a number of popular ex mayors of Bogota, such as Lucho Garzón, his vice presidential candidate is also the popular ex mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo. The group gave Mokus strength in depth and at one point it appeared that the group might be able to profit from the multiple revelations/accusations that have plagued the last few years of the Uribe regime. An article published in the Washington Post a few days before the vote linking the President’s brother with paramilitary groups, seemed either a gift or a very clever piece of political manoeuvring. But in the end, the accusations the various cases of corruption, vote buying to legitimise Uribe’s  second mandate, the clashes with the Supreme Court, the accusations of links between  paramilitaries and both Uribe himself and his Uncle and close advisor Mario Uribe, the dirty campaigns of the DAS (the internal security agency) and the scandal of the ‘false positives’ (the killings of civilians that were counted as ‘guerrillas’ in order to boost numbers and thereby the success of the Armed Forces in combating the FARC), had no effect. It is one of the most disheartening aspects of the election.

Santos leading role in the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and the deaths of a number of high profile FARC commanders was apparently more than enough to overcome the problems. It had been suggested by some commentators that Mokus popularity was in part due to the fact that the FARC was no longer a real factor in Colombian politics. Colombians, it was said, might now be ready to think beyond the war and more about social policy. But the idea that the FARC was defeated, while useful in boosting both Uribe and Santos’ profile a year or so ago, was never going to be useful in an election campaign where fear can be, and in this case certainly was, a major motivating factor.

The FARC has not clearly been defeated, and the nine members of the armed forces killed by the Guerrilla group some days before the election played into Santos hands, as did the kidnapping of six people on the Pasto to  ???? road, attributed by government sources to the ELN. The hostages were rescued in record time, and Alvaro Uribe was quick to use the case to call for a general alliance against kidnappings. The empire clearly had to be seen to have the capacity strike back; Colombian armed forces now claim to have eliminated a number of guerrilla fighters in an aerial attack on the area where their nine soldiers were killed. This weekend the coup de grace was delivered. A raid on a FARC camp lead to the freeing of General Mendietta, held by the guerrilla since 1998, and one of their prize prisoners.  While the rescue had been planned for some time, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the timing of the incursion was influenced by political as well as military considerations.

As for the Guerrilla groups, it is hard to be sure about which candidate they prefer, or if in fact it even matters to them. While Mokus might be more socially conscious than Santos, promoting greater state involvement, high taxes for the rich (which of course has cost him votes amongst the middle classes) more programs for the poor etc., but a Green Party Presidency would not be an ideal situation for the guerrilla, who would probably prefer Santos, a more predictably hard line candidate who they could easily love to hate, and who would give them more propaganda opportunities. Before the first round the FARC issued a communication calling for abstention.

United Front revisited

The ’U’ party candidate needs only four more percentage points to make it official; the panorama now appears fairly predictable, and disheartening. Between rounds Santos’ strategy has been to call for a government of national unity, and has even invited the Polo Democratico to take part, an invitation that was unsurprising rejected.  But the candidate for the U has had little difficulty convincing others. The Conservative Party and the third place finisher ‘Cambio Radical’ have given Santos unanimous support; a number of Liberal senators have also crossed the floor, much to the disgust of some of their co members. Simón Gavíria, the son of ex Liberal president César Gaviria,  has even been rumoured to have made a deal with Santos in exchange for the Presidency of Congress.

The deals will give Santos control over 80% of the seats in the Colombian legislature, at least in the short term, and should guarantee him the ability to govern.  But he is hardly the type of person to cede much ground to his political rivals, even if they are of the same general political stripe, and the move can be seen as an attempt to consolidate his Party at the expense of the smaller political fish. Some observers have likened his efforts to unite Liberal and Conservative factions with the United Front that governed the country in the 1950’s in an attempt to put an end to the factional violence that began with the assassination of Gaitán in 1948. After ten years it fell all apart, and the guerrilla groups such as the M-19, the FARC and the ELN came into the picture in a major way. The present context is different, but the difficulties in maintaining a coalition are obvious, especially where personal interests are the glue that holds the thing together.

