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WebMemo #1872 on Latin America

March 28, 2008

The FARC Files, Colombia, and International Terrorism

By

On March 26, 2008, Colombian officials reported recovering 66 pounds of depleted uranium that was originally acquired by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). While it was not of weapons grade, the latest discovery adds to a growing body of disturbing evidence regarding the network of ties and linkages the FARC has developed throughout the Andes and elsewhere. Experts dismiss the possibility of FARC using the depleted uranium to make a "dirty bomb," but they have yet to develop a credible explanation regarding its belligerent intentions.   

The FARC is the oldest and largest guerrilla/terrorist organization in the Americas and is deeply involved in the narcotics business. In the past three months, it has attracted intense international scrutiny as a result of its cynical manipulation of the roughly 700 hostages, including three Americans, that it has held for years; strong public support from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez; and its use of foreign territory, notably Ecuador, as bases for operations against Colombia.     

The FARC Files

On March 1, Colombian forces attacked a FARC camp located one mile inside Ecuador.  The key object of the attack was Raul Reyes, the number two leader in the FARC's shadowy hierarchy. Reyes orchestrated political and military strategy and propaganda for the FARC and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Colombian Army troops and innocent Colombian civilians. He died along with 24 other FARC fighters and sympathizers. The killing of a senior leader demonstrated the growing effectiveness of the Colombian military against the FARC.  Removed from the camp in the attack were three laptop computers, hard disks, and flash drives that belonged to Reyes. 

The Colombia incursion produced a 16-day diplomatic crisis that ended on March 17 with a strong Latin American repudiation of Colombia's actions in the Organization of American States (OAS). But the recovery of the laptops may lead to the further unraveling of the FARC and the exposure of its international backers.     

The release of evidence and documents from Reyes's computers began in piecemeal fashion on March 3. By March 12, an Interpol team was in place in Bogota to review the FARC files and assess their authenticity. On March 17, information derived from the FARC files led to the recovery of more than $480,000 in clandestine cash hidden for several years in Costa Rica. The recovery of the depleted uranium, while not a result of forensic work with the FARC documents, is consistent with documentation regarding the acquisition effort contained in the FARC files. According to U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield, the FARC computers contain millions of pieces of information that will take weeks if not months to review.  

Until now, a selective release of documents has provided disturbing indications of the extent of the FARC's foreign ties. They indicate the following:    

  • Extensive negotiations, cooperation, and possible support by the Government of Rafael Correa of Ecuador for the FARC, and alleged FARC cash for the political campaign of President Correa;
  • Strong relationships between the FARC and President Chávez, dating back to Chávez's failed 1992 coup against the Venezuelan government and leading to the current political support and possible financial and military aid;   
  • The FARC interest in attempting to obtain or make a weapon, albeit relatively unsophisticated, of mass or potent destructiveness. 

International Reaction

Not unexpectedly, the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela want to discount the validity of the FARC files. They claim that Colombia is engaged in a campaign of disinformation. Ecuador, for example, seized on the misidentification of a single photograph, one of thousands that was retrieved from the files, as proof of the unreliability of the FARC files. [1]  Meanwhile, Chávez has shrugged off the serious references to his ties with the FARC by saying that he expects to see a photo of himself meeting with Osama bin Laden.There will be continued resistance, misinformation, and prevarication with regard to Ecuadorian and Venezuelan support for the FARC.    

Jose Miguel Insulza, the current secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) and a former Socialist foreign minister of Chile, is also skeptical about the FARC files. While he believes a technical review can accurately determine whether the material in the computers predates their recovery on March 1 by the Colombians, his publicly expressed doubts that the documents will serve any useful legal or diplomatic purpose has undermined the pro-U.S., center-right government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

While the Secretary General may defend his diplomatic desire to remain neutral and avoid inflaming relations between member states, his views should not be the final position of the OAS. Additionally, while working to defuse the diplomatic crisis caused by Colombia's incursion into Ecuador, the Secretary General emphasized the fine points of international law on non-intervention and deliberately played down the responsibility of individual states and their leaders to combat transnational organizations engaged in acts of terrorist violence. The OAS approach to terrorism needs further updating in the aftermath of 9/11 and in view of an inherent right of security against terrorist attacks.

What the U.S. Should Do

The U.S., working with Colombia and other nations concerned about international terrorism in the hemisphere, need to press in the OAS for the formation of an investigatory body to examine the FARC files. Mechanisms such as the Inter-American Commission Against Terrorism (CICTE) already exist. They should be swiftly activated and empowered to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the international support for the FARC.

Independent of the OAS, the White House should assemble a body of regional, legal, and intelligence experts, including members of Congress from both parties, to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the FARC files once they are released. Such a step would permit an impartial, transparent analysis and review of the controversial documents and remove the veil of secrecy from what should be a public examination of a major narco-terrorist organization. 

Sanctions generally target authoritarian or dictatorial leaders and nations where the people have no say in the behavior of their leaders and no chance to remove them from office either by elections or other constitutional means. Such is not the case in Ecuador or Venezuela, where the elected leadership has chosen to steer policy toward supporting intervention and the FARC in Colombia. Economic and trade sanctions that broadly punish the people of Ecuador and Venezuela will likely trigger a nationalist backlash against the U.S. and could harm important U.S. interests. Therefore, the State and Justice Departments should examine a range of potential smart sanctions-visa revocations, prohibitions on travel, the monitoring of personal assets-aimed at the high officials in Ecuador and Colombia, potentially including Presidents Chávez and Correa, who have aided and abetted the FARC.           

Conclusion

The recovery of the FARC files on March 1 offers a chance to make a thorough examination of a foreign terrorist organization that has brought misery to Colombia, death to American citizens, and serious harm to U.S. interests. It also could mark a fresh point of departure for a redoubled effort to eradicate terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.  

Ray Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.



[1]  On March 15, Bogota's El Tiempo newspaper identified a picture of Reyes meeting with an individual it identified as Ecuadorian Minister of Security Gustavo Larrea.  The story was retracted when the man in the picture was identified as the head of the Argentine Communist Party. 

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