Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Democracy Now Reports on Colombia Border Crisis

Democracy Now

March 04, 2008

With US Assistance, Colombian Troops Attack and Kill 20 FARC Rebels Inside Ecuador
Tensions are high in the Andes following a Colombian military attack in neighboring Ecuador. A leading commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC—and twenty other fighters were killed Saturday when Colombian troops crossed the Ecuadorian border in a pre-dawn raid. On Monday, both Ecuador and Venezuela rushed troops to their borders with Colombia and said they would cut their diplomatic ties with Bogota. [includes rush transcript]
Mario Murillo, longtime journalist and author of Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism and Destablization. He is co-host of Wake-Up Call on the Pacifica Radio station WBAI in New York. He joins me from the Hofstra University studio in Long Island, where he teaches media and communications.
Helga Serrano, Ecuadorian activist with the international network for the abolition of foreign military bases, No Bases, speaking from Quito, Ecuador.
Arlene Tickner, Professor of International Affairs at the University of Los Andes in Bogota, where she joins us on the phone.
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AMY GOODMAN: Tensions are high in the Andes following a Colombian military attack in neighboring Ecuador. A leading commander of the FARC and twenty other fighters were killed Saturday when Colombian troops crossed the Ecuadorian border in a pre-dawn raid. Colombia called the attack a major blow to the FARC rebels. The commander, Raul Reyes, had been viewed as a possible successor to FARC’s seventy-seven-year-old leader, Manuel Marulanda.
On Monday, both Ecuador and Venezuela rushed troops to their borders with Colombia and said they would cut their diplomatic ties with Bogota. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro announced the expulsion of Colombia’s ambassador in Caracas.

0. NICOLAS MADURO: [translated] In the number of measures we have taken to safeguard national sovereignty, the respect and dignity of our institutions, of our democracy, the Venezuelan government has decided to expel the Colombian ambassador in Caracas and all of the diplomatic personnel in the Colombian embassy in Caracas.

AMY GOODMAN: Colombia said it found evidence in the FARC camp that Venezuela had given the rebels more than $300 million. Colombia also accused Ecuador of supporting the rebels. Both Venezuela and Ecuador denounced the charges and accused the Colombian president of lying. This is Ecuadorian Defense Minister Wellington Sandoval.

0. WELLINGTON SANDOVAL: [translated] It’s a completely harebrained idea. We do not have, nor have we ever had, nor will we ever have, any ties with FARC. I must also say that in view that we have lost all contact and communication with the Colombian armed forces, I have asked the Foreign Ministry to end the agreement with [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we turn to Mario Murillo, a longtime journalist, author of Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism and Destabilization, co-host of Wake-Up Call on Pacifica Radio station WBAI, and a professor at Hofstra University, where he is joining us from right now.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Mario. Tell us about the significance of the killing of Raul Reyes, a man that you interviewed several times.

MARIO MURILLO: Well, it’s great to be with you, Amy. It’s a very significant development on many fronts. First of all, of course, this is the first time in over forty-four years of counterinsurgency warfare that the Colombian government and the armed forces actually knocked down one of the top commanders of the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Raul Reyes, as you rightly put forward in the introduction, is the—was the second in command. Basically, he was considered the official ambassador, diplomat of the FARC, who traveled all around the world, to El Salvador, to Latin America, to Europe, talking with all different kinds of leaders, and he was perhaps the most visible of all the FARC commanders, especially after the 1999 peace talks that began with President Andres Pastrana. So he was one of the most visible leaders. He was also, ironically, the person who most likely could reach some kind of an accord, because he was much more of a diplomat than he was perhaps a military strategist. In fact, some command—some people in the FARC in the early days made fun of him, saying that he wasn’t necessarily a strategist, he was more of a diplomat. So knocking him down, killing him the way he was killed, was a big public-relations victory for Alvaro Uribe Velez, the President of Colombia, especially in light of what has been going on over the last couple of weeks.
It came at an opportune time, because there’s been criticism of Uribe Velez for not really carrying out serious measures to release the hostages that the FARC have been holding for some time now. Just last week, four hostages were released by the FARC to the Venezuelan government because of the intervention of Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan government. And those people, when they got to Venezuela, those people who were in captivity for five, six years, immediately started criticizing and calling into question Uribe Velez’s positions, basically saying that, you know, we were walking through the jungles for 250 kilometers, and we didn’t see one soldier in sight. One of them actually said that—the FARC operate in the countryside—they move in the countryside and the jungles much like fish in water. So there was a lot of criticism as to the security policy of Uribe, not to mention the political strategy of refusing to negotiate with the FARC to eventually release the hostages.
Now that you knock out somebody like Raul Reyes, such a high visible figure in the FARC for so many years, it’s almost as if it’s a moot point, because it adds to the idea that Uribe Velez has been arguing for so long, that we can win this fight militarily, and we’re not going to sit down and negotiate with these, quote-unquote, “terrorists.” 