However close he may have been to Uribe, Santos is no clone.  He is an experienced politician who has had the Presidency in his sights for a long time, and whose brother, once a FARC prisoner, is currently Vice President.  Nevertheless, there seems little likelihood of positive change; the President’s hard right line is unlikely to be altered. Santos has said he wants to end the fight with the Supreme Court, but the statement can be read in a number of ways. One is that there may some sort of dialogue and peace accord and an all-round improvement in the justice system and an end to impunity. A more cynical view is that the new regime will do what it can to bring the Attorney General under Presidential control, and as a result lessen the problems with the Court by reducing the number of troublesome cases against legislators accused of links the paramilitaries or drug traffickers. Santos has also apparently declared that for him the comparisons that have been made between Colombia and Israel are in fact a matter of pride, and that the issue of the country’s seven US bases is no issue at all. At the same time, responding to the accusations levelled at the now ex head of the Armed Forces, Freddy Padilla, for his possible responsibility in promoting the ‘false positives’[ii], the Ministry of Defence stated that it was time to ‘attack moral terrorism’.

And if Mokus Wins?

If on the other hand Antanas Mokus were to achieve the seemingly impossible and reverse the voting pattern it would not only be astonishing, it would also be wise, as in the case of Barak Obama, not to expect too much.  It is clear that Mokus represents change, but the change would not be radical, at least in terms of his political programme. The Green Party label should not be taken as a guide, this one is unlike other Parties of the same name. Its candidate does have some environmental credentials, but he is no left winger; like his rival, Mokus supports Democratic Security and will give no ground to the FARC, and has even told Uribe that he, as with Santos, will guardar los huevos de la Seguridad Democrática. Although to be honest, it is hard to see anyone being elected without supporting Democratic Security, which most Colombians, in particular those living in major urban centres such as Bogota, Cali and Medellin, see as their shield against the effects of the country’s decades long civil violence.

Mokus’ line is that the Green Party is a party of the centre (more like centre right) and will continue to be so. No dilution permitted here. The Colombian media continues to emphasise the lack of alliances, but Mokus only real option was the left of centre Polo Democrático, which in practice was no option at all. During the initial campaign Mokus made a distinct effort to put distance between himself and the Polo, seen in some sectors of the population – thanks in particular to the media – as linked to the FARC.  Mokus even went as a far as to say that he believed some of the member of the Polo still maintained their links with the Guerrilla. He later toned down his accusation but rejected a second round programmatic alliance, partly because it would not help him win, and partly because it may have given his rival another arm to use against him. The Green Party, he says, is looking only for an ‘alliance with the citizenry’.

That Mokus has been able to form some sort of alliance with the citizenry – three million voters in the first round –  is a major break-through, and if the Mokus – Fajardo partnership can hold itself together, this campaign may turn out to have important consequences for Colombia. That said, there is little doubt that Mokus would prefer to win, but at this point his participation in the second round has the feel of being about more than winning. And that is part of the attraction. This Green Party campaign has the feel of a movement, of a crusade whose major goal is to change Colombia for the better, not merely govern it.

 


[i] Author’s Translation of letter published in the Blog of Constanza Viera of  Inter Press Services.

[ii] The ‘false positives’ issue was one of the major points in the last round of debates between the two candidates. It is no small matter. The United Nations has calculated that the number of people killed at around 1,800 people., and that they were “…… carried out in a more or less systematic way by a significant number of members of the Colombian Army and are a State crime” Author’s translation of article printed in The Telegraph of Ecuador, ‘ Colombia. Los “falsos positivos” son cerca de 1.800, según ONU´ 14 July 2009.

Colombia’s Uribe: riding for a fall?*

July 22 2008

After his dramatic successes against the FARC guerrillas, Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe, is riding high in popularity and looking towards a possible third term. But beneath the surface, things are not as they seem, and troubles face George Bush’s best ally in the Americas.

Beginnings and ends in history or politics are often disputable, ill defined. Is the much publicised liberation of Ingrid Betancourt simply the end of a kidnapping, or the beginning of a presidential candidacy? Is it the apotheosis of Alvaro Uribe as the man who beat the FARC, or the beginning of the end of the war that brought him to power, and of the justification for his continued position as the iron fist of Colombia? At this point no one can be certain; events move rapidly but their effects are often difficult to define even decades after the fact. As Zhou Enlai famously said when asked about the importance of the French Revolution, ‘it’s too early to tell.’

Whatever the long term implications, in the short term the freeing of Betancourt was clearly the masterstroke that Uribe needed to extricate himself from the most difficult period of his two consecutive presidencies. Despite being supported by 70 to 80 per cent of the population, until the dramatic rescue of Betancourt the Colombian head of state had been under attack from various quarters and all the signs pointed to a troubled end to his second presidency. Now, at least in the immediate future, Uribe’s popularity is likely to rise to unprecedented levels.

