Thursday, March 13, 2008

One Right Hand and One Smoking Gun

Colombia has once again disappeared from the news, and, while I'm thankful not to see the skewed and slanted coverage that characterized last week's reporting of the "crisis", I find myself equally frustrated that the mainstream media seems to have stopped their coverage right in the middle of an ongoing saga. Although CNN, and almost all English language news would have us believe that last week's meeting of the Rio Grupo in the Dominican Republic marked the end of the crisis between Uribe, Correa, and Chavez, back at home, the plot thickened as another high ranking member of the FARC was killed; this time by a most unlikely assassin.

First, although Ecuador responded with indignation when it was suggested that they were offering refuge to the FARC, an article published by El País, in Spain, reports just the opposite. The FARC camps in Ecuador are permanent camps that allow for the storing of weapons and the transport of drugs across the border. The Colombian military reports that it has been the victim of 39 attacks from the other side of the border. In the words of an ex-guerrilla fighter, "the FARC wears the uniform of the Ecuadoran military and moves along the border in trucks." This new information, long suspected by Colombians, makes it a little easier for the world to understand why the military had to go ten kilometers over the border to seek out Reyes.

The death of Reyes and the confiscation of his computer has provided another important window into the operations of the FARC and the behind the scenes political alliances that have surrounded Chavez' work as "peace negotiator" for the liberation of kidnapped civilians held by the FARC. The international community has been hesitant to criticize Chavez openly after having several successes in the release of several kidnapped civilians, but it's now clear that his agenda was far from strictly humanitarian. It turns out that Chavez had pledged 300 million dollars to the FARC to be given in installments of 50 million dollars throughout the year. This information comes from several confiscated computers and the testimony of several recently demobilized guerrilla members. Second hand weapons were among the other in kind donations offered to the Colombian terrorist organization by Chavez.

The President of Colombia and Colombians in general are obviously furious at the betrayal of Chavez but they're not surprised. Chavez has long been known to have deep rooted sympathies with the extreme Leftist insurgency group, and at least now, these ties are clear and obvious enough that Chavez will be left exposed to the light of international public opinion. Still, many questions are left to be answered. Harboring terrorists, a phrase Americans are used to hearing in White House reports on the Middle East, is a serious charge that has devastating consequences for the civilian population. The support from Chavez and the complacency of Ecuadoran officials with respect to FARC operations has allowed the terrorist group a safe harbor from which to organize kidnappings and massacres launched almost exclusively on the civilian populations.

But the FARC presence in Venezuela and Ecuador isn't all bad, according to many military strategists, ex combatants, and community leaders. It also means they're feeling the pressure of the military, and no longer have the stronghold on Colombia that allowed them to carry out their operations for freely for so many years.

The Colombian conflict is complex and academics and politicians alike have struggled to arrive at coherent explanations and solutions. That said, one of the most enlightening and hopeful commentaries that Colombians have heard in years come from an illiterate man who never even finished second grade. Pablo Montaya, better known as "Alias Rojas" spent sixteen years in the FARC, lured by the promise of a better life, and for years unable to see a viable way out of the group. Last week, as the his brigade felt the military closing in on them, he made the decision to kill his commander, Iván Rios, and turn himself in to the Colombian military along with Rios' computer, his right hand, and a wealth of inside information on the past and future of the FARC terrorist activities. Rios' hand, cut off in a scene straight out of the movies, was sent with a messenger, turned in to the army, and checked for fingerprints in order to prove that it was, in fact, Rios who had been killed.

When asked why he chose to desert and why he hadn't done it earlier, Rojas tells Caracol Radio that before, no one was sure what would happen to people that turned themselves in to the military, but now, the government has made it obvious that they provide rights, guarantees, and a clear path to people that wish to leave the armed groups. Since Uribe took office, over 10,000 FARC members and 35,000 from the paramilitaries have demobilized. During the last week, Uribe's popularity, which has been consistently above 70%, rose to a record 82%.

As Rojas sees it, the FARC is on their way out. The fact that they're borrowing money from means their own wealth is withering. He speaks of the meager rations and poor treatment given to members of the FARC and assures us that the group long ago stopped representing the voice of the rural poor. He offers a call to all members to demobilize and predicts that the FARC will be defeated from within more than from the outside as mistrust and deceit among leaders and combatants cause them to fumble and fall.

All in all, things are looking up for Colombia. In the words of Rojas, the death of Reyes and the right hand of Rios "has split the FARC's history in two parts", and the resulting revelations about financial and political ties to Chavez give Colombia and Uribe the smoking gun they needed to secure international solidarity for a hard line against terrorist groups and the countries that harbor them.