May 11, 2008
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Documents that Colombia says it recovered from a slain guerrilla leader give the clearest indication yet that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sought to arm and finance insurgents across the border.
The documents _ more than a dozen internal rebel messages _ detail several years of close cooperation between top officials in Venezuela's government and military and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, including the construction of rebel training facilities on Venezuelan soil.
They also suggest Venezuela was preparing to loan the rebels at least US$250 million (euro190 million), provide them with Russian weapons and possibly even help them obtain surface-to-air missiles for use against Colombian military aircraft.
Most importantly, they outline a joint strategic project between Venezuela and the Colombian rebels, with Venezuela even seeking rebel training in "asymmetrical warfare" in preparation for a feared U.S. invasion.
The documents were shown to The Associated Press on Friday, days before Interpol is to issue a report that Colombia's conservative government hopes will dispel any doubts about the documents' authenticity.
A U.S. intelligence official in Washington vouched for the documents' authenticity, telling the AP that the Bush administration received them in March. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity.
But the leftist Chavez calls the documents fakes. He denies arming or funding the FARC, though he openly sympathizes with Latin America's most powerful rebel army. He calls Colombia's government, Washington's closest ally in the region, a U.S. pawn.
"They can get whatever they want out of there," Chavez said Sunday during his weekly television and radio program, referring to the slain rebel's computers and suggesting that U.S. officials are fabricating documents to support their accusations. "It's an imperialist plan."
The newly disclosed files are among 11,000 that Colombian officials say they found in three laptops, two external drives and three memory sticks during in a March 1 cross-border raid into Ecuador that killed FARC foreign minister Raul Reyes and 24 others.
Immediately after the raid, Colombia released documents that suggested surprisingly cozy ties between the FARC and the leftist governments of both Venezuela and Ecuador. It has since disclosed more files piecemeal, drawing criticism that its handling of the cache has been political.
The senior Colombian official who showed the new documents to the AP said legal considerations _ and a desire not to embarrass friendly governments _ was behind the partial releases. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the documents' politically explosive nature.
The documents consist of messages to the FARC's seven-member ruling Secretariat penned by various of its members, and many discuss efforts by top Venezuelan officials to help the FARC obtain weapons.
In a January 2007 message, the rebels' main go-between with the Chavez government says Venezuelan military intelligence chief Gen. Hugo Carvajal and another Venezuelan general "are going to get us 20 bazookas next week."
The author, Ivan Marquez, also mentions "the possibility of taking advantage of Venezuela's purchase of arms from Russia to include some containers destined for the FARC." Among Russian arms Chavez has contracted to buy are Dragunov sniper rifles and Kalashnikov assault rifles.
A Venezuelan Defense Ministry spokeswoman did not return calls seeking comment from Carvajal.
FARC use of anti-aircraft missiles would seriously escalate a mostly low-intensity 44-year-old conflict. In a March 2007 letter, alias "Timochenko" writes that "intelligence officials from our neighboring navy" say it's very difficult to obtain "rockets" but that "they're disposed to help us get all the parts to build them."
And FARC leader Manual Marulanda suggests in a Jan. 11 letter that the rebels may have decided to begin using anti-aircraft missiles. He describes a "major action" being planned in eastern jungles against Colombia's military "where with one single blow we could down some 10 aircraft."
On that date, the FARC handed over in those jungles two hostages to Venezuela's interior minister, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin.
A Marquez message from the previous November describes a request by Rodriguez Chacin for rebel help in training Venezuelans in "asymmetrical warfare" in preparation for a feared U.S. invasion.
Rodriguez Chacin is also mentioned in discussions of an open-ended loan to the FARC. Rebel field marshal Jorge Briceno proposes asking Chavez "to help us get the weapons mentioned in the strategic plan and a loan of US$250 million to be paid when we take power."
A subsequent document indicates that when Reyes was killed, Chavez was preparing to deliver a first US$50 million (euro38 million).
A spokesman said Rodriguez Chacin was unavailable for comment.
Timochenko also describes strengthening ties with Venezuela's military, saying he visited a FARC firing range and "training halls" in Venezuela, and "now we have a sewing shop and one for making grenades and we're building various installations for hospitals."
He describes "operations where our guys go out with Venezuelan arms and uniforms" and says the Venezuelan local military commander has put guerrillas in helicopters for reconnaissance.
Some U.S. lawmakers have cited the documents recovered in the raid to argue that the White House should add Venezuela to a list of state terror sponsors that includes North Korea, Iran, Syria, Sudan and Cuba, and which means economic sanctions. Analysts believe that's unlikely, however.
"That would be self-defeating," said Michael Shifter of the Washington think tank Inter-American Dialogue. "It might give Chavez a boost when he is in serious political trouble at home _ and it would risk a further jump in oil prices in the U.S. in an election year."
Associated Press writers Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, and Pamela Hess in Washington contributed to this report.