High Stakes in the Andes

The fact that Uribe had been politically cornered at home and abroad made a widening war across national borders all but inevitable. Domestic and foreign pressure for a negotiated peace--that is, a political solution to the armed conflict--has led to an escalation of the war by the stronger, more violent party.

Sadly, the operation on March 1 in which
the Colombian Armed Forces shot and killed Luis Edgar Devia Silva,
a.k.a. "Raúl Reyes," spokesman for the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), along with sixteen other guerrillas
in a camp across the Putumayo River in Ecuador, was yet another
case of the oft-mentioned "death foretold" that characterizes
the country's seemingly endless civil war.

Eerily, in a March 1 column,
one of Colombia's most prescient political analysts, Alfredo
Molano, predicted that a giant storm cloud was about to sweep
across some portion of Colombia's borderlands. Molano described
how President Álvaro Uribe had brought the war with the
FARC to the Darien Gap joining Panama, the Catatumbo region of
Northern Santander shared with Venezuela, and the frontiers of
Pasto and Putumayo bordering Ecuador. In Molano's view, the fact
that Uribe had been politically cornered at home and abroad made
a widening war across national borders all but inevitable. As
Justin Podur noted, domestic and foreign pressure for a negotiated
peace-that is, a political solution to the armed conflict-has
led to an escalation of the war by the stronger, more violent
party, along Israeli lines.

Since the end of 2006, Uribe
has been beset by the parapolítica scandal, in which some
77 political figures, including 14 congresspersons, nearly all
of them staunch allies of the president, are under investigation
for ties to rightwing paramilitaries. The scandal reveals how
the president and the Casa de Nariño (presidential palace)
in Bogotá are tied to the country's regions, where power
and authority are delegated, hence most directly exercised. Indeed,
most of the para-politicos investigated are local office holders-governors,
mayors, legislators, etc. The bedrock of the paramilitary-politico
alliance was sealed in 2001 with the "Pacto de Ralito"
in Córdoba province. The pact led to the first and second
election of Uribe with solid-indeed fervent-paramilitary support
in congress and the regional state bureaucracies.

and the President

Politicians under investigation
include Uribe's closest political ally and second cousin, Senator
Mario Uribe, who fell under suspicion after former paramilitary
chieftain Salvatore Mancuso testified to meetings he had with
the president's cousin to map electoral strategy in Antioquia
and Córdoba provinces. As Molano notes, what everyone
knows and has long talked about in those provinces-relations between
the Uribe family, land deals and landholding, rightwing politics,
and paramilitarism-is but a step away from becoming a matter
of public record. As early as 1987 and as recently as 2002, distinguished
investigative journalists began looking into (and in some cases
uncovering) these connections. Uribe has publicly lashed out
at journalists digging into his past, forcing some to flee the
country amid ensuing death threats. Now, it would seem, legal
issues, and not merely personal honor, are at stake.

This explains, at least in
part, Uribe's confrontations with the Supreme Court, whose authority
he has repeatedly attempted to undermine in order to obtain "political"
status for paramilitary commanders looking to whitewash their
criminal pasts. As Senator Gustavo Petro highlighted in 2005
during debates about the "Justice and Peace" law regulating
paramilitary demobilization, there is reason to believe that
Uribe aims to protect family members from future prosecution
with its passage. During the parliamentary debates about parapolítica
in March 2007, Petro named Antioquia under governor Uribe (1995-97)
as the birthplace of modern-day paramilitarism. Any investigation
of its roots would need to begin there.

Claudia López, co-author
of the most comprehensive scholarly study of paramilitary penetration
of local and regional politics in Colombia between 2002 and 2006,
recently remarked on the extent to which, especially compared
to the Caribbean coast, parapolítica investigations have
stalled in Uribe's native Antioquia. This is to be expected,
as there is undoubtedly much to hide: Under Uribe's watch, paramilitary
activity-along with murders and disappearances of thousands of
suspected guerrillas-skyrocketed to record levels through close
coordination with the military and provincial government officials.

Though Uribe has made numerous
tours of Europe and the U.S. in order to sell peace with the
paramilitaries and war with the FARC, the parapolítica
scandal has become his Achilles heel. A number of leading Democrats
and not a few Republican congresspersons are wary of a trade
agreement with Colombia, given human rights conditions and lingering
doubts about the president's ties to paramilitaries. In May 2007,
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Foreign Relations Committee,
reprimanded Uribe and sent him home empty-handed when he tried
to sidestep the issues in Washington. Because of ties to organized
labor, Hillary Clinton has kept her distance from him in this
electoral season, while Al Gore refused to attend an event in
Miami last year that Uribe was scheduled to attend. (Unsurprisingly,
Bill Clinton has been less circumspect, hob-knobbing with Uribe
at an event called "Colombia is Passion" in New York
City in May.)

A bilateral "free trade"
agreement with the U.S. has been one of Uribe's chief goals since
coming to power in 2002, but it appears increasingly remote.
European countries, meanwhile, are reluctant to contribute funds
for war with the FARC or peace with paramilitaries, and their
meager offers of development aid are of little import to him.

Reyes, and the Hostages

Uribe has also been increasingly
cornered by the foreign policy of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.
In what constitutes the major achievement by a Latin American
statesperson in recent memory, after months of negotiations (sanctioned
by President Uribe), in January and February of this year Chávez
convinced the FARC to turn over six hostages to his government-all
of them former politicians who, upon release, began agitating
for the release of the rest of the prisoners, particularly