May 16, 2008
A defiant President Hugo Chávez is dismissing Interpol's confirmation of the validity of FARC guerrilla computers and threatening to ratchet up the already tense relations with Colombia.
Chávez called the Interpol finding ''a new act of aggression'' by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe during a four-hour press conference in Caracas and added: ``Once again I am required to put relations with Colombia in deep review.''
The Interpol findings deal a blow to Venezuela's assertions that the files were forged as part of a campaign to accuse Caracas of supporting terrorism in the region, but may not be enough for Washington to impose sanctions on Venezuela, even as one U.S. official called the evidence ``highly disturbing.''
The FARC -- the Spanish acronymn for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- is deemed a terrorist organization by Washington, the European Union and other governments, exposing nations that interact with the rebels to sanctions.
Chávez' assertions were in response to a statement Thursday by Ronald Noble -- a former U.S. government official who now heads Interpol -- that Interpol was ''absolutely certain'' that the computers came from the jungle hideout of FARC leader Raúl Reyes. Reyes was killed March 1 when the Colombian military bombed his camp in neighboring Ecuador. He did not explain how his investigators determined the computers' origin. Noble also said Interpol could certify Colombia had not altered the documents contained in those computers.
Chávez called the report ''ridiculous,'' branded Noble ''a gringo policeman'' and asked: ``Where is the evidence that the computers came from that camp?''
After the press conference, Chávez left Caracas for Lima to take part in a summit with nearly 60 leaders and top officials from Latin America, Europe and the Caribbean. Uribe and Ecuador President Rafael Correa are expected to attend the European Community/Latin America and Caribbean Summit.
Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Peru, said he hoped that the summit's assembled presidents would condemn Chávez for his ties with the FARC.
''For no one to say that he's supporting terrorists would be an indictment of the international community,'' said Jett, who is now dean of the International Center at the University of Florida. ``I would hope that governments let it be known that they won't tolerate it.''
The documents released so far by the Colombian government -- most of them e-mail communications between guerrilla leaders -- show that the rebels claim to have helped finance Chávez's political activities in the 1990s and Correa's 2006 presidential campaign.
The computer files also indicate that the FARC, which has tried to overthrow the Colombian government for more than 40 years, now enjoys warm relations with both governments. Some e-mails indicate Chávez promised to contribute as much as $300 million to the rebels and help them get weapons; others seem to show Correa may have offered them safe haven in Ecuador
Shortly after Interpol's announcement Thursday afternoon, U.S. Reps. Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Connie Mack (R-FL) renewed their calls for sanctions against Venezuela.
''Responsible nations must take immediate steps, including condemnation by the Organization of American States and other international bodies, to ensure such actions do not go unpunished,'' Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.
Mack called for the U.S. State Department to ``recognize the very real threat that Chávez and his allies pose to Latin America and the Western Hemisphere and to impose real and targeted sanctions.''
Despite repeated calls by Ros-Lehtinen and Mack for including Venezuela on the State Department list of nations that sponsor terrorism, some analysts said it's unlikely the Bush administration will choose to antagonize Venezuela, a key oil supplier to the United States.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was cautious on Thursday when asked if Venezuela would be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.
''That's constantly being reviewed,'' McCormack said. ``If there's new information to feed into the system, then I'm sure that it will be and it will be taken into account.''
''You earn your way onto that list,'' he added, ''and there's a rigorous analysis that goes into it.'' Even with Interpol's confirmation of the documents' authenticity, some experts say there isn't enough evidence to firmly categorize Venezuela as supporting the rebel group.
'These are just the guerrillas' version of the events, probably even a little exaggerated,'' said Adam Isacson, a Colombia and FARC expert at the Center for International Policy in Washington.
``It's not enough to refer Venezuela to the United Nations Security Council or to put it on the U.S. list of states sponsor of terrorism.''
''What's next is that probably Colombia will keep releasing new documents,'' Isacson said. ``They are going to use them to embarrass and isolate Venezuela diplomatically for a long time.''
Noble, Interpol's secretary general, said his investigators examined three laptop computer hard drives, three portable thumb drives and two external hard drives that Bogotá collected after the cross-border raid that killed Reyes.
''Interpol concludes that there was no tampering with any data on the computer exhibits following their seizure on 1 March 2008 by Colombian authorities,'' he said.
Interpol's forensic exam was limited to certifying the integrity of the electronic files. Investigators did not analyze the content of close to 38,000 e-mails, 210,000 pictures and videos and 983 encrypted files -- among other files.
Noble said the computers contained more than 600 gigabytes of information -- the equivalent to 39.5 million pages of text -- and that 64 members of Interpol from 15 countries spent more than 5,000 hours analyzing the hardware and its contents.
Interpol chose forensic experts from Australia and Singapore, noting that their inability to speak Spanish ``helped to eliminate the possibility that they might be influenced by the content of any data they were examining.''
The documents released so far by Colombian authorities -- some of which were obtained and published by The Miami Herald -- also indicate that rebel leaders met regularly with Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, who allegedly asked the FARC to provide guerrilla warfare training for an unidentified armed group in Venezuela.
The files also indicate that the rebels were trying to acquire anti-aircraft missiles and uranium on the black market.