Not least amongst the president’s problems had been his battle with the former head of the country’s supreme sourt, César Julio Valencia, who accused him of political interference in the case against ex congressional president Mario Uribe, his cousin and long time close political advisor. The ex-legislator is in jail charged with having links to paramilitary groups. Worse still, this is far from being the only case of its kind. The president’s relative is just one of 33 national political representatives now remanded on similar charges; another 52 are under investigation for links to right wing armed groups. A third of the Colombian legislature is presently under investigation or already in jail. The majority are from parties allied with the government.

The Colombian leader has recently been making efforts to distance himself from his one time allies. Despite backing off from ‘empty chair’ proposals that would have punished parties and congressional deputies with links to paramilitarism and/or the drug trade, Uribe still has plans for political reform that will provide him with the ‘independent’ status that brought him to the forefront of Colombian politics.

More difficult are the declarations of ex congresswoman Yidis Medina. Medina has accused government members, including ex interior minister Sabas Pretelt, of having bought votes, including her own, in order to swing an extremely tight congressional vote in favour of a change in the constitution. The amendment allowed Uribe to run for the second presidential mandate that he is now exercising. Three people have already been arrested in the case, and Medina herself has been sentenced to 47 months house arrest by the supreme court. But despite being strongly implicated by the court’s judgment, the president is likely to escape censure as he can only be investigated and judged by Congress. Given the present balance of power, action appears extremely unlikely.

It is unclear what motivated Medina to denounce the president and his group, and then hand herself over to the police. Some of the president’s supporters are claiming that the jailed paramilitary leaders are responsible, seeking revenge for what they see as a betrayal of the conditions under which they turned themselves in. There may be something in this. Uribe is presently under investigation for links to paramilitary organisations after jailed paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso declared that a group of the right wing irregulars met in Uribe’s house to plan a massacre. He denies the charge, classifying it as ridiculous.

It is the type of response he has used before, in particular regarding reputed links to the now defunct drug lord, Pablo Escobar, and the equally defunct Medellin Cartel. According to the 2007 book, Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar, written by television reporter and Escobar’s one time lover Virginia Vallejo, Colombia’s most famous drug trafficker once credited the then director of civil aviation with providing all the permits necessary for the private airstrip he used to ship his cocaine to the United States. The book is dreadful, but its incriminating statements led Uribe to accuse Gonzalo Guillén, correspondent of the US-based New Herald, of masterminding the publication. Guillén fled Colombia after receiving threats on his life. Vallejo is also in the United States.

The white knight

Most presidents would have withered in the presence of this welter of accusations, links and conjecture. But Uribe marches on, retaliating at every opportunity. The counter offensive has been dramatic: the ex president of the supreme court now finds himself on the wrong end of a judicial proceeding; the supreme court itself is accused of being compromised by links to paramilitaries; and 14 paramilitary leaders were arbitrarily extradited to the United States on charges of drug trafficking.

César Julio Valencia is keeping to himself these days, but the families of the victims of the paramilitaries have been vocal. They have been quick to condemn the extradition on the grounds that the truth about the paras and their activities will now never be known. The Colombian Commission of Jurists has also criticized the extradition, saying it shows the Colombian state ‘does not have the capacity or the will to carry out the investigation and trial of the serious crimes committed against humanity by these people’, while adding that ‘the extradition for drug offences could easily have been carried out after a judicial process in Colombia’. According to the Commission, over the past five years 3,500 killings and forced disappearances have been attributed to the paramilitary groups by victims’ families, making a mockery of the demobilisation process.

The Inter American Commission on Human Rights stated that the extraditions might also interfere with efforts to determine the links between US agents and the paramilitaries. Perhaps that’s the point. One judicially directed stone kills a number of different birds, above all the possibility that in Colombia one could sing, allowing damaging revelations to find their way into the press and further complicate the passage of the stalled Free Trade Agreement with the United States. And business is the president’s major ally.

The process in the United States is strictly drug related and while the Colombian authorities do claim that they will continue to work with the extradited men, there is little confidence that anything major will come of any future investigations. It would hardly be in the interests of the jailed men to incriminate themselves further. Whatever the outcome, the tumult over the paramilitaries and their influence has had major political consequences for some of the higher ranking players, but at the grass roots level it is life and death as normal for the paramilitaries and right wing squads. Not that it goes unnoticed. The Presidency of the European Commission recently took the unusual measure of publicly condemning the continuing pressure on human rights workers and social movement leaders in Colombia, five of whom have been killed in the space of a few weeks. It is a welcome move, but the European Union is a long way away.

