Colombia’s war in the Andes

Colombia's long-running civil war spilled over the border to Ecuador in a raid against FARC guerrillas in March. Gerard Coffey reports on the aftermath

April 23, 2008 · 16 min read

Quito, April 2008

There is war in the high Andes. There are no rockets, no suicide bombs, no bodies rotting on the streets. Up in the rarified mountain air of the Colombian and Ecuadorian capitals the weapons are different, but the aim is pretty much the same: control. This war between the two Andean nations is being fought out on the airwaves and in the pages of the press, with the United States present in every move.

The source of the conflict is Ecuador’s traditionally neutral stance vis-a-vis its neighbour’s seemingly never ending civil wars, its consistent refusal to categorise the leading Colombian insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as terrorists, and its determination to get rid of a US military base on its Pacific coast that has played a covert part in the Colombian armed conflict. To make things worse this particular Ecuadorian government has declared itself to be ‘socialist’ and has shown itself to be friendly towards Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

The troubles in Colombia have been a perennial thorn in the side of Ecuadorian politicians; the country has spent years debating its neighbour’s problems and trying to stave off the impacts they have brought in their wake, particularly since the initiation of Plan Colombia in 2000. But after the attack on its territory by Colombian forces on 1 March it seems that the Ecuadorian government and its policy of neutrality will be tested to the limit in the battle to force Ecuador to take sides: the side of the government of Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Vélez.

Legitimate targets

Alvaro Uribe is likely to be one of the very few people in this world who will be sad to see the back of George W Bush. The collective sigh of relief that can be heard as the world watches the US presidential primaries, and imagines a world without one of the most warlike and intellectually challenged presidents in the history of the United States, is not audible in the corridors of the presidential palace in Bogotá. The Colombian head of state is desperate to finish off his adversaries and the next US leader may be less committed to military solutions.

But it’s not over yet. Bush was never going to be a traditional lame duck president – quite the opposite. So there will doubtless be a sting in the tail of this particularly nasty American administration. The seven months remaining still allow enough time for scores to be settled, and while the political and economic climate in the US may not be conducive to major operations such as an attack on Iran or Venezuela, the governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador are clearly more appetising targets, vulnerable to means less dramatic than major military intervention.

The 1 March incursion into the northern Ecuadorian province of Sucumbios was the opening gambit. The Colombian minister of defence, Juán Manuel Santos, openly stated that he regretted nothing, claimed the raid was legitimate and a clear victory for his country despite its condemnation as a violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty by the Organisation of American States. Twenty-six people died. Among them was Raul Reyes, second in command of the FARC, four students from the Autonomous University of Mexico (DF) and one Ecuadorian citizen. But apart from the dead the attack has left behind a number of questions, above all regarding the participation of the United States.

AWAC electronic monitoring planes from the American base at Manta on the Ecuadorian coast are constantly in the air but failed to report the attack to the Ecuadorian authorities until it was over, despite having more than sufficient time to do so: the raid lasted six hours. Colombia also claims the encampment and the position of Reyes was revealed to them by human agents. But the heavy tree cover that made the camp invisible from the air, the fact that the raid was carried out at night, and the precision of the bombing, all suggest the use of sophisticated monitoring equipment used by AWAC type aircraft. The type of bombs used has also been analysed by the Ecuadorian military. Their conclusions are that the GBU 12 type of guided bomb was used in the raid, which according to NATO no planes used by the Colombian airforce are equipped to carry. The question of what planes were used, where they were based and who flew them, are presently being investigated by the Ecuadorian government.

An Ecuadorian military source, who asked not to be named, was quoted by the Inter Press Agency as saying that the pilots of the planes that attacked Ecuadorian territory were Americans, possibly employees of Dyncorp, a company which provides military equipment and mercenaries and has contracts related to Plan Colombia. The planes, said the source, flew from the US base at Tres Esquinas in the southern Colombian department of Caqueta.

Colombian authorities claim that Franklin Aisalla, the Ecuadorian who died in the attack, was a FARC sympathiser and therefore also a ‘legitimate target’ according to the Uribe government, despite being a non combatant and being on his home soil. The issue of ‘legitimate targets’ has been taken up by the New York faith-based Fellowship of Reconciliation. The group has been investigating the role of US aid to Colombian army units that kill their own civilians and claim them (at times going so far as dress them) as guerillas. Recent articles in the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post have exposed the widespread nature of the practice.

According to the Post, a coalition of Human Rights Groups has claimed that a total of 955 civilians (campesinos) were executed in this way between mid 2002 and mid 2007. The killings appear to correspond to the need to boost numbers in the face of American pressure to be ‘winning’ the war against the guerilla forces and justify the huge expense involved in supporting Colombian military expansion. Together with Amnesty International, the Fellowship of Reconciliation is preparing a report, which will claim that the US has approved aid to certain Colombian military units ‘despite creditable allegations regarding killings disappearances and collaboration with outlawed paramilitary forces’.

