The New York Times
May 16, 2008
LIMA, Peru — The debate over ties between Venezuela’s government and Colombia’s largest guerrilla group intensified Thursday after Interpol said its forensic experts had found no signs that Colombia had altered files from computer equipment recovered in a raid on the rebels in March.
Interpol’s report is a setback for Venezuela, which had claimed that the computer files — which referred to efforts by Venezuelan intelligence officials to secure arms for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — were fabrications, following leaks of copies of the files to The New York Times and other news organizations.
Proof of any such arms deals has not emerged. But the Interpol report, released by its secretary general, Ronald Noble, in Bogotá, may advance efforts under way in the Congress to add Venezuela to the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism, which includes Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Cuba. Like the United States, the European Union classifies the FARC as a terrorist group.
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela swiftly went on the counterattack with a barrage of insults issued from Caracas. He called Mr. Noble, an American lawyer and former Treasury Department official, a “gringo policeman” and an “international vagabond.” Mr. Chávez also called the Interpol report a “show of clowns.”
Tension over Interpol’s findings overshadowed a summit meeting here in Lima scheduled for Friday between Latin American and European heads of state. Mr. Chávez said he would attend the meeting, the focus of which is addressing climbing food prices and climate change.
“This is good news for Interpol and for everyone,” Javier Solana, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, said in relation to the Interpol report after meeting with the Colombian president, Álvaro Uribe, on Thursday in Bogotá.
More surprises may result from Interpol’s findings. Mr. Noble, the secretary general, said forensic experts were able to open 983 encrypted files, in addition to verifying thousands of written documents, sound and video files.
Mr. Noble told reporters in Bogotá that Interpol could not vouch for the accuracy of the files. He added that a Colombian antiterrorism unit accessed the seized files in the days after the March 1 raid, in a violation of internationally recognized rules on handling electronic evidence, but that Interpol’s experts verified that the action had not altered the content of the archives.
“There was no tampering with, or altering of, any of the data contained in the user files by any of the Colombian law enforcement authorities following their seizure,” Mr. Noble said.
Colombia seized the computers in a raid on Ecuadorean soil in which 25 people, including Raúl Reyes, a senior commander in the FARC, were killed. The raid set off diplomatic crises between Colombia and Ecuador as well as Colombia and Venezuela.
The crisis with Venezuela almost escalated this week when Mr. Chávez reacted with fury to comments by William R. Brownfield, the American ambassador to Colombia, that the United States would consider relocating an air base from Ecuador to Colombia. An area mentioned in later reports was the Guajira region near the Venezuelan border.
Faced with claims by Mr. Chávez that such a move would be grounds for Venezuela to assert its sovereignty over the Guajira, Colombia’s foreign minister, Fernando Araújo, said Thursday that Colombia had no plans to allow the United States to establish a base there.
The Bush administration has explicitly sided with Colombia in the dispute over the raid on the rebel camp and the information found on the FARC laptops. Colombia remains one of the largest recipients of American aid outside the Middle East, receiving about $600 million a year to combat leftist insurgencies and drug trafficking.
“They are serious allegations about Venezuela supplying arms and support to a terrorist organization,” Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, said Thursday in Washington. “Certainly, that has deep implications for the people of the region.”
Ecuador has also been shaken by revelations from the FARC computers, with some files referring to donations to the campaign of President Rafael Correa. Interpol said it tried to get Ecuador and Venezuela, both of whom are among its 186 members, to help review the computer files but neither country responded.
Following Interpol’s report, Venezuela emphasized the importance of trade links with the United States, which are resilient despite a deterioration of political relations in recent years. Mr. Chávez has repeatedly threatened to halt oil exports to American refineries, and the Bush administration welcomed a coup that briefly ousted Mr. Chávez in 2002.
The possible declaration of Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism may be remote, given that the United States relies on Venezuela for more than 10 percent of its imported oil, but discussions about such a move have still jolted international energy markets. Still, even if sanctions were imposed, Venezuelan oil could still find its way to refineries in Texas and Louisiana through middlemen in places like Panama or the Dutch Antilles. Or the United States could simply import oil from other sources, albeit at temporarily higher prices.
The political implications of adding Venezuela to the state sponsor list, particularly without more evidence of the country’s support of the FARC, could be more serious.
“Almost all of Latin America and most of the world would take Venezuela’s side in this dispute, especially given the weakness of the evidence,” said Greg Grandin, a professor of Latin American history at New York University. “Any move along these lines would further isolate the United States in a region where it has been hemorrhaging influence.”
Jenny Carolina González contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia, and María Eugenia Díaz from Caracas, Venezuela.