Colombia's Raid into Ecuador Triggers Tension
Colombia's Raid into Ecuador Triggers Regional Tension
Interview with journalist Gary Leech,
conducted by Melinda Tuhus
Last week, the Colombian military entered Ecuadoran territory and killed 17 guerrillas, including Raul Reyes, the 59-year-old leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Reyes was second in command to Manuel Marulanda, the supreme commander who leads the Marxist guerrilla organization that has been fighting a 40-year insurgency against the Colombian government. Reacting to the raid, Ecuador broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia. Venezuela, which also shares a border with Colombia, denounced the military action and moved thousands of troops to the Colombian frontier.
Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Garry Leech, a British-born American journalist who has reported extensively from Colombia. He spent three days at a jungle camp with Raul Reyes last year in the same region where last week's attack took place, and says he's the only western journalist to have interviewed any of the top seven FARC commanders face-to-face in the past eight years.
Leech discusses the significance of Colombia's raid on the FARC camp and the danger of a possible regional military confrontation between Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, as well as the role of the U.S. in supporting the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
GARRY LEECH: One of the big, significant aspects of what just happened last weekend is that in those 40-plus years, the Colombian government has never succeeded in either capturing or killing one of the guerrilla group's seven-person central command. So when they killed Raul Reyes last Saturday, that's the first time they've gotten one of the FARC's top commanders. So in Colombia it's a huge issue. That's what made this killing such a big story. The other part of the story, which you referred to, is that they violated Ecuador's sovereignty in order to kill him. I think the reason they chose to do that is that once they determined where he was located, he was such a huge target for the Colombian government, that in my opinion they didn't care about the fact that he was in Ecuador - that it was worth it to them to violate the sovereignty kill one of the FARC's top leaders, after failing to do so for so many decades.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Garry Leech, how significant is this for relations among these countries?
GARRY LEECH: Well, it's escalating as we speak. First off, the camps there - again, I was in one of Raul Reyes's camps for three days with him eight months ago - they're very primitive jungle camps, but they do have electricity from generators, and they do have satellite capacity - and the Colombian government claims that's how they tracked him, through his use of a satellite telephone. But when they launched the airstrikes on the camp, they killed Reyes and 16 other guerrillas - there are not civilians in the camp. And then they sent in army troops across the border to retrieve Reyes's body, and they took three laptop computers that Reyes had in the camp, which I can confirm - when I was there he had three laptop computers in the camp. And the Colombian government is now looking over the information on these computers, and claiming there's evidence there that both the Ecuadoran government and the Venezuelan government have links to the FARC. But as you said, Ecuador broke off diplomatic relations, and Venezuela became so engaged because in the past five months, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has worked as a kind of mediator with the FARC to get some Colombian hostages released that the FARC has been holding, and has now gotten released six of them. So, Hugo Chavez has been working with the FARC on these humanitarian prisoner releases. And so when this attack happened, I think that's one of the reasons he became so involved, because he's trying to get FARC prisoners released from the FARC, and then at the same time the Colombian government now is attacking the FARC leadership, and Chavez is saying that's just going to make it harder to get the FARC to release its hostages.
Then, of course, the other motivating factor for Chavez to become so involved is, if in fact the Colombian government is telling the truth about the information they're finding on the laptops of the FARC commander, Raul Reyes, they've claimed that there's evidence on there that Chavez recently gave the FARC $300 million. If this is true, Chavez has reason to be concerned about this attack occurring.
BETWEEN THE LINES: But Uribe is the only one making these charges. Has Chavez denied it?
GARRY LEECH: Yes, the Venezuelan government has denied it. So I think that then hinges on whether the Colombian government makes public this evidence. If they do, then it poses a serious problem for Hugo Chavez with regard to international relations. Obviously, most governments in the world - even those friendly with Venezuela - are going to be concerned about being too close with a leader who, it's proven, is trying to overthrow a democratically-elected government in a neighboring country.
BETWEEN THE LINES: You had explained that the FARC has support in some areas where it's operated the longest, and is the de facto government, but in other areas it's more of a military presence, with accompanying human rights abuses. What is the role of the U.S. in this conflict?
GARRY LEECH: Well, what the government's done, and the U.S. has done, is they've used the presence of the FARC and these guerrillas as justification for waging a drug war in Colombia, which is really more of a counter-insurgency war, and a war on terror in Colombia that not only targets the guerrillas and guerrilla communities, but has also become a dirty war being waged against non-violent sectors on the left, such as unionists, human rights workers, teachers, any community organizers. That, to me, is the ultimate problem in Colombia, and most of the human rights abuses, most of the killings are actually perpetrated by the rightwing paramilitaries who work with the Colombian military, who target anyone in Colombia who's seeking political and economic and social change non-violently. They just label all these people guerrillas, and that justifies the dirty war against the civilian population.
For more information, visit the online publication Leech edits, www.colombiajournal.org
Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending March 14, 2008. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.