Computer games

Since the 1 March raid the attempt to force a change in the political stance of Rafael Correa’s government has changed form. The confrontation is now being carried on in the leading newspapers and television station of the two countries and in the foreign press, mainly hostile to Ecuador and anything vaguely connected to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. The major play has revolved around the computer supposedly belonging to Raul Reyes that Colombian-US authorities maintain survived the bombardment. The Colombian-US position is that the device contained documents showing that the FARC had contributed to Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa’s electoral campaign and had received money from Hugo Chávez. A nice twist was provided by documents which allegedly showed Fernando Bustamente, the Ecuadorian minister of state, to be a CIA agent and his sub-secretary, Juán Sebastián Roldán, to be an agent of the US Drug Enforcement Agency, DEA.

In the unlikely event that a computer did survive, OAS president José Miguel Insulza has cast doubt on the ability of anyone (including Interpol, to whom the final proof of authenticity has been charged) to prove the files are real, or even if they were, to show that they represented the truth. The Colombian government has provided photocopies to the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian authorities. Both have rejected them as useless. But despite the lack of evidence that the documents are real the New York Times has joined the fray, carrying front-page allegations against the two governments.

A second incident involved the Bogotá daily El Tiempo. The newspaper, owned by the family of the vice president and minister of defence , printed a photograph said to have been found in Reyes’ computer which showed him in the company of a man the paper claimed was Gustavo Larrea, the Ecuadorian minister of internal and external security. The person in question was later shown to be an Argentinean unrelated to Larrea. But as with the raid and the supposed computer documents, the first strike is what counts. The supposed facts prepare the ground for a chain of events whose course later apologies or refutations cannot change.

In another example of erroneous reporting the Spanish daily El País (which has a long-running campaign against Hugo Chávez) ) claimed that according to an un-named OAS spokesperson the FARC had numerous camps on the Ecuadorian side, coming and going as they pleased. The OAS categorically denied that any of its personnel had made such statements, while the Ecuadorian military demonstrated that of the sites mentioned by El Pais two were actually in Colombia, while none at all could be located on Ecuadorian soil.

That the FARC come and go as they please on the Colombian side is undisputed: they simply control that part of the country. The Colombian army has only two posts on the entire length of the 364 kilometers of the common border, compared to eight of the FARC and ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional). The Colombian government accuses Ecuador of not controlling its side of the frontier, but apart from the difficulty of patrolling the entire border, particularly in the densely forested areas, the task is made so much more difficult by the fact that on the other side of the river it’s the FARC, not the Colombian government, that forms the political presence.

Regional newspapers now seem to be full of reports about the FARC: the death, capture or surrender of leading operatives and subordinates, some, such as Ivan Rios, allegedly killed by their own for the million dollar reward (the possibility exists that the killing was done by paramilitaries, which supposedly no longer operate); the uranium that belongs, or not depending on the source, to the FARC; the arrest of FARC members in Peru; the links between the FARC and the Brazilian mafia; the links between the FARC and Costa Rica etc etc etc.

Spent force

Over the years, and particularly in the period of the dictatorships in South America in the 1970s and 1980s, the FARC was seen by many Latin Americans as one of the few forces capable of withstanding the bloody right wing military agenda of the likes of General Pinochet in Chile and General Videla and the military junta in Argentina. As a guerilla force whose aims were to make Colombia more responsive to the needs of the poor, it counted on the moral and in many cases direct support of large numbers of people throughout the region, not to mention Colombia itself.

The FARC clearly use the drug trade to finance their activities. But they are not alone. Colombia is a complicated place and while it would probably be going too far to call it a narco- state, the history of Pablo Escobar (a friend and admirer of Alvaro Uribe), the Cali and Medellin cartels and the smaller siblings that now operate the trade, the drug linked paramilitary forces (which have not been demobilised but rather been reorganised in smaller, more private security type units ), as well as Alvaro Uribe himself (named by the US Department of Defense as No 82 on a list of important people linked to the cocaine trade ), show clearly that the drug trade is deeply embedded in Colombian society . Asking Ecuador to take sides based on involvement in the drug trade is not very practical.

According to some the FARC is demoralised, on the run, their troop levels fallen from 18,000 to between 6,000 and 12,000 and the war will soon be won. It’s hard to evaluate the claims as no definite information is available, but much of it seems to err on the side of wishful thinking, to be worked up to satisfy Colombian voters or American task masters, or is simply another aspect of the propaganda war. And while it does seem clear that the FARC are not the force they were ten years ago, they (and the ELN, the National Liberation Army) still control huge areas of land (an estimated 15 to 20 per cent of the national territory) as well as more than 25 per cent of all municipalities. Barring a sudden collapse, for which there is no evidence, it seems unlikely that the conflict will end any time soon.

Give peace a chance

Ecuador has the sympathy and support of almost all Latin American countries for its sovereign position in the face of the Colombian attack on its territory. But in the end the country has been forced to re-examine its position vis-à-vis the conflict, and in one sense the Colombian/US strategy has worked. After the raid it no longer appears possible to believe that the consequences of the conflict can be wished away or limited to the other side of the rivers that mark the frontier between the two countries.

The impacts are dramatic. The hundreds of thousands of Colombian refugees that have poured into the country in the last five or six years , with little or no international help in dealing with their needs; the environmental and health impacts of spraying the herbicide glyphosate over large areas of the frontier region , carried out by the Colombian government to eradicate coca leaf but also to clear the frontier area and deny human support to the guerrillas; and finally the high cost ($100 million a year according to Ecuadorian military sources) of stationing troops to police a border the Colombians themselves are unable to control.

For a long time now the violence in Colombia has been out of control. The ninth of April of this year marked the 60th anniversary of the shooting of the Colombian Liberal leader Jorge Eliezer Gaitán in the centre of Bogotá. His death triggered a round of violence that has still not come to an end. What began as the Bogotazo, later became La Violencia, and was transformed into the insurrection of the Marxist guerillas, has now been incorporated into the War on Terror in another attempt by one side to defeat the other. But whatever the name, no matter the definition, the bloodshed is a constant .

In the end what is important is that no country, no population, no civil society ought to be subjected to 60 years of war, and that no neighbouring country should be subject to the impacts of that violence. Colombians and Ecuadorians have many things in common, but above all they both need an end to the constant death, destruction and forced migration. Both nations need to be able to spend their resources in meeting social goals, in improving the lives of their populations, large numbers of whom exist in dire poverty. In the end the only answer is peace. The difficulty is how to find the road. In this sense the end of the bitter long-running conflict in Northern Ireland and the peaceful (although admittedly fragile) conclusion to the Balkan conflict, offers some hope that it can be done. In the Colombian case Ecuador will need to stay neutral but work hard for peace; it is the only ethical response to the media war being waged against it and to the real needs of both nations.

Ecuador needs to mobilise international pressure from other South American states, in particular Brazil, in order to develop a true peace process (as opposed to the slaughter that resulted from the last real attempt ) in which all are guaranteed security.

There are a number of obstacles. Conflict always benefits someone, and on the Colombian side the civil war has been a boon to the neoliberals and the economic elites. On the Ecuadorian side, despite being the injured party Rafael Correa has surely noticed that his popularity has risen since the beginning of what the local press has called ‘microphone diplomacy’. Also of concern is the fate of Evo Morales in Bolivia, if he falls or even fails, it will likely convince many that the electoral road has been closed off, and that arms are once again the only solution.

Finally, but by no means least important, are the various interests of the United States. Besides being a boon for the US arms industry, the Colombian conflict, as with the Korean War, has provided the motive for the militarisation and the consequent, and very large, strategic US presence. Peace would remove that rationale, and for the US this may simply not be part of the plan.


· The Crisis Group, an NGO linked to the World Bank, has recently estimated that after falling for a number of years, the production of Coca leaf and Cocaine actually increased by 8% with a greater area under production now than in 1995. (‘Colombia No Logra Cotrolar el Narcotráfico’. El Comercio, Quito, 7 April 2008)

· The Ecuadorian Government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimate that there are some 250,000 refugees in Ecuador plus another 40,000 that have been granted status. According to the Jesuit Refugee Service in Quito the figure is much higher, of some 750,000 Colombians in the country only 80,000 have status while the rest are refugees or people displaced by the Colombian conflict. (‘ONG: más de 600,000 desplazados en Ecuador’. El Comercio, Quito, 13 March 2008)

· Spraying takes place in Colombia but the proximity to the border and the height of the spraying has mean that severe health impacts have been felt within a ten kilometer range of Colombia. Chromosomal damage and other major health impacts have been identified in frontier populations together with contamination of water, animals and crops. El Sistema de Aspersiones Aéreas del Plan Colombia y su Impactos Sobre el Ecosistema y la Salud en La Frontera Ecuatoriana. Comisión Científica Ecuatoriana, Dr. Jaime Brielh et al. Quito 2007. The Ecuadorian government has recently launched a suite against Colombia at the World Court in the Hague over the impacts of the spraying. The case is expected to last up to six years.

· It is difficult to calculate the number of deaths related to the violence since 1948. Figures of 200,000 and even 300,000 have been quoted for the number of people killed from 1948 to 1956 but that figure is undoubtedly imprecise. Figures from 1964 onwards also vary. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that from 163 to 2000, 47,000 people died as a direct consequence of the violence, while Amnesty International estimates that 60,000 people died in the much shorter period from 1985 to 2002.

· In 1984 a ‘Bilateral Cease Fire’ was signed between Manuel Marulanda of the FARC and Colombian President Belisario Betancourt. A legally recognized political party the Union Patriotica, UP, was formed in exchange for a progressive reduction in military activity by the FARC. But after the UP won a third of the votes in municipal elections a campaign of violence against its leaders was begun. Thousands of its supporters were killed, including three presidential candidates.

· Colombia now has the highest troop levels of any country in South America (210,000 not including air-force, navy or police dedicated to anti guerrilla activities), and spends 6.5% of its GDP on the military, the US 4% even with the war in Iraq. (See ‘Crisis en la región: La guerra preventiva de Bush llegó a Sudamérica’, Raúl Zibechi, IPS, 7 March 2008)

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