August 08, 2008
ALONG THE SAN MIGUEL RIVER, Ecuador -- The captain held a finger to his lips, and his soldiers crouched on either the side of the jungle path. He saw the pair of footprints pressed into the mud behind a tree, which he recognized as marks from the rubber boots preferred by the Colombian guerrillas he was after.
Capt. William Pozo of the Ecuadoran special forces disappeared around a bend in the path. The air was so hot and wet the jungle seemed to be panting. Sweat beaded on the soldiers' cheeks. They could hear little but their own breathing and the shrieking of an unseen bird. Pozo returned a few minutes later.
"There is a guerrilla camp here," he told them. It was the second camp they had found in three days. "But they've already left."
The four-decade-long conflict between the government of Colombia and guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, is not confined by borders. And while Colombian forces have scored major victories this year -- guerrilla commanders killed; hundreds of rebels deserting; prisoners, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, freed -- the view from neighboring Ecuador near the frontier is different.
The Ecuadoran soldiers who pursue the guerrillas operate along a 366-mile-long border, most of it marked by rivers that can be crossed at any point by canoe. In this remote jungle, they have found weapons dumps, cocaine labs and hundreds of guerrilla camps linked by footpaths that ribbon for miles through the undergrowth.
Of the few people who live here, many are Colombian settlers, some of them refugees fleeing the guerrilla war or toxic fumigants sprayed over the coca fields of southern Colombia, some of them farmers conspiring with the guerrillas. Some are guerrillas themselves. The soldiers can rarely tell who is who.
"I do not think that this is the end of the FARC. I do not think that the FARC's days are numbered," said Lt. Col. Juan Carlos López, an intelligence officer with the Ecuadoran division that patrols the Colombian border. "They have a fight that will last for a long time."
That the guerrillas live and conduct their clandestine activities outside Colombia has sparked a regional crisis this year -- and bitter allegations by Colombia that the Ecuadoran and Venezuelan governments are either sympathetic to or collaborating with the fighters.
After Colombia bombed a guerrilla camp two miles inside Ecuadoran territory on March 1, killing FARC commander Luis Edgar Devia, alias Raúl Reyes, and more than 20 others, Ecuador cut off diplomatic relations and Venezuela dispatched tanks to the border. The tensions have eased in recent weeks, but both Ecuador and Colombia accuse the other side of doing far less than it should to eradicate the guerrillas.
Such politics seem a distant abstraction for the 17 commandos of the Ecuadoran 26th Special Forces Group, whose members rappelled from a helicopter into the forest south of the San Miguel River on July 21 to begin a patrol. Their mission was as simple as it was difficult: to find the guerrillas and destroy their camps in Ecuador.
In six days of near-constant hiking, they covered just 11 miles, slowed by knee-deep mud and murky rivers. Each man was weighed down by 80 pounds of equipment on his back, an M16 in one hand and a machete in the other. Vines lashed their faces. Insects mundane and fantastic found every body crevice. Other teams might be 1,000 yards away, but that distance could take several hours to traverse.
Effectively alone, enclosed in endless shades of green and often unable to see the sky, the men were connected to the outside world only by a bulky military radio. And all around them, they believed, maybe even watching them, were the guerrillas. "The jungle is beautiful," one soldier remarked. "But everything bites."
Shortly after 1 p.m. on the second day, they had made a breakthrough. A nearby patrol heard the sound of an electric generator through the trees. As that patrol crept closer, soldiers recounted later, gunfire rang out. The patrol fired back, but the guerrillas vanished. Between the trees, two miles inside Ecuador, an elaborate FARC hideout came into view.
A series of split-log paths led from a kitchen area to rough sleeping quarters and a dug-out mud room where the guerrillas had made uniforms, backpacks and belts on sewing machines powered by a gas generator. The soldiers found sacks of food and tools to grind grain and coffee. They found the diary of a female commander named Marlene, three hand grenades and piles of bullets. A satellite dish and cables indicated that the guerrillas could go online.
"Here they have Internet," said Lt. Richard Revelo, looking incredulously around him at the jungle. "Here."
At the Political Level
Online transmissions have intensified the international crisis over the guerrillas. Computers collected at the scene of Colombian forces' March 1 bombing included e-mails allegedly from Reyes and other guerrillas discussing apparent plans by the Venezuelan government to supply arms to the FARC, as well as meetings with and potential support from Ecuadoran officials. Ecuador and Venezuela have denied they support the FARC, but Colombian government officials say such links persist.
Unlike the case of Venezuela, in Ecuador it's individuals in the government who support the FARC, it's not the policy of the armed forces," one senior Colombian government official said. At lower levels of the military, the fight against the FARC is pursued very seriously, the official said: "It's when you get to the political level it's very difficult."