AMY GOODMAN: Mario, we’re going to play just a clip of an interview that you did with Raul Reyes in 1996. Can you just set the stage for us? Where were you? Where did you video him?

MARIO MURILLO: Well, it was kind of a strange period. This was—I mean, he was already a big figure in the FARC at that point when we interviewed him at this time in 1996 during the Sao Paolo Forum, which was a major forum for progressive and left movements throughout the hemisphere. It was before the World Social Forum that took place several years later. At this time, he was trying, of course, to do what he always did, which was build relations with progressive movements, with the FMLN, for example, in El Salvador, with other sectors who were struggling for social change on an international level. But he had not reached the kind of mythic proportions that he did in 1999 once he became perhaps the most visible spokesperson for the FARC during the peace negotiations. At this time, he was still kind of under the radar screen. And when we interviewed him, he was asked—he deliberately asked us to get him by—on profile as opposed to front forward, and it was an interesting discussion talking about some of the issues that were prevalent twelve years ago that in many respects haven’t really gone away in Colombia today. 

AMY GOODMAN: This is just a short clip of the now slain FARC commander, Raul Reyes, in 1996.

0. RAUL REYES: [translated] For peace, there has to be a policy that comes from the state. That means there has to be guarantees for the insurgency to sit with the government and to discuss about the new Colombia we should all construct. Right now, there are no guarantees. Right now, continued threats against the leaders of the guerrilla movements, the proliferation of murderers and massacres, continues.

AMY GOODMAN: That is, well, the now slain FARC commander, Raul Reyes. I wanted to ask you, Mario, a high-placed official in the Colombian Defense Ministry said, on condition of anonymity, it was the US intelligence agency that first told Bogota several weeks ago that Reyes was sporadically using a satellite phone whose signal could be pinpointed.

MARIO MURILLO: There is no doubt. I mean, it’s interesting. Obviously, we’ve still got to wait a little bit before we get more details as to the way this operation unfolded, a cross-border operation. We should continue reminding people that it was a cross-border incursion by the Colombian government. But it’s eerily reminiscent of what happened in 1993, when the Colombian forces, with United States intelligence assistance and direct cooperation, killed the leader of the Medellin Cartel at the time, Pablo Escobar, who was a fugitive from justice at that time.
And what we see right now in 2008 is a process where the US military assistance, eight years of Plan Colombia, six years of Uribe’s total war carried out against the FARC, and a real stepped-up improvement in the communications technology that the Colombian armed forces are using, resulting in this kind of attack leading to the death of Raul Reyes, it would be hard to imagine that this kind of cross-border incursion could have occurred without the knowledge, without the understanding of the United States, especially given the large presence that the US has particularly in the southern part of the country.
The military assistance that the United States has directed has been presented as a counter-narcotics aid package of over $5 billion over the last eight years in Plan Colombia. But there’s no doubt that it has been really geared towards attacking the guerrillas. It’s been a counterinsurgency assistance package that continues to maintain the same levels that it did even in 1999 and 2000, when Plan Colombia first started.

AMY GOODMAN: Mario, I wanted to go to Helga Serrano. She’s an Ecuadorian activist with the international network for the abolition of foreign military bases called No Bases. What is the response in Ecuador to this cross-border raid by the Colombian troops that killed the FARC commander, Helga? 