Thank you neighbour

Ecuador and Venezuela are much closer. Maintaining a state of patriotic excitement over the two countries’ supposed ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has helped to shore up public support and dampen criticism. The major source of information for the accusations against Colombia’s two neighbours has been the computers, hard drives and USB devices that according to Colombian sources were found in the camp where FARC commander Raul Reyes was killed on 1 March.

On 15 May, Interpol presented its report on the computers. According to executive director Ronald Noble, no evidence was found of interference in the eight pieces of equipment (three computers, three USB devices, and two external disc drives) found after the raid on the camp established on the Ecuadorian side of the common border by Reyes and a group of FARC combatants.

No evidence was found, but as Poirot might say, lack of evidence is not proof of non intervention, simply proof of lack of evidence. Indeed, according to Interpol, the ‘Reyes’ computers, hard drives and USB devices were repeatedly interfered intervened between 1 March, when the raid took place, and 3 March, when the evidence was handed over to the Colombian Police for custody. In all, 273 system files were created, 373 user and system files opened, 786 system files changed and 488 files suppressed.

The veracity of the contents of the files is still open to debate. Points of view depend on politics and on the belief that it is impossible to alter a file without leaving a trace. As Interpol itself pointed out in the recommendations contained in its report: ‘Law enforcement alone will never be able to keep abreast of the fast pace of IT developments and changes.’

And talking of computers, it is worth mentioning that the laptop of one of the most important jailed paramilitary leaders, the previously mentioned Salvatore Mancuso, seems to have disappeared, along with the SIM cards of the mobile phones of other jailed leaders, at the moment they were extradited to the United States. Computers belonging to other men, permitted while they were in jail, could well have been intervened, admitted the Minister of the Interior.

Keeping the pot boiling

Nationally, the anti FARC campaign, both military and media, has also been paying political dividends in a big way. The major blows have been the deaths of Reyes and Ivan Ríos, two of the guerrilla’s high command, and the surrender of ‘Karina’, or Nelly Ávila, the leader of the FARC’s 47th front, who handed herself over on 18 May after almost 20 years of fighting and a reputation of being a ‘Rambo’ among revolutionary commanders. She has apparently recorded radio messages calling on her compañeros to lay down their arms.

The death of Manuel Marulanda (Pedro Antonio Marín) the group’s long time leader, has also had some impact on the FARC, but did not provide Uribe with more points. The revolutionaries stated that he died on 26 March from a heart attack at age 80; he had been reported as ill for some time and there are those who believe he died at least a year previously. Even so, the Colombian armed forces claimed that his death might have been due to a bombardment of his camp; they continue with their gruesome search for his grave. Opinion is divided about the new leader, Alfonso Cano, who may or may not be more open to dialogue. The real question is: with whom? Uribe is making overtures, but no one believes him, his consistent position has been to smash the FARC. Ex minister of the interior Carlos Holguín stated that if Cano doesn’t negotiate, ‘We will exterminate him.’

An interesting and perhaps revealing point related to Marulanda’s death is that rather than coming via the president, the information was initially provided by the magazine Semana, property of the family of defence minister Juán Manuel Santos. Santos’s star has been rising lately; Uribe was reportedly unhappy about the way the news was made public. The Betancourt affair has made Santos one of the most popular government figures, and he is reported to be a likely candidate in the next election. There have been other signs of fracture within the governing group too: the recent resignation of Carlos Holguin, who also plans to run for the presidency, and the support of Uribe allies in Congress (against the administration’s wishes) for legislation providing compensation for victims of the war, including those affected by government forces.

Looking for a legacy

Whatever the internal machinations of the Uribe team, the recent successes against the FARC, and in particular the bloodless release of Betancourt, have helped the Colombian leader maintain support and avoid the difficult questions. This is not to say the left is dormant. Opposition mayors hold power in the capital Bogotá and Medellín, cities with a combined population of some 12 million people. What the success of the Polo Democrático in Bogotá reveals is that, whatever their opinion of the president’s successes against the FARC, large numbers of people are unhappy with pro-US, free market, flexible labour policies, all instituted under cover of war. Unhappiness with Uribe does not, on the other hand, translate into support for the guerrillas the FARC probably has an approval rating of close to zero. The majority of Colombians simply want the war to be over, and don’t care how it happens.

The president’s popularity can also be explained by the recent strength of Colombian economy, but to a large degree this reflects an overall improvement in the region’s economic fortunes. In the context of a slowdown in the United States, the country will doubtless be vulnerable due to its dependence on exports to and investment from the northern giant.

