(Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia)
10 November 2006
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe claims that he must completely remove the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (F.A.R.C.) from Colombia to achieve peace, yet the organization is more than a domestic presence. Removing F.A.R.C. from Colombia is not as easy as simply attacking the organization's presence within the country. Evidence shows that F.A.R.C. has long operated in other Latin American countries, including Ecuador, Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina.
As a geopolitical organization, F.A.R.C. has maintained a strong presence in Argentina, even as their political offices in Mexico and elsewhere have been closed. As a drug smuggling organization, logistical system, and procurement network, F.A.R.C. continues to operate with little impedance around the region, especially in Colombia's neighboring countries, Ecuador and Venezuela.
F.A.R.C. is as strong and robust as ever in its 42-year insurgency against the Colombian government. Uribe's military flex against them is having an effect much like squeezing a balloon in its center -- if it does not burst, it will be forced to spring up elsewhere. Uribe's strategy is two-fold: he seeks to clamp down on F.A.R.C. while soliciting the support of other countries to help fight F.A.R.C. units that have relocated outside of Colombia.
F.A.R.C. has penetrated Ecuador and Venezuela creating two points of contention. These territories are sensitive because the borderland regions enjoy little state presence. Depending on the results of the upcoming elections in both Ecuador and Venezuela, Uribe may find himself with two neighbors -- Hugo Chavez and Rafael Correa -- that could implicitly offer refuge to and perhaps even cooperate with F.A.R.C. simply by not cooperating with Uribe's heavy-handed policies.
The Colombian government affirmed on October 20, 2006 the presence of Colombian guerrillas Luis Eduardo Devia, alias "Raúl Reyes," in Ecuador and Luciano Marín Arango, alias "Iván Márquez," in Venezuela. Reyes is considered F.A.R.C.'s top spokesman, while Marquez is known to be a high-level F.A.R.C. field commander. Creating a tense diplomatic situation, both countries have asked Colombia to provide evidence of the two guerrillas. Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo stated that the evidence will be delivered shortly.
Uribe insists that the announcement of F.A.R.C.'s presence in Ecuador and Venezuela is meant only to keep F.A.R.C. from causing problems in these territories. Critics claim that Uribe continues to pressure other countries to cooperate with his sometimes unpopular zero-tolerance policies. Whatever the true motive, the international attention that the Colombian administration has brought to the F.A.R.C. issue stems from a long history of political and logistical international support networks that back insurgent activities within Colombia.
The F.A.R.C. question has become a divisive topic for presidential debate in Ecuador, where there will be a second round of voting to elect a new president on November 26, 2006. In a presidential forum held on October 26, presidential hopeful Rafael Correa, a left-leaning economist and friend of Chavez, said of F.A.R.C.: "I will not call them terrorists. I believe they are guerrillas." -- a statement for which he has had to answer. Defending himself, Correa asserts that this is the official position of Ecuador's government and that qualifying a group as terrorist would be "declaring war on them."
He also stated his belief that Uribe's declarations pertaining to F.A.R.C.'s presence in Ecuador have a specific objective: "Obviously this position benefits the war candidate," he said in reference to his challenger, Alvaro Noboa. Noboa fired back on November 8 when he claimed that Correa had received campaign financing from F.A.R.C.
It is no secret that Uribe favors the candidacy of Noboa, who has no qualms classifying F.A.R.C. as terrorists and has promised to work with Colombia to tighten security on the northern border and clamp down on F.A.R.C.
The presidential discourse on F.A.R.C. comes in the wake of various episodes in which F.A.R.C.'s spillover into Ecuador has caused problems and many times resulted in the violation of territorial sovereignty. On October 15, two Ecuadorian citizens were shot and killed in the border region on Río San Miguel by members of the Colombian military during an operation intended to capture F.A.R.C.'s head of finance, Oliden Solarte. In the past few months, there have been numerous other incidents on the border, including the explosion on Ecuadorian soil of a grenade launched by the Colombian army. The Colombian air force has also been caught straying into Ecuadorian airspace in operations to combat F.A.R.C.
Southwest Colombia has long been a F.A.R.C. stronghold, particularly in the departments of Putumayo, Nariño, and Caqueta -- all of which border Ecuador. Seeking refuge across the border to escape Colombian authorities has been a F.A.R.C. strategy for many years. Crossing over for logistics support is also common. For example, in Lago Agrio, which lies 19 kilometers (12 miles) from the border in the remote Ecuadorian province of Sucumbios, police estimate that 60 percent of the population is involved in regular commerce with F.A.R.C. Taxi drivers report being regularly recruited by F.A.R.C. to smuggle goods into Colombia. Reports estimate that through these smuggling operations, F.A.R.C. receives 1500 cylinders of propane per week from Lago Agrio. These cylinders are used to make home-made mortar rounds.