HELGA SERRANO: Thank you for the call. We are outraged in Ecuador. We cannot imagine that our country that is a neighbor and that we have about 500,000 Colombians here, which our country has received in solidarity, because they have been displaced because of the conflict of the war in Colombia, and that President Uribe pays us like this, by bombing our country, by being a puppet to the Bush administration, by using military bases like the Tres Esquinas in Colombia to carry out the attack. And we are asking and demanding an investigation to see if the base in Manta was also used in this attack.
We are outraged, and we are having a big demonstration on Thursday, March 6 at 6:00 in the afternoon. There are demonstrations already going on yesterday. There will be another one today. And many organizations are calling—are supporting President Correa’s position. He has got a very firm position. And we are demanding, once again, the closure of these military bases, which we feel are the structure from which these kinds of activities are carried out. 

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Arlene Tickner, who’s a professor of international affairs at the University of Los Andes in Bogota. The responses inside Colombia, Professor Tickner? 

ARLENE TICKNER: Unfortunately, the response has been full support of President Uribe. The case is being presented as a justified incursion into Ecuadorian territory in pursuit of terrorist groups that haven’t been persecuted by the Ecuadorian government. This is basically the position of the government. And as I say, both the media and opposition parties have also fully supported the decision of the government to present the case in this way.

AMY GOODMAN: Mario Murillo, we’re going to go back to you and end with you, with the troops on the border now, Ecuador sending troops to the border with Colombia and Venezuela. What is the possibility of open conflict?

MARIO MURILLO: I think that’s a lesser possibility, and I hope I’m wrong in this assertion. I think the bigger problem is the consolidation of what’s going on right now with Uribe. Uribe, as our previous speaker just said, is 83 percentage points popularity in terms of this action or support of this action.
And it comes just a few days before this massive mobilization that’s taking place on March 6, this big mobilization to call to question the impunity and the double standard of, quote-unquote, "human rights, democracy and justice in Colombia,” a massive mobilization to call into question the relationship between the Colombian government and paramilitary forces in the country that has been responsible for the vast majority of the displacements, the vast majority of the human rights abuses that have gone in Colombia for the last twenty years or so. Uribe now, with this action that has taken place, with the killing of Raul Reyes and the international kind of uproar that’s occurred, it’s made it as if this March 6 mobilization against the paramilitaries, against the Uribe administration, is going to be almost like having a homecoming parade on the first day of spring break at a university. Nobody’s going to be paying attention because of the level of the propaganda success of this operation against Raul Reyes. 

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, and I thank you all for being with us. Mario Murillo’s book is called Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism and Destabilization. Helga Serrano, joining us from Quito, Ecuador. And Professor Arlene Tickner, joining us from Colombia, from Bogota.

Colombia Guerilla Leader’s Death: Diplomatic Distractions and the Consolidation of the Para-Military State

Colombia Guerilla Leader’s Death: Diplomatic Distractions and the Consolidation of the Para-Military State

The gruesome image of the bloodied corpse of Raul Reyes, the 59-year-old number two of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, killed in Ecuador in a dramatic cross-border incursion by Colombian government forces over the weekend, is yet another public relations victory for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Vélez. For Washington’s closest ally in the region, the demise of this veteran guerilla leader could not have come at a more opportune time, given recent developments that were beginning to raise questions as to the overall success of his war against the FARC, and the inherent contradictions in the government’s approach to terrorism carried out against civilians.

Just last week, four Colombian Senators who were held captive by the guerillas for over five years were handed over to the Venezuelan government after weeks of behind the scenes discussions aimed at winning their release. Once freed from their painful captivity, the former hostages praised President Hugo Chavez for his efforts in playing the role of intermediary, while calling into question the effectiveness of Uribe’s so-called “democratic security strategy.” In post-release interviews with the media, the ex-hostages described walking “250 kilometers without ever seeing even one soldier,” concluding that the “FARC moves in the jungle like fish in the water.”