Despite the vote buying scandal centred on the first re-election, government supporters have continued to collect the signatures needed for a referendum on a second. Until the Betancourt rescue, the chances seemed limited; even the church informally disapproved. Now the road seems open. As one commentator put it, the options are now either to remain in power or, after this term is over, to withdraw as the man who beat the guerrillas. Given Uribe‘s track record, relinquishing power does not seem the more likely outcome.

In a recent interview with the Argentinean journalist Andres Oppenheimer, the Colombian head of state affirmed that he is president for a second time because he was reelected by some seven million four hundred thousand Colombians (from an electorate of 25 million). The implication is that if those same Colombians want him to serve a third term, then so be it. Even so, up to now Uribe has been playing coy, unwilling to publicly commit himself. The Ingrid effect has changed that. Asked by Oppenheimer if altering the constitution once again to legitimise a third election was going down the same road as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, who was roundly criticised internationally for aspiring to be ‘president for life’, the Colombian head of state responded that his aim was for Colombia to opt for ‘democratic security’, and that he was ‘promoting a form of thought that, God willing, in Colombia will provide many leaders and candidates for the presidency and that we will be able to elect many presidents’.

Advancing his thoughts on the politics of the right, Uribe, who in 2007 received the ‘Light Unto Nations’ award from the American Jewish Committee, has been promoting the creation of a force that will dominate politics in Colombia for 50 years.

North and South

The proposition may be somewhat optimistic. Alvaro Uribe may succeed in winning the right to a third term, but with two years to run, winning is not a sure thing. No matter how it was achieved, the Betancourt rescue was the ace up the sleeve; in the short term it got the Colombian strong man out of a nasty political mess. But the euphoria will not last for ever, and aces will be increasingly difficult to find. The war is not over, the FARC may be down but they are not out. Paramilitary violence is resurgent, forced displacements continue and the cocaine culture shows no sign of being eradicated. The Medina affair is bound to resurface, divisions and resentment with the governing camp will probably deepen, and other candidates are bound to show their hands. Capitalising on her present popularity, Ingrid Betancourt has herself been acting as a prospective candidate, already distancing herself from her rescuer.

Throughout his time as president Alvaro Uribe has made a habit of looking north, towards George Bush and the United States. It might be time to look south. In Lima, Perú, another fighter against guerrillas, ex Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, who also tended to look north and who in his time enjoyed massive support, is presently on trial for human rights abuses. Fujimori broke the back of the MRTA and Sendero Luminoso and jailed its leader Abimael Guzmán; he was as popular as his Colombian counterpart and believed in his own invincibility. He changed the constitution, dismissed Congress, and votes were bought through his head of security Vladimir Montesinos, although Fujimori claimed he was unaware of the events. But in a bid for a third term he overstepped the line, fixed the election and was eventually forced out of power and into exile. Now back home, he is in jail not far from Guzmán and Montesinos.

* Published by Red Pepper http://www.redpepper.org.uk

Colombia’s War in the Andes*

Quito, April 23 2008

There is war in the high Andes. There are no rockets, no suicide bombs, no bodies rotting on the streets. Up in the rarified mountain air of the Colombian and Ecuadorian capitals the weapons are different, but the aim is pretty much the same: control. This war between the two Andean nations is being fought out on the airwaves and in the pages of the press, with the United States present in every move.

The source of the conflict is Ecuador’s traditionally neutral stance vis-a-vis its neighbour’s seemingly never ending civil wars, its consistent refusal to categorise the leading Colombian insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as terrorists, and its determination to get rid of a US military base on its Pacific coast that has played a covert part in the Colombian armed conflict. To make things worse this particular Ecuadorian government has declared itself to be ‘socialist’ and has shown itself to be friendly towards Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

The troubles in Colombia have been a perennial thorn in the side of Ecuadorian politicians; the country has spent years debating its neighbour`s problems and trying to stave off the impacts they have brought in their wake, particularly since the initiation of Plan Colombia in 2000. But after the attack on its territory by Colombian forces on 1 March it seems that the Ecuadorian government and its policy of neutrality will be tested to the limit in the battle to force Ecuador to take sides: the side of the government of Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Vélez.

Legitimate targets

Alvaro Uribe is likely to be one of the very few people in this world who will be sad to see the back of George W Bush. The collective sigh of relief that can be heard as the world watches the US presidential primaries, and imagines a world without one of the most warlike and intellectually challenged presidents in the history of the United States, is not audible in the corridors of the presidential palace in Bogotá. The Colombian head of state is desperate to finish off his adversaries and the next US leader may be less committed to military solutions.