Venezuela, a New Frontier
In Venezuela, the story is similar. President Hugo Chavez, who will be up for reelection on December 3, 2006, has long been accused of supporting F.A.R.C.
An exemplary case of F.A.R.C. expansion into Venezuela took place in late 2004 when, in a diplomatic crisis know as the "Granda Affair," a F.A.R.C. leader was captured by Colombian authorities in Caracas in a blatant disregard for Venezuelan sovereignty. The Colombian administration initially denied that the leader, Rodrigo Granda, a high-ranking representative of F.A.R.C., was kidnapped in Venezuelan territory, but it was proven that bounty hunters hired by the Colombian government had indeed violated Venezuelan sovereignty.
In response, Chavez withdrew his ambassador from Bogotá, suspended all diplomatic and trade links with Colombia, and demanded an official apology from Uribe for the incident. The crisis was eventually resolved during a summit of the two presidents in February 2005.
Although crisis was averted, tensions are as great as ever between the two neighboring countries. Chavez himself has been accused by both the Colombian and U.S. governments of supporting F.A.R.C. and harboring Colombian insurgents. Although Chavez insists he does not support F.A.R.C., there is ample evidence to suggest that F.A.R.C. still carries out both political and logistical operations within Venezuela.
Several dozen F.A.R.C. camps exist inside Venezuela, where the Colombian insurgents retrieve supplies and rest. Human intelligence sources and satellite photography have also documented permanent F.A.R.C. training camps and field clinics. Venezuelan parliamentary member Julio Montoya believes that there are as many as 500 F.A.R.C. members in Venezuela. He claims that they have been nationalized and carry Venezuelan identification.
Corruption within the Venezuelan National Guard and the military has given F.A.R.C. ample opportunity to manipulate Venezuelan officials. There are widespread reports that FAL rifles with the stamp of the Venezuelan Armed Forces have been found in the hands of F.A.R.C. insurgents; these reports are given further credibility due to the fact that the Venezuelan military is currently phasing out the FAL rifles, replacing them with AK-103 rifles.
In a report by Jane's Information Group, a F.A.R.C. guerrilla, who chose to remain anonymous, claims that F.A.R.C. colleagues would typically transport 1,000 to 1,500 kg of cocaine across the Orinoco River into Venezuelan territory where they would make a payment to the National Guard before continuing on the transport route.
Conditions for drug trafficking have ripened in Venezuela. Tensions between the United States and Venezuela have resulted in weakened counter-narcotics cooperation. The country presents a minimal risk of extradition for traffickers. The Venezuelan petro-economy is booming and a surplus of U.S. dollars facilitates money laundering. As a result of these new conditions, F.A.R.C. has infiltrated Venezuela with great fervor and with an eye for new trafficking routes.
According to Venezuela's National Anti-Drugs Office, Venezuelan authorities seized 31.2 tons of cocaine in 2004; only a year later, they intercepted 58.4 tons of cocaine -- representing an 87 percent increase. That statistic, coupled with the estimate of counter-narcotics experts that seizures generally represent only about ten percent of total traffic through a country, demonstrate a defined increase in trafficking in the country.
Until recently considered only a medium-level transit country for trafficking, Venezuela has quickly risen, becoming a leading country for cocaine transit. F.A.R.C. operatives have infiltrated maritime ports and bribe officials at Maiquetía International Airport. On April 11, 2006, more than five tons of high-purity cocaine was intercepted at the airport in Ciudad del Carmen in the biggest seizure documented in recent years by Mexican authorities. The transport plane originated in Caracas.
F.A.R.C. can be linked directly to Mexican trafficking organizations, acting as a major supplier for the cartels in that country. With the elimination of the Colombian cartels such as Calí and Medellín, Mexican cartels rose to fill the lacuna. Within this relationship, Venezuela plays an important role as a transit country.
In the late 1990s, F.A.R.C. established a trafficking partnership with the Arellano Felix smuggling organization in Tijuana. Upon the arrest of Colombian Dr. Carlos Ariel Charry Guzman and Mexican Enrique Guillermos Salazar Ramos, investigators discovered evidence that linked F.A.R.C. with the Arellano Felix organization. They learned of operations in which F.A.R.C. supplied cocaine to the cartel in exchange for cash and possibly weapons.