This was not what President Uribe wanted the people of Colombia to hear, especially given his repeated criticisms of Venezuela’s Chavez for his ongoing efforts, on behalf of the hostages, to nail down a humanitarian accord between the guerillas and the Colombian government. Uribe’s conviction that there is no need to sit down and negotiate with terrorists who kidnap innocent civilians, despite the universal demands that something needed to be done to break the long impasse, was beginning to look somewhat frivolous in the face of several high profile hostage releases over the last month. For weeks, as calls grew louder for a so-called “humanitarian accord” between Uribe’s government and the FARC to exchange hostages for FARC combatants currently in prison, Uribe was looking for anything that would enable him to side-track the issue, refusing to accept any situation that would give FARC the belligerent status it had lost after Uribe’s predecessor broke bilateral talks in 2002.

President Uribe needed something to happen in order to shift the focus once again, and it needed to be more than the large scale and highly publicized pseudo-event that took place on February 4th. It was on that date last month that hundreds of thousands of Colombians took the streets of various cities in Colombia to publicly denounce the FARC’s use of kidnapping. The “national mobilization for peace” was characterized as a non-governmental protest against the “terrorism of the guerillas,” which called for an end to their use of kidnapping as a tool in their war against the state. While not an “officially-sanctioned” protest, the government led the charge, calling on every sector of society to participate. The event received non-stop media coverage leading up to February 4th, with media outlets like El Tiempo, Colombia’s paper of record, even opening up a space for people to post videos and photographs of the march on their website. Every important news media outlet in Colombia provided specific details about locations for the march, with pop-up maps of each city a regular feature on the websites of the nation’s newspapers, radio, television and magazines. The march was talked up constantly on television programs and radio talk shows. It was an uncommon multi-media mobilizing blitz that one would usually only see before national elections, or when the National soccer team was playing in a big game in an important international tournament.

Uribe didn’t have to do much to make this march and rally a public relations success. Colombia’s media owners promoted the mobilization as a legitimate public service, since it was considered a popular referendum against a guerilla group – FARC - that for years had alienated great sectors of the population with its reckless military tactics and attacks on civilians, what universally has been described in the media as terrorism. Afterall, who could possibly be against a march that was demanding an end to kidnapping and the release of all hostages, a horrific strategy the rebels have used for decades? One would have to be at best insensitive, at worst a “terrorist sympathizer,” not to support the goals of this march. For most media it was a no-brainer. In the end, the dramatic images of hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets that day in every major city of the country were quite impressive, if not unprecedented, and needless to say, it warranted substantial coverage.

However, what was rarely presented in the buildup to the march by these same media outlets was the outrage felt by those sectors of the population who for decades had been victimized, not by FARC, but by right-wing paramilitaries, very often operating with the direct collaboration of the Armed Forces. For these people, there was an inherent contradiction in the media’s – and the government’s - large scale cheerleading: if you’re sincerely going to call for an end to los violentos, the violent ones, why not be consistent and confront them all simultaneously? Or is it that the victims of the FARC are worth more to the editors and publishers in the media than those tens of thousands of people terrorized for years by right wing death squads?

Furthermore, in previous years, when popular, national mobilizations for peace were organized to denounce paramilitary terror, there was nowhere near the kind of media frenzy that accompanied the February 4th, 2008 action. Most of them were totally ignored until the day of the event. Yes, the FARC’s tactics may be deplorable, was the argument of many critics, but so are those of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC, the paramilitary group which Uribe openly negotiated with since his first year in the presidency. Somehow, the contradictions evident in Uribe’s policies were getting harder each day to sweep under the rug, especially after the still unresolved “para-politics” scandal linked top officials in the Colombian government to drug traffickers and paramilitary leaders.

In fact, in response to the apparent double standard of the anti-FARC mobilization, a broad coalition of civic groups and human rights organizations have organized a second rally, which is scheduled for this Thursday, March 6th, 2008, to denounce the crimes of the AUC and its allies in the Colombian Armed Forces. The rally is supposed to draw attention to the almost complete institutional impunity that exists in Colombia, particularly under the Uribe-backed Law for Peace and Justice, the measure that ostensibly protects paramilitary fighters and drug dealers from criminal prosecution as part of the government-AUC negotiations. This second march and rally is by no means designed to condone the FARC, its tactics, or its platform, as some of the most intolerant members of the Colombian punditry have hinted, but to challenge those leaders who, in supporting the February 4th anti-FARC mobilization, had publicly stated it was time to stand up to the “terrorists threatening Colombian democracy.” Needless to say, the March 6th rally has not had the large-scale media endorsements of the earlier one, and in fact, considerable space is being provided in the major media to openly defy the anti-paramilitary message of the organizers.