But it’s not over yet. Bush was never going to be a traditional lame duck president – quite the opposite. So there will doubtless be a sting in the tail of this particularly nasty American administration. The seven months remaining still allow enough time for scores to be settled, and while the political and economic climate in the US may not be conducive to major operations such as an attack on Iran or Venezuela, the governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador are clearly more appetising targets, vulnerable to means less dramatic than major military intervention.

The 1 March incursion into the northern Ecuadorian province of Sucumbios was the opening gambit. The Colombian minister of defence, Juán Manuel Santos, openly stated that he regretted nothing, claimed the raid was legitimate and a clear victory for his country despite its condemnation as a violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty by the Organisation of American States. Twenty-six people died. Among them was Raul Reyes, second in command of the FARC, four students from the Autonomous University of Mexico (DF) and one Ecuadorian citizen. But apart from the dead the attack has left behind a number of questions, above all regarding the participation of the United States.

AWAC electronic monitoring planes from the American base at Manta on the Ecuadorian coast are constantly in the air but failed to report the attack to the Ecuadorian authorities until it was over, despite having more than sufficient time to do so: the raid lasted six hours. Colombia also claims the encampment and the position of Reyes was revealed to them by human agents. But the heavy tree cover that made the camp invisible from the air, the fact that the raid was carried out at night, and the precision of the bombing, all suggest the use of sophisticated monitoring equipment used by AWAC type aircraft. The type of bombs used has also been analysed by the Ecuadorian military. Their conclusions are that the GBU 12 type of guided bomb was used in the raid, which according to NATO no planes used by the Colombian airforce are equipped to carry. The question of what planes were used, where they were based and who flew them, are presently being investigated by the Ecuadorian government.

An Ecuadorian military source, who asked not to be named, was quoted by the Inter Press Agency as saying that the pilots of the planes that attacked Ecuadorian territory were Americans, possibly employees of Dyncorp, a company which provides military equipment and mercenaries and has contracts related to Plan Colombia. The planes, said the source, flew from the US base at Tres Esquinas in the southern Colombian department of Caqueta.

Colombian authorities claim that Franklin Aisalla, the Ecuadorian who died in the attack, was a FARC sympathiser and therefore also a ‘legitimate target’ according to the Uribe government, despite being a non combatant and being on his home soil. The issue of ‘legitimate targets’ has been taken up by the New York faith-based Fellowship of Reconciliation. The group has been investigating the role of US aid to Colombian army units that kill their own civilians and claim them (at times going so far as dress them) as guerillas. Recent articles in the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post have exposed the widespread nature of the practice.

According to the Post, a coalition of Human Rights Groups has claimed that a total of 955 civilians (campesinos) were executed in this way between mid 2002 and mid 2007. The killings appear to correspond to the need to boost numbers in the face of American pressure to be ‘winning’ the war against the guerilla forces and justify the huge expense involved in supporting Colombian military expansion. Together with Amnesty International, the Fellowship of Reconciliation is preparing a report, which will claim that the US has approved aid to certain Colombian military units ‘despite creditable allegations regarding killings disappearances and collaboration with outlawed paramilitary forces’.

Computer games

Since the 1 March raid the attempt to force a change in the political stance of Rafael Correa’s government has changed form. The confrontation is now being carried on in the leading newspapers and television station of the two countries and in the foreign press, mainly hostile to Ecuador and anything vaguely connected to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. The major play has revolved around the computer supposedly belonging to Raul Reyes that Colombian-US authorities maintain survived the bombardment. The Colombian-US position is that the device contained documents showing that the FARC had contributed to Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa’s electoral campaign and had received money from Hugo Chávez. A nice twist was provided by documents which allegedly showed Fernando Bustamente, the Ecuadorian minister of state, to be a CIA agent and his sub-secretary, Juán Sebastián Roldán, to be an agent of the US Drug Enforcement Agency, DEA.

In the unlikely event that a computer did survive, OAS president José Miguel Insulza has cast doubt on the ability of anyone (including Interpol, to whom the final proof of authenticity has been charged) to prove the files are real, or even if they were, to show that they represented the truth. The Colombian government has provided photocopies to the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian authorities. Both have rejected them as useless. But despite the lack of evidence that the documents are real the New York Times has joined the fray, carrying front-page allegations against the two governments.

A second incident involved the Bogotá daily El Tiempo. The newspaper, owned by the family of the vice president and minister of defence , printed a photograph said to have been found in Reyes’ computer which showed him in the company of a man the paper claimed was Gustavo Larrea, the Ecuadorian minister of internal and external security. The person in question was later shown to be an Argentinean unrelated to Larrea. But as with the raid and the supposed computer documents, the first strike is what counts. The supposed facts prepare the ground for a chain of events whose course later apologies or refutations cannot change.

