The New York Times
March 09, 2008
After leaders in the Andes tiptoed from the edge of war to bear hugs and oaths of brotherhood, Latin America was trying to sort out the winners and losers in the region’s worst diplomatic dispute in years.
A day after the crisis was resolved at a summit meeting in the Dominican Republic on Friday, it was already clear that nearly all of the players lost something. The leaders of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela traded charges that muddied each of them. Colombia and its ally, the United States, found themselves isolated in the region.
And Latin America’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, lost two senior commanders in a week, the latest in a string of tactical and strategic defeats.
But the biggest winner appears to have been the region itself, which resolved its own dispute without outside help and without violence.
The crisis began when Colombian security forces hunted down and killed Raúl Reyes, the FARC’s second-in-command, and 23 others in a raid last weekend on the guerrillas’ camp in Ecuador. Venezuela and Ecuador assailed Colombia as having violated Ecuador’s sovereignty, cut diplomatic ties and sent troops to the Colombian border in a show of force, effectively defending the FARC’s nebulous operations in their countries.
Colombia insists it has the right to attack its enemies, but the military response by its neighbors — President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela vowed war if Colombia pursued its fight with the FARC into Venezuela — could allow the FARC to operate with more freedom outside Colombia.
Still, that victory may be small consolation for the FARC, whose very presence in neighboring countries is a reflection of its loss of strength within Colombia, as a brutally successful counterinsurgency has driven it out of territory it once controlled.
Reports emerged on Friday of yet another senior commander of the FARC who had been killed. No cross-border raid was involved. A deserter simply brought the guerrilla’s severed right hand as proof that he had killed his own commander.
The killing of the guerrilla, Manuel Jesus Muñoz, who went by the nom de guerre Ivan Ríos, was extraordinarily macabre even in the annals of Colombia’s four-decade war. Mr. Muñoz, a member of the FARC’s guiding secretariat, was the fifth senior member of group killed in the past year.
Colombia’s government contends that the FARC, which finances itself through cocaine trafficking and abductions for ransom, has seen its ranks fall from 16,000 members at the start of the decade, when the guerrillas had advanced close to the capital, Bogotá, to between 6,000 and 8,000 now.
For Colombia, too, the results were mixed. It found itself diplomatically isolated in the region, its tactics rebuked and President Álvaro Uribe under siege as a too-willing ally of the United States.
The raid was one of the most controversial chapters of Plan Colombia, the American program that has disbursed more than $5 billion in aid to Colombia since the late 1990s. And in carrying out the operation without getting Ecuador’s permission beforehand, Mr. Uribe took a page from the Bush administration’s playbook.
The predawn operation bears remarkable similarities to one carried out in late January by the United States in Pakistan. In that case, the Central Intelligence Agency used a Predator drone aircraft to drop missiles, killing Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior commander of Al Qaeda who had hidden from American officials for years.
Both operations used local informants to track the men down. Both operations were carried out in foreign countries without getting permission beforehand. Both were tactical victories, killing enemies classified as terrorists.
But in killing Mr. Reyes in Ecuador, Mr. Uribe may have misjudged the reaction that would follow. A firestorm of criticism was directed at Colombia, a nation increasingly viewed as a redoubt of loyalty to the United States in a region chafing at Washington’s waning influence.
“The Bush doctrine openly rejects nonintervention in other nations’ affairs, something that runs counter to the ideal of sovereignty that is so precious in Latin America,” said Greg Grandin, a professor of Latin American history at New York University.
The methods employed by Mr. Uribe, whose father was believed to have been killed by guerrillas in the early 1980s, may be hard to swallow in a region that has largely seen its other cold war-era insurgencies vanquished. On Thursday, Nicaragua joined the fray on the side of Venezuela and Ecuador. But the wrath of Colombia’s neighbors is a price Mr. Uribe seems content to pay.
Despite Colombia’s insistence that it acted alone, speculation persists as to whether the technological prowess of the United States was involved in the hunt for Mr. Reyes.
Mr. Chávez emphatically denied reports last week that he had placed a call to Mr. Reyes’s satellite phone; such a call might have allowed intelligence agencies to track the guerrilla down in Sucumbíos, an Amazonian province in Ecuador’s northern frontier.
In their war of words, Mr. Uribe accused his counterparts in Ecuador and Venezuela of having financial ties to the FARC, a group resembling a criminal syndicate that dresses up its actions in leftist rhetoric.
And the presidents of Ecuador and Venezuela reminded Latin America of the ties between many of Mr. Uribe’s top supporters in Colombia and the paramilitary death squads that have evolved into nothing less than criminal syndicates trafficking in cocaine.
Cocaine, guns, private armies and guerrillas remain the ingredients of Colombia’s war even as the last element is being visibly pushed into the porous border regions of the country’s neighbors.
In the end, Latin America eased its own crisis. But the celebratory behavior of its leaders in the Dominican Republic belies the tension that persists around a war without closure. Just because the FARC is weakened does not mean it will wither away.