Which is precisely why the assault on the guerilla encampment just over the border in Ecuador on February 29th should be considered a political and strategic master-stroke on the part of the Colombian government. Not only did they accomplish something the Armed Forces have never been able to do in over forty years of counter-insurgency warfare – kill a top leader of the FARC’s Secretariat. But in so doing have made any talk of sitting down with the FARC over a humanitarian accord ring hollow in the ears of a Colombian public that is easily convinced that the guerillas are indeed losing the war. It was also a pro-active way of completely discrediting Hugo Chavez, accused for years of embracing FARC at the expense of Colombian national security.

And the timing of Reyes’ violent death is made even more useful, precisely because of the round the clock attention it is getting in the Colombian news media. The drumbeat coverage this attack has generated will make Thursday’s anti-paramilitary mobilization – designed to call attention to the impunity characteristic of the Uribe administration - seem like a college homecoming parade held on the first day of Spring break. Who will be paying it any attention?

The situation has been complicated further by the fact that the attack on the guerilla encampment resulting in Reyes’ death took place on Ecuadoran soil, something that under normal circumstances would have been universally condemned. Yet the cries of protest emanating from President Javier Correa have been rendered meaningless by Colombia’s claim that the left-leaning Ecuadoran government was developing close ties with FARC leaders, including Reyes. Colombian security officials were quick to point out that documents recovered in the camp where Reyes was killed show that Ecuador and FARC were beginning to work together, and had met on several occasions in the last several months. Once again, the high art of diversion was kicking into full gear in Bogotá. Who would dare protest the violation of another country’s sovereignty when there is “evidence” that that invaded country was collaborating with a “terrorist organization?” It is language taken straight out of Washington’s playbook since 9/11, justifying any military invasion on national security grounds, and then finding ways to distract public opinion when anybody stops to ask questions.

The bottom line is that the attack that killed Raul Reyes, perhaps the most visible of all Colombian rebel leaders who, not coincidentally, was also the one most capable of carrying out a dialogue with both allies and antagonists alike, cannot be understood outside the context of Washington’s unbending support for President Uribe, despite the inherent contradictions in his so-called security policy. After eight years of Plan Colombia, over $5-billion in military assistance and training, and non-stop public endorsements by the Bush administration of Uribe’s policies, it should come as no surprise that Washington was the first government to openly applaud the military action, described by some observers as a massacre carried out while the guerillas were sleeping. The sophistication of the intelligence intercepts that resulted in Reyes’ death were eerily reminiscent of the manner in which drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was hunted down and killed by Colombian special forces units operating with U.S. agents in 1993. It is hard to imagine that U.S. officials were not directly involved in the intelligence exchange that led up to the action, or at least privy to the incursion prior to and as it was happening.

Once again, Uribe can play the victim, and openly accuse his neighbors in Hugo Chavez and Javier Correa, of supporting terrorism. In the meantime, a so-called diplomatic dispute has erupted, with Chavez moving troops along the border with Colombia, and Ecuador breaking diplomatic ties with Bogotá. Colombian police chief Oscar Naranjo described in detail how FARC was trying to obtain uranium in order to create a dirty bomb, and how the Ecuadoran government was complicit in this potential disaster. And as all of this is unfolding on center stage, while behind the scenes where nobody is watching, Uribe can take a few more steps in consolidating the paramilitary state that he has been carefully constructing since winning the presidency in 2002.

Mario A. Murillo is an associate professor of communication at Hofstra University in New York, and author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest, and Destabilization (Seven Stories, 2004). The host of “Wake Up Call” on WBAI Pacifica Radio, he is currently working on a book about Colombia’s indigenous movement and its community media strategies.