March 03, 2008
Calling a Colombian military strike that killed a guerrilla commander "a cowardly assassination," Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on Sunday closed his country's embassy in Colombia and ordered tanks, planes and thousands of troops to the 1,300-mile border the two countries share.
Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, ejected Colombia's ambassador and also mobilized troops in response to the assault just inside Ecuador on Saturday that killed 17 guerrillas, including Luis Edgar Devia, a top commander in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Ecuador and Venezuela are allies.
Speaking on his nationally televised show, Chávez lauded Devia and ordered his defense minister to mobilize troops to Venezuela's western border. He also blamed the United States, a staunch ally of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, for fueling the conflict in Colombia.
"Move 10 battalions to the Colombian frontier immediately, tank battalions, military aviation," Chávez said. "We are not going to permit the North American empire, which is the ruler, to allow his lapdog, President Uribe and the Colombian oligarchy, to divide or weaken us. We will not permit it."
Another Venezuelan ally, Nicaragua, which is disputing Colombian sovereignty over two islands in the Caribbean, also criticized Colombia. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a Cold War foe of the United States, called the strike against Devia "an act of total provocation" that reduces the chances of peacefully settling Colombia's conflict.
Although celebrated in Colombia as a major blow against the FARC, the attack has triggered the most serious regional crisis in recent years. Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua frequently criticize Colombia's military activities in the region and are detached from the United States, which provides billions of dollars in military aid to Colombia.
"This is a political, not a military reaction," said Adrian Bonilla, a professor of international relations at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, a university in Quito, Ecuador. "What is clear is that military, police, intelligence and security cooperation between Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela are completely fractured at this moment."
The Colombian government said Saturday that Devia was killed in heavy combat between rebels on the Ecuadoran side of the frontier and Colombian troops on the other side.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said fighters were then called in to bomb the rebels and that after they were killed, Colombian troops crossed the frontier to recover the bodies of Devia and another rebel commander, Guillermo Torres, better known as the writer of revolutionary ballads. The Colombian government said Uribe called Correa to brief him about the attack.
On Sunday, Correa called the incursion into Ecuador "the worst aggression Ecuador has suffered on the part of Colombia" and recalled his ambassador in response. In a news conference in Quito, he said that although Uribe had told him the attack took place in battle, an Ecuadoran army patrol that examined the camp had determined otherwise.
"They were bombed and massacred while they slept, using pinpoint technology that found them at night, in the jungle, for sure with the collaboration of foreign powers," he said.
Myles Frechette, a former ambassador to Colombia who works as a consultant in Washington, said the Colombians probably weighed the strike on Devia against the potential fallout from going into Ecuador. But he said repairing the diplomatic damage would be a challenge.
"Uribe has got to go down there, meet with Correa, calm him down, and he's going to have Chávez fuming at the border," Frechette said. Uribe is "in a pickle, in the sense that diplomatically he's got to get himself out of this corner that he's got himself in."
Uribe probably faces a far more difficult challenge with Chávez, who has become increasingly antagonistic toward Colombia as his popularity has fallen in Venezuela over problems including rising crime and food shortages. On Sunday, Chávez raised the possibility of war if Colombia entered Venezuelan territory, emphasizing Venezuela's new military hardware, including Russian-made Sukhoi fighter aircraft.
"This could be the start of a war in South America," Chávez said. "Because if it occurs to you to do that in Venezuela, President Uribe, I'll send some Sukhois, so you know it, pal."
Ch¿vez also said Uribe heads a "narco-government" beholden to the Bush administration. "Álvaro Uribe could be the head of a mafia but never a country. A mafiosi can never be president of a country, less so a South American country and less so a country like Colombia," Chávez said, according to Union Radio in Caracas.
Chávez had warm words for Devia, who had joined the FARC in the 1970s and was wanted by the Colombian government for drug trafficking and murder. Chávez recalled that the two first met in 1995, three years before his election as president, and that they met twice after he took office.
The president asked for a minute of silence for Devia, who was better known by his nom de guerre, Raúl Reyes. "We pay tribute to a good revolutionary, who was Raúl Reyes," he said.