In another example of erroneous reporting the Spanish daily El País (which has a long-running campaign against Hugo Chávez) ) claimed that according to an un-named OAS spokesperson the FARC had numerous camps on the Ecuadorian side, coming and going as they pleased. The OAS categorically denied that any of its personnel had made such statements, while the Ecuadorian military demonstrated that of the sites mentioned by El Pais two were actually in Colombia, while none at all could be located on Ecuadorian soil.

That the FARC come and go as they please on the Colombian side is undisputed: they simply control that part of the country. The Colombian army has only two posts on the entire length of the 364 kilometers of the common border, compared to eight of the FARC and ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional). The Colombian government accuses Ecuador of not controlling its side of the frontier, but apart from the difficulty of patrolling the entire border, particularly in the densely forested areas, the task is made so much more difficult by the fact that on the other side of the river it’s the FARC, not the Colombian government, that forms the political presence.

Regional newspapers now seem to be full of reports about the FARC: the death, capture or surrender of leading operatives and subordinates, some, such as Ivan Rios, allegedly killed by their own for the million dollar reward (the possibility exists that the killing was done by paramilitaries, which supposedly no longer operate); the uranium that belongs, or not depending on the source, to the FARC; the arrest of FARC members in Peru; the links between the FARC and the Brazilian mafia; the links between the FARC and Costa Rica etc etc etc.

Spent force

Over the years, and particularly in the period of the dictatorships in South America in the 1970s and 1980s, the FARC was seen by many Latin Americans as one of the few forces capable of withstanding the bloody right wing military agenda of the likes of General Pinochet in Chile and General Videla and the military junta in Argentina. As a guerilla force whose aims were to make Colombia more responsive to the needs of the poor, it counted on the moral and in many cases direct support of large numbers of people throughout the region, not to mention Colombia itself.

The FARC clearly use the drug trade to finance their activities. But they are not alone. Colombia is a complicated place and while it would probably be going too far to call it a narco- state, the history of Pablo Escobar (a friend and admirer of Alvaro Uribe), the Cali and Medellin cartels and the smaller siblings that now operate the trade, the drug linked paramilitary forces (which have not been demobilised but rather been reorganised in smaller, more private security type units ), as well as Alvaro Uribe himself (named by the US Department of Defense as No 82 on a list of important people linked to the cocaine trade ), show clearly that the drug trade is deeply embedded in Colombian society . Asking Ecuador to take sides based on involvement in the drug trade is not very practical.

According to some the FARC is demoralised, on the run, their troop levels fallen from 18,000 to between 6,000 and 12,000 and the war will soon be won. It’s hard to evaluate the claims as no definite information is available, but much of it seems to err on the side of wishful thinking, to be worked up to satisfy Colombian voters or American task masters, or is simply another aspect of the propaganda war. And while it does seem clear that the FARC are not the force they were ten years ago, they (and the ELN, the National Liberation Army) still control huge areas of land (an estimated 15 to 20 per cent of the national territory) as well as more than 25 per cent of all municipalities. Barring a sudden collapse, for which there is no evidence, it seems unlikely that the conflict will end any time soon.

Give peace a chance

Ecuador has the sympathy and support of almost all Latin American countries for its sovereign position in the face of the Colombian attack on its territory. But in the end the country has been forced to re-examine its position vis-à-vis the conflict, and in one sense the Colombian/US strategy has worked. After the raid it no longer appears possible to believe that the consequences of the conflict can be wished away or limited to the other side of the rivers that mark the frontier between the two countries.

The impacts are dramatic. The hundreds of thousands of Colombian refugees that have poured into the country in the last five or six years , with little or no international help in dealing with their needs; the environmental and health impacts of spraying the herbicide glyphosate over large areas of the frontier region , carried out by the Colombian government to eradicate coca leaf but also to clear the frontier area and deny human support to the guerrillas; and finally the high cost ($100 million a year according to Ecuadorian military sources) of stationing troops to police a border the Colombians themselves are unable to control.

For a long time now the violence in Colombia has been out of control. The ninth of April of this year marked the 60th anniversary of the shooting of the Colombian Liberal leader Jorge Eliezer Gaitán in the centre of Bogotá. His death triggered a round of violence that has still not come to an end. What began as the Bogotazo, later became La Violencia, and was transformed into the insurrection of the Marxist guerillas, has now been incorporated into the War on Terror in another attempt by one side to defeat the other. But whatever the name, no matter the definition, the bloodshed is a constant .

In the end what is important is that no country, no population, no civil society ought to be subjected to 60 years of war, and that no neighbouring country should be subject to the impacts of that violence. Colombians and Ecuadorians have many things in common, but above all they both need an end to the constant death, destruction and forced migration. Both nations need to be able to spend their resources in meeting social goals, in improving the lives of their populations, large numbers of whom exist in dire poverty. In the end the only answer is peace. The difficulty is how to find the road. In this sense the end of the bitter long-running conflict in Northern Ireland and the peaceful (although admittedly fragile) conclusion to the Balkan conflict, offers some hope that it can be done. In the Colombian case Ecuador will need to stay neutral but work hard for peace; it is the only ethical response to the media war being waged against it and to the real needs of both nations.

Ecuador needs to mobilise international pressure from other South American states, in particular Brazil, in order to develop a true peace process (as opposed to the slaughter that resulted from the last real attempt ) in which all are guaranteed security.

There are a number of obstacles. Conflict always benefits someone, and on the Colombian side the civil war has been a boon to the neoliberals and the economic elites. On the Ecuadorian side, despite being the injured party Rafael Correa has surely noticed that his popularity has risen since the beginning of what the local press has called ‘microphone diplomacy’. Also of concern is the fate of Evo Morales in Bolivia, if he falls or even fails, it will likely convince many that the electoral road has been closed off, and that arms are once again the only solution.

Finally, but by no means least important, are the various interests of the United States. Besides being a boon for the US arms industry, the Colombian conflict, as with the Korean War, has provided the motive for the militarisation and the consequent, and very large, strategic US presence. Peace would remove that rationale, and for the US this may simply not be part of the plan.

Footnotes

· The Crisis Group, an NGO linked to the World Bank, has recently estimated that after falling for a number of years, the production of Coca leaf and Cocaine actually increased by 8% with a greater area under production now than in 1995. (‘Colombia No Logra Cotrolar el Narcotráfico’. El Comercio, Quito, 7 April 2008)

· The Ecuadorian Government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimate that there are some 250,000 refugees in Ecuador plus another 40,000 that have been granted status. According to the Jesuit Refugee Service in Quito the figure is much higher, of some 750,000 Colombians in the country only 80,000 have status while the rest are refugees or people displaced by the Colombian conflict. (‘ONG: más de 600,000 desplazados en Ecuador’. El Comercio, Quito, 13 March 2008)

· Spraying takes place in Colombia but the proximity to the border and the height of the spraying has mean that severe health impacts have been felt within a ten kilometer range of Colombia. Chromosomal damage and other major health impacts have been identified in frontier populations together with contamination of water, animals and crops. El Sistema de Aspersiones Aéreas del Plan Colombia y su Impactos Sobre el Ecosistema y la Salud en La Frontera Ecuatoriana. Comisión Científica Ecuatoriana, Dr. Jaime Brielh et al. Quito 2007. The Ecuadorian government has recently launched a suite against Colombia at the World Court in the Hague over the impacts of the spraying. The case is expected to last up to six years.

· It is difficult to calculate the number of deaths related to the violence since 1948. Figures of 200,000 and even 300,000 have been quoted for the number of people killed from 1948 to 1956 but that figure is undoubtedly imprecise. Figures from 1964 onwards also vary. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that from 163 to 2000, 47,000 people died as a direct consequence of the violence, while Amnesty International estimates that 60,000 people died in the much shorter period from 1985 to 2002.

In 1984 a ’Bilateral Cease Fire’ was signed between Manuel Marulanda of the FARC and Colombian President Belisario Betancourt. A legally recognized political party the Union Patriotica, UP, was formed in exchange for a progressive reduction in military activity by the FARC. But after the UP won a third of the votes in municipal elections a campaign of violence against its leaders was begun. Thousands of its supporters were killed, including three presidential candidates.

· Colombia now has the highest troop levels of any country in South America (210,000 not including air-force, navy or police dedicated to anti guerrilla activities), and spends 6.5% of its GDP on the military, the US 4% even with the war in Iraq. (See ’Crisis en la región: La guerra preventiva de Bush llegó a Sudamérica’, Raúl Zibechi, IPS, 7 March 2008)

* Published by Red Pepper http://www.redpepper.org.uk: Colombia’s long-running civil war spilled over the border to Ecuador in a raid against FARC guerrillas in March. Gerard Coffey reports on the aftermath