One e-mail provided by Colombian officials, dated Jan. 18 and signed "Raúl," describes a meeting with Ecuador's security minister, Gustavo Larrea, and indicates that Larrea had expressed support for working and sharing information with guerrillas.
In an interview in Quito, the capital, Larrea acknowledged meeting Raúl Reyes but said he had merely outlined Ecuador's position toward the rebels: "That we do not want them to enter our national territory, that that is a Colombian conflict. Our call is for peace, dialogue, for them to abandon arms and the liberation of the kidnapped," Larrea said.
Ecuadoran officials said they are holding 68 FARC guerrillas in prison and have destroyed 108 guerrilla bases and 41 clandestine cocaine labs in their territory in a little over a year. "The Colombian conflict is moving toward the south and hence toward northern Ecuador," Larrea said. "The Colombian state does not control its border, and so drug trafficking and the guerrillas pass over."
In the Enemy's Home
At the front of the patrol was Cpl. Robert Tanguila, 33, who grew up in an indigenous Quechua community in the rain forest. On this mission, his skills were invaluable. He knew which swamps to avoid and which vines, when cut, pour out drinkable water. He could distinguish between the sounds of a machete on wood and a falling branch in the distance. He knew to burn termites' nests to ward off mosquitoes and where to find "dragon's blood" -- the red tree sap that, when rubbed, turns into a white paste that can heal bites and wounds.
"The guerrillas know all this as well," Tanguila said. "They have people from the forest, also, that know the jungle. They are experts. It's difficult to capture them."
In Ecuador, the guerrillas often run rather than fight. The brief exchange of gunfire on the second day of patrol was a rarity, soldiers said. Given the guerrillas' network of lookouts and civilian informants, it takes luck to successfully sneak up on them.
At the guard post and camp that Capt. Pozo and his soldiers came across on the third day, there were signs -- such as a half-filled coffee cup -- that the guerrillas had been there earlier in the day. There were six bags of food, including rice, beans and chocolate, and hunks of freshly sliced cow's hooves in a wooden structure protected from rain by a plastic tarp.
The soldiers estimated that the camp housed 40 to 50 guerrillas, based on its size and the intensive construction, such as a network of wooden stairs. "They can see us, but it's not prudent for them to attack us -- they don't want problems with the Ecuadoran army," said Cpl. Jerson Barahona. "This is like a vacation spot for the guerrillas. They have doctors and clinics. They come here to be treated. They rest. They manufacture their supplies."
The soldiers usually eat rice and tuna, cooked over fires they light in empty tuna cans using rubbing alcohol, candle wax and toilet paper. That night, they ate the guerrillas' beef and their canned sardines. Then they slung their hammocks between trees to sleep in the home of their enemy.
The next afternoon, for the first time, they spotted civilization in the form of a cornfield. They were near the San Miguel River and had stumbled upon a farm. After searching unsuccessfully for coca plants, they walked to the simple house, spray-painted with SX for "Sovereignty 10," the name of the Ecuadoran mission, which told them another patrol had passed by. The husband was off working; the wife said little. Yes, the guerrillas pass by, she said, but they leave us alone. Why are you bothering us?
They never give us information. Never. But they are complicit with the guerrillas," Barahona said of the farmers along the border. "That's what makes it so hard. The guerrillas operate either by gaining support or by intimidation. If you anger them, they'll kill you."
Over the next two days, the soldiers encountered similar scenes. At a locked wooden shack in the woods they found a generator, gasoline and riverboat supplies. "Whose is it if it's not the guerrillas'?" asked Sgt. Edvin Maldonado. At the farm nearby, the family said the supplies were for innocent purposes.
When they reached the San Miguel River, Capt. Pozo sat on a log and looked across the green water to the jungle on the other side. "That's Colombia," he said. "We can't go there."
"For us, this is like a cancer. It's like living with a chronic illness," 1st Sgt. Richard Muñoz said of the guerrillas. "We are a peaceful country. We want to eliminate all of them, burn every camp. We are not supporting anyone. In the beginning, they were guerrillas. Now, for me, they are terrorists. They kill innocent people. They kidnap. They traffic drugs."
On Saturday morning, the soldiers summoned a helicopter to take them home. It landed on a rocky beach along a branch of the river. They knew these missions would not defeat the guerrillas, but they hoped they were making the guerrillas' lives more difficult. In single file, they stepped up into the helicopter and snapped pictures of themselves as it rose into the air. When they looked out the windows, the unbroken jungle stretched as far as they could see.