The recent death at the hands of the Colombian military of Luis Edgar Devia Silva - better known as Raúl Reyes, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia's (FARC) second in command - has had a ripple effect throughout Latin America.
The attack - which was carried out several kilometres inside Ecuador's territory and killed more than 20 other guerrillas - may halt further releases of FARC hostages. On February 27, FARC guerrillas had released four Colombian politicians to Venezuelan mediators after freeing other hostages in January.
The ultra-right wing Government of President Álvaro Uribe publicly blamed the FARC for the delayed release of the first set of hostages. However, Justin Delacour, editor of the Latin America News Review, recently noted how an agreed exchange in December failed because of the Colombian Military's continual bombing of areas where the FARC were to free the hostages:
Never did the [US] press ask whether the Uribe Government might have tried to sabotage the hostage release. The omission was ironic given that even the New York Times recognized, after the initial release effort failed, that Uribe had little interest in a hostage release presided over by an international delegation organized by [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez. As the Times reported, “a successful mission would have been likely to have embarrassed Mr Uribe, a conservative who has made little progress in negotiating the release of any of the several hundred hostages held in jungle camps, some for nearly a decade”.
Whatever one may think about the guerrilla's activities (which include human rights violations and partial involvement in the cocaine trade), the calculated death of Reyes - considered a moderate within the FARC and France's key contact in the negotiations to free former presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt - will not be helpful in establishing peace in Colombia.
Now that the FARC is classified as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department, leaders like Reyes - who once travelled widely on diplomatic visas - are viewed as legitimate targets by the Colombian Government.
More importantly, Uribe's move demonstrates that his Government may eventually be looking to enter into a conflict with its neighbours at the request of the United States. There are already close links: Bogota receives roughly US$600 million a year from Washington for its counter-insurgency strategy known as Plan Colombia, and sophisticated US intelligence equipment was used to track Reyes down in Ecuador.
Everyone knew that sensitive hostage negotiations were taking place which involved the Colombian government, the FARC, Venezuela, France and Ecuador. During the operation against the guerrillas, Uribe also telephoned Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa who later stated that "the [Colombian] President either was poorly informed or brazenly lied to the President of Ecuador" about the incident.
Correa described the operation as "scandalous actions that are an aggression on our territory". And his view, although generally unreported, has been echoed in strong diplomatic language by the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, Chile, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Bolivia.
Once it was evident Ecuador and Venezuela would react strongly to the incursion (both expelled Bogota's ambassadors) the Colombian General Oscar Naranjo declared that Chávez had given the FARC US$300 million. The guerrilla's aims, he told the world, were to buy uranium from another party for a "dirty bomb".
However, according to a report in The Guardian, Naranjo "provided no proof of the payment and journalists were not given copies of the documents" which purported to reveal that Venezuela had donated money to the FARC. (Other reports have found numerous flaws in the Colombian government's story.)
Both Ecuador and Venezuela have strong reasons to be concerned with Uribe's actions.
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