The Andean Crisis

On the first day, Colombian military and police forces launched an attack on an encampment of the Colombian guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) in Ecuadorian territory, killing over 20 people.

On day two, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa denounced the violation of his country’s sovereignty and called the Colombian president a liar. Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe accused Ecuador and Venezuela of forging secret pacts with the guerrillas.

By the third day, Ecuador had broken off diplomatic ties with Colombia, Venezuela had expelled the Colombian ambassador, and Colombian General Oscar Naranjo was saying that computers recovered at the camp revealed Venezuelan funding of the guerrilla group.

On day five, the Organization of American States convened a commission to investigate the incursion, reiterating its support of national sovereignty and noting that the attack had “triggered a serious crisis between [Ecuador and Colombia] that led to “grave tensions in the region.”

And then, on the seventh day, everybody made up and went home.

Even for a continent famed for volatile political relations, the events of the Andean crisis passed by with dizzying speed and dangerous passions. Accusations tossed back and forth went way beyond the exchange of insults common in the past, and revealed deep fissures and mistrust among nations in the hemisphere.

The immediate crisis has been averted. But the geopolitical divisions in the region threaten to lead to more conflicts in the near future.

Crossborder Attack on the FARC

In the pre-dawn hours of March 1, Colombian forces dropped a series of “smart bombs” on a FARC encampment. Military and police forces followed up by entering the Ecuadorean border province of Sucumbíos. The main target was Raúl Reyes (real name Luis Edgar Devia), a member of the FARC´s leading secretariat and possibly the next in line of succession following the ailing Manuel Marulanda. Reyes was killed in the attack.

Reyes’ death represents a major blow to the guerrilla and a victory for the Colombian government. Although the Colombian government at first asserted that it had crossed into Ecuador in pursuit of the guerrillas, an Ecuadorean government investigation of the site indicated that many had been killed in their sleep and that the attack was premeditated.

Despite the illegality of Colombia’s incursion, the FARC can hardly be considered an innocent victim. Its war on the Colombian government spans over four decades, including several unsuccessful peace negotiations. Particularly over the past two decades, the guerrillas have adopted tactics that have been widely documented and denounced by human rights organizations. These include forced recruitment of minors, massacres of indigenous and peasant communities, and financing through drug trafficking and kidnapping. On February 4, hundreds of thousands of Colombians marched in protest of the FARC and the displacement and violence that the guerrilla war has caused throughout the country.

Although the FARC is a major nemesis of the Colombian government, the militarization of the conflict since the rise to power of President Alvaro Uribe has dimmed prospects of peaceful resolution. Continuous scandals involving evidence of the government’s close ties to paramilitary groups have deepened divisions. The arming of both sides – in large part as a result of U.S. military aid under Plan Colombia – has heightened the violence.

The cross-border attack of March 1 weakened the guerrillas but also further entrenched the conflict and threatened to spread it to neighboring nations. In the short term, it scuttled hopes of obtaining the release of FARC prisoners. Under mediation efforts led by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, several had been liberated over recent months, and negotiations seemed close to obtaining the release of the guerrilla’s most high-profile hostage, former congresswoman Ingrid Betancourt. France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner revealed shortly after the attack that Reyes had been the contact for negotiating her release.

Regional Diplomacy

When Latin American and Caribbean heads of state met in the already-scheduled Rio Group summit on March 7, tensions were high. The group had two tasks before it: to calm the waters and to keep Washington as far out of the picture as possible.

They succeeded. After a morning name-calling session, the group exacted an apology from the Colombian government and a promise not to repeat incursions in foreign territory. Photo ops at the end of the meeting showed Uribe and Correa shaking hands cordially.

The Organization of American States (OAS) also faced a critical test of its relevancy. A resolution passed by its general assembly on March 5 called for a special commission headed by the secretary general to visit both countries and present a report to a meeting of foreign ministers. The resolution did not mince words when describing Colombia´s action as “a violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ecuador and of principles of international law.”

On March 17, it passed a resolution that affirmed “respect for sovereignty and abstention from the threat or use of force” enshrined in its charter, and condemned Colombia’s military incursion as “a clear violation of Articles 19 and 21 of the OAS Charter.” The resolution also noted the Colombian president’s apology and his pledge not to repeat “under any circumstances” the events of March 1. It reiterated “the firm commitment of all member states to combat threats to security caused by the actions of irregular groups or criminal organizations, especially those associated with drug trafficking.”

The “Spill-Over” Nightmare

Despite the efforts of the Rio Group, the OAS, and civil society, the nightmare of other Latin American countries is that the Colombian conflict could spill over the border into neighboring nations and even enflame a region-wide conflict. Immediately after the incursion, the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela sent troops to the border, and Hugo Chavez warned that an incursion into Venezuelan territory could result in war. Even Panama fears that displaced Colombians and drug traffickers on its border in the Darien Gap jungle region could now spark some form of outside intervention.

The Bush administration is not far from this equation. The antagonism between the Bush and Chavez governments, both known for rhetorical excess and ideological rigidity, has led to an open battle for allegiances in the region. Chávez, betraying certain sympathies for the guerrilla, called for a moment of silence following Reyes´death while Washington diplomats have downplayed the incursion and called for more action in combating terrorism.

In Latin America, some have speculated about the timing and broader strategy behind this attack. Wellington Sandoval, Ecuador´s defense minister, travelled to the border region to demonstrate the lack of Colombian troops along the 720 kilometers of shared border. He noted that the Ecuadorian army had been on the verge of capturing Reyes last November and questioned the fact that the Colombian army waited until the guerrilla leader was inside Ecuador to attack. “Why did they wait for him to come into Ecuador to attack him?” Sandoval is reported to have asked. “Are they trying to involve us? Unfortunately, for some time there has been an evil plan to involve Ecuador in Plan Colombia… it´s not our war.”

The use of U.S. satellite equipment to intercept signals leading to the camp and speculation about other forms of involvement have fed fears that the attack forms part of a larger plan. President Correa, speaking on his weekly radio program on Mar. 15, expressed his suspicion that the attack formed part of a “destabilization plan” aimed at retaining the U.S. airbase in Manta, Ecuador, which he has vowed will be ousted when its current lease runs out in 2009. He also accused “Mister George W. Bush” of joining in a “criminal smear campaign.”

Americas Policy Program analyst Raúl Zibechi expressed his view that the “strategy under Plan Colombia is not so much to win the internal war as to spread it into bordering countries as a way of neutralizing their increasing autonomy from Washington. Militarizing interstate relations is always good business for those who bet on supporting hegemony through military superiority.”

Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel stated in a letter to Correa, “There is no justification for the aggression on the part of the Colombian government and its president Alvaro Uribe on Ecuador’s border–action supported by the United States, seeking to provoke an armed regional conflict to destabilize it and lead to confrontation between brother countries…”

From Bombs to Markets

As Latin American countries unanimously condemned the bombing and military incursion in Ecuadorean territory, the U.S. government defended Uribe’s decision to unilaterally attack a neighboring nation. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte reportedly called the operation “justifiable” and White house spokesperson Tom Casey stated on March 3 said the U.S. government “supports the need of the Colombian government to tackle and respond to threats posed by this terrorist organization,” falling well short of a condemnation of the attack. Both he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for a diplomatic solution and criticized Venezuela’s deployment of troops to its border region.

Recently, the Bush administration has used the heightened tensions in the region to press for passage of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. In a speech to Hispanic business leaders, President Bush said that failing to approve the agreement soon would play into the hands of “antagonists in Latin America, who would say that . . . America cannot be trusted to stand by its friend.”

Bush continued, “The Colombia agreement is pivotal to America’s national security and economic interests right now, and it is too important to be held up by politics.” His remarks were pointed at the Democratic congressional leadership that has been reluctant to approve the agreement due to concerns about human rights violations and the assassination of labor leaders in Colombia.

Ironically, the push to approve the trade agreement coincides not only with the illegal attack but with an intensification of human rights violations in Colombia over recent weeks. On March 6, labor unions organized a nationwide march against paramilitary violence, responsible for 80% of all crimes against humanity in the Colombian war according to the United Nations. An Uribe adviser implied the mobilizations were organized by the FARC. Following the demonstrations, several important labor leaders and march organizers were murdered.

On March 16, Colombian rock star Juanes organized a “Peace without Borders” concert on an international bridge between Colombia and Venezuela. Thousands of young people from both nations showed up to hear the music and call for peace.

Government leaders in the hemisphere and the people of the nations involved in the Andean crisis insist that the only solution is a peaceful one. Whether or not the United States supports that conviction depends a great deal on the vigilance and advocacy of U.S. citizens.

Laura Carlsen is a program director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy and an FPIF columnist.