On March 1, Raúl Reyes, the nom de guerre of Luis
Édgar Devia Silva, a senior leader of the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), died as he had
lived--violently--on the borderland between Colombia and Venezuela.
A commander of the FARC's Southern Bloc, Reyes stood in line for a
top leadership position in the narco-terrorist group. In the eyes
of Colombian law, the 59-year-old, avuncular-looking Reyes was a
natural-born killer with more than 121 legal cases opened against
him, 57 of them for homicide and acts of terrorism, and 14
At the time of his death, there was a $5 million reward for
information leading to Reyes' arrest and/or conviction, offered by
the U.S. government. The Colombian Minister of Defense called
Reyes' death a major setback for the terrorist guerrilla
The engagement that killed Reyes and 16 other FARC insurgents
occurred on the Ecuador side of the border and appears to have
involved possible violations of Ecuadorian sovereignty. The
reaction of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to a bilateral
incident and his order to militarize the Colombia-Venezuela
frontier threaten to escalate the incident into a full-blown
regional crisis. This is an opportunity for the Organization of
American States (OAS) and regional leaders to play a stronger role
in crisis management and addressing threats to hemispheric
Sovereignty vs. Safe Havens
Many details about the operation remain sketchy and conflicting.
It is unclear whether the Colombian military located Reyes by
tracking his satellite phone or by getting information from an
informant. The Colombians say they were fired upon and returned
fire in self-defense. Ecuadorians say Reyes and his troops were
camped for the night on Ecuadorian territory and were not in a
Nonetheless, it is clear that Colombia launched a joint air-land
operation against a FARC encampment that crossed into Ecuador. The
distance of the incursion remains in dispute. While Colombian
President Alvaro Uribe apparently briefed President Rafael Correa
of Ecuador on the operation hours after the attack, Correa now
claims he was misled and misinformed by his Colombian counterpart
and has denounced Reyes' death as "the worst aggression suffered by
Ecuador at the hands of Colombia." The details of the operation
will be disputed and investigated in the weeks ahead.
On March 2, the Colombian military reported that it had
recovered "revealing" information from computers captured in Reyes'
effects, including records of contacts with senior security
officials in Ecuador who were reportedly interested in "formalizing
a relationship with the FARC." Authorities in Quito denied any
links between the FARC and officials in Ecuador.
The situation surrounding Reyes' death demands further objective
investigation. Furthermore, governments and citizens must recognize
that terrorists and insurgents, be they narco-terrorists in the
FARC, al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, or Kurdish terrorists
in Iraq, show no respect for frontiers and national
"A Good Revolutionary"
In his Sunday address to the nation on March 2, Venezuelan
President Hugo Chávez eulogized Reyes as "a good
revolutionary" and called the Colombian operation "a cowardly
By once more defending the FARC, Chávez showed his
troublesome and increasingly strident interventionist streak in
Colombia. The most recent crisis can be traced back to
Chávez's August 2007 involvement as a "mediator" in a
humanitarian effort to obtain the release of kidnap victims held by
the FARC. The number of hostages held by the FARC is estimated to
run into the hundreds and includes former presidential candidate
and French-Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt and three American
In November 2007, following unauthorized direct contact between
Chávez and the Colombian military, President Uribe told
Chávez to stand down in his efforts, provoking a vehement
reaction by Chávez. In early 2008, Chávez, with
assistance from the Red Cross and others, succeeded in obtaining
the release of two female political hostages. Another four
political hostages were released on February 28.
On January 11, 2008, still riding high after the first release,
Chávez applauded the FARC's release of hostages and urged
Europeans and others to remove the FARC from the ranks of
international terrorist organizations. The FARC, Chávez
announced, was a genuine army, occupying territory and fighting for
the Bolivarian cause. Although the FARC has been spurned by
responsible leaders and the Colombian people, Chávez has
attempted to grant new legitimacy to the discredited
Chávez's support for the FARC provoked an outpouring of
public opposition to the FARC and its violent ways, culminating in
massive street rallies in Colombia on February 4 that were echoed
by smaller events around the world.
In early February, Wilber Varela, aka "Soap," a leader of
Colombia's violent North Valley cartel, was murdered on Venezuelan
soil. The episode raised troubling questions about links between
drug lords and Venezuelan authorities. Investigative journalists in
Colombia have also raised questions regarding the secretive
activities of General Hugo Armando Carvajal, Chávez's chief
of military intelligence, citing anonymous witnesses who were
present at repeated meetings between the general and FARC
On the Alert
In response to the Ecuador incident, Chávez issued
maneuver orders on March 2: "Move 10 battalions to the Colombian
frontier immediately, tank battalions, military aviation!"
Chávez announced he was closing Venezuela's embassy in
Bogota and said that he would strike Colombia if its military
forces made a similar incursion into Venezuela.
This response illustrates Chávez's increasing
bellicosity. Two weeks ago, following the filing of a massive suit
against Venezuela's state-run oil company, PdVSA, Chávez
threatened to cut off oil shipments to the U.S. if the suit harmed
Venezuela, a statement he later modified to mean if attacked by the
At home, Chávez faces mounting inflation, food shortages
caused by his anti-market economics, and soaring crime rates. The
current crisis also gives Chávez a chance to call attention
to the package of military hardware that includes Russian-made
helicopters and 24 new Su-30MK2 multi-role fighters.
Venezuela's escalation of the border incident between Colombia
and Ecuador is an unwelcome step toward the abyss. While war may
not be imminent, Chávez's truculent and trigger-happy
approach to the diplomatic crisis has set alarm bells ringing
throughout the hemisphere.
The heightened risk of conflict between Venezuela and Colombia
requires immediate action by the Hemisphere's regional body. The
Organization of American States (OAS), now on the verge of
celebrating its 60th anniversary, has an excellent opportunity to
act. OAS Secretary General Miguel Insulza has a number of tools
available to facilitate a calming of emotions and a more impartial
approach to crisis management. Yet he will face opposition from
Chávez and his supporters, who will attempt to scapegoat the
U.S. for the death of a convicted murderer and terrorists.
Regrettably, the U.S. Congress has yet to confirm the U.S.
ambassador to the OAS.
The crisis is also an opportunity for a regional leader like
Brazil to adopt a more proactive stance on hemispheric security
threats and to insert itself into a spiraling contest that pits
Chávez and his bloc of allies against the elected and
legitimate government of Colombia. While the threat of a war
between states may diminish in the days ahead, the triangular
struggle between President Uribe of Colombia, the FARC, and its
increasingly vocal supporters in Presidents Chávez and
Correa will require ongoing efforts at crisis management in an
increasingly dangerous part of the world.
Ray Walser is Senior Policy Analyst
for Latin America in the Douglas
and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division
of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.