Political Presence Reduced but Remains
The discovery of F.A.R.C. connections with the Arellano Felix cartel coincided with the closing of F.A.R.C.'s international office in Mexico City. In April 2002, Mexican authorities made the abrupt decision to shut down F.A.R.C.'s Mexico City office at the Colombian government's request. F.A.R.C.'s office in Mexico, staffed by Marco León Calarca and Olga Marín, had been a legally authorized presence in Mexico for more than a decade and the decision to close it was greatly criticized.
Mexico was the only country in the region where F.A.R.C. had diplomatic representation. Without that office, the only official representation that could answer for F.A.R.C. in the event of a peace process was eliminated.
Without official representation, F.A.R.C. has continued to maintain a semi-political presence in Mexico. In July 2003, the Colombian ambassador in Mexico City, Luis Ignacio Guzman, was the first to voice concern over increased F.A.R.C. activities in Mexico, including infiltration in Mexican institutions. He asserted that F.A.R.C. have an office in the department of Philosophy and Letters in the Autonomous National University of Mexico (U.N.A.M.) where F.A.R.C. political leaders were allegedly contacting radical students with links to the Popular Revolutionary Party (E.P.R.).
The F.A.R.C.-Mexico link highlights a little talked about aspect of F.A.R.C.'s international activity -- its geopolitical activities. Although such activities have greatly diminished since the birth of F.A.R.C. more than 40 years ago, F.A.R.C. still has an active political sector which strives to make connections with leftist organizations in countries across the Americas. One of the most evident sites for F.A.R.C.'s geopolitics is in Argentina, where F.A.R.C. has established a presence in many political organizations.
A key F.A.R.C. political leader in Argentina is Lesmes Bulla Jairo Alonso, alias "Javier Calderón." He acts as F.A.R.C.'s official representative in that country. In Argentina, it is known that F.A.R.C. has financed and supported various piquetera mobilizations. They have connections and work closely with peasant movements such as Movimientos Campesinos (M.O.C.A.S.E.). An established working relationship exists with the communist party of Argentina. F.A.R.C. diplomats have also financially supported the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. They have offered advice and given presentations at the Universidad Popular of Buenos Aires. Connections between F.A.R.C. and Argentine President Nestor Kirchner's government have also been reported.
According to a former Argentine naval intelligence officer, "F.A.R.C. operates in Argentina for two reasons. First, like Paraguay, Argentina is an easy place to launder money. Second, and simply put, there are local political elements sympathetic to F.A.R.C." That said, even in its most political endeavors, F.A.R.C. leaders continue to obtain logistical backing outside of Colombia.
Given the presence of F.A.R.C. in Ecuador, Venezuela, Mexico and Argentina, it remains to be seen whether Uribe and his increased military efforts will succeed in eliminating F.A.R.C. as a terrorist force in Colombia and what effect the militarization will have internationally for the sovereign countries of the Americas that host F.A.R.C. insurgents much more that Uribe would like to admit.
Apart from activity in these four countries, F.A.R.C. operates in Brazil, where they allegedly teach organized criminal factions, including the First Capital Command, how to kidnap. Observers consider Paraguay as a logistical hub, where F.A.R.C. purchases medical supplies, clothes, boots, straps, and all the non-lethal items necessary to keep an army of thousands alive, fed, and sheltered. F.A.R.C. operatives have been arrested in Panama and Costa Rica. They operate gun for cocaine barter deals in Honduras. There are few countries in the Americas not touched in some way by F.A.R.C. operations.
Obviously, Uribe cannot export his zero-tolerance combat against F.A.R.C. into the sovereign territory of other Latin American countries. Yet, he cannot count on the support of these states to protect their own borders. In a region where a myriad of social problems often fill the top lines of federal agendas, protecting border regions often receives little attention and less funding.
This reality is part of the reason why F.A.R.C. has such a strong international network, much of which remains unknown. Furthermore, the one bridge that connected F.A.R.C. with the sovereign government in Colombia -- the humanitarian exchange talks -- was burned when Uribe declared after the October 19 bombing that the only way to rescue hostages was with a military operation. [See: "Colombia's Latest Problems with Corruption"]
Regional leaders recognize the difficult reality that plagues Colombia, but they will likely not make the first move for a change until Colombia's president does what many analysts believe he should have done long ago: campaign to make F.A.R.C. a top agenda item not just in Colombia but in all Latin American countries.
Report Drafted By:
Samuel Logan, Ashley Morse
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