On March 1, Raúl Reyes, the nom de guerre
of Luis Édgar Devia Silva, a senior leader of the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC), died as he had lived--violently--on the
borderland between Colombia and Venezuela. A commander of the FARC's
Southern Bloc, Reyes stood in line for a top leadership position in the
narco-terrorist group. In the eyes of Colombian law, the 59-year-old,
avuncular-looking Reyes was a natural-born killer with more than 121
legal cases opened against him, 57 of them for homicide and acts of
terrorism, and 14 convictions.
At the time of his death, there
was a $5 million reward for information leading to Reyes' arrest and/or
conviction, offered by the U.S. government. The Colombian Minister of
Defense called Reyes' death a major setback for the terrorist guerrilla
The engagement that killed Reyes and 16 other FARC
insurgents occurred on the Ecuador side of the border and appears to
have involved possible violations of Ecuadorian sovereignty. The
reaction of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to a bilateral incident
and his order to militarize the Colombia-Venezuela frontier threaten to
escalate the incident into a full-blown regional crisis. This is an
opportunity for the Organization of American States (OAS) and regional
leaders to play a stronger role in crisis management and addressing
threats to hemispheric security.
Sovereignty vs. Safe Havens
details about the operation remain sketchy and conflicting. It is
unclear whether the Colombian military located Reyes by tracking his
satellite phone or by getting information from an informant. The
Colombians say they were fired upon and returned fire in self-defense.
Ecuadorians say Reyes and his troops were camped for the night on
Ecuadorian territory and were not in a fighting posture.
it is clear that Colombia launched a joint air-land operation against a
FARC encampment that crossed into Ecuador. The distance of the
incursion remains in dispute. While Colombian President Alvaro Uribe
apparently briefed President Rafael Correa of Ecuador on the operation
hours after the attack, Correa now claims he was misled and misinformed
by his Colombian counterpart and has denounced Reyes' death as "the
worst aggression suffered by Ecuador at the hands of Colombia." The
details of the operation will be disputed and investigated in the weeks
On March 2, the Colombian military reported that it had
recovered "revealing" information from computers captured in Reyes'
effects, including records of contacts with senior security officials
in Ecuador who were reportedly interested in "formalizing a
relationship with the FARC." Authorities in Quito denied any links
between the FARC and officials in Ecuador.
surrounding Reyes' death demands further objective investigation.
Furthermore, governments and citizens must recognize that terrorists
and insurgents, be they narco-terrorists in the FARC, al-Qaeda and the
Taliban in Pakistan, or Kurdish terrorists in Iraq, show no respect for
frontiers and national sovereignty.
"A Good Revolutionary"
his Sunday address to the nation on March 2, Venezuelan President Hugo
Chávez eulogized Reyes as "a good revolutionary" and called the
Colombian operation "a cowardly assassination."
By once more
defending the FARC, Chávez showed his troublesome and increasingly
strident interventionist streak in Colombia. The most recent crisis can
be traced back to Chávez's August 2007 involvement as a "mediator" in a
humanitarian effort to obtain the release of kidnap victims held by the
FARC. The number of hostages held by the FARC is estimated to run into
the hundreds and includes former presidential candidate and
French-Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt and three American
In November 2007, following unauthorized direct
contact between Chávez and the Colombian military, President Uribe told
Chávez to stand down in his efforts, provoking a vehement reaction by
Chávez. In early 2008, Chávez, with assistance from the Red Cross and
others, succeeded in obtaining the release of two female political
hostages. Another four political hostages were released on February 28.
January 11, 2008, still riding high after the first release, Chávez
applauded the FARC's release of hostages and urged Europeans and others
to remove the FARC from the ranks of international terrorist
organizations. The FARC, Chávez announced, was a genuine army,
occupying territory and fighting for the Bolivarian cause. Although the
FARC has been spurned by responsible leaders and the Colombian people,
Chávez has attempted to grant new legitimacy to the discredited
Chávez's support for the FARC provoked an
outpouring of public opposition to the FARC and its violent ways,
culminating in massive street rallies in Colombia on February 4 that
were echoed by smaller events around the world.
February, Wilber Varela, aka "Soap," a leader of Colombia's violent
North Valley cartel, was murdered on Venezuelan soil. The episode
raised troubling questions about links between drug lords and
Venezuelan authorities. Investigative journalists in Colombia have also
raised questions regarding the secretive activities of General Hugo
Armando Carvajal, Chávez's chief of military intelligence, citing
anonymous witnesses who were present at repeated meetings between the
general and FARC leaders.
On the Alert
response to the Ecuador incident, Chávez issued maneuver orders on
March 2: "Move 10 battalions to the Colombian frontier immediately,
tank battalions, military aviation!" Chávez announced he was closing
Venezuela's embassy in Bogota and said that he would strike Colombia if
its military forces made a similar incursion into Venezuela.
response illustrates Chávez's increasing bellicosity. Two weeks ago,
following the filing of a massive suit against Venezuela's state-run
oil company, PdVSA, Chávez threatened to cut off oil shipments to the
U.S. if the suit harmed Venezuela, a statement he later modified to
mean if attacked by the U.S.
At home, Chávez faces mounting
inflation, food shortages caused by his anti-market economics, and
soaring crime rates. The current crisis also gives Chávez a chance to
call attention to the package of military hardware that includes
Russian-made helicopters and 24 new Su-30MK2 multi-role fighters.
escalation of the border incident between Colombia and Ecuador is an
unwelcome step toward the abyss. While war may not be imminent,
Chávez's truculent and trigger-happy approach to the diplomatic crisis
has set alarm bells ringing throughout the hemisphere.
heightened risk of conflict between Venezuela and Colombia requires
immediate action by the Hemisphere's regional body. The Organization of
American States (OAS), now on the verge of celebrating its 60th
anniversary, has an excellent opportunity to act. OAS Secretary General
Miguel Insulza has a number of tools available to facilitate a calming
of emotions and a more impartial approach to crisis management. Yet he
will face opposition from Chávez and his supporters, who will attempt
to scapegoat the U.S. for the death of a convicted murderer and
terrorists. Regrettably, the U.S. Congress has yet to confirm the U.S.
ambassador to the OAS.
The crisis is also an opportunity for a
regional leader like Brazil to adopt a more proactive stance on
hemispheric security threats and to insert itself into a spiraling
contest that pits Chávez and his bloc of allies against the elected and
legitimate government of Colombia. While the threat of a war between
states may diminish in the days ahead, the triangular struggle between
President Uribe of Colombia, the FARC, and its increasingly vocal
supporters in Presidents Chávez and Correa will require ongoing efforts
at crisis management in an increasingly dangerous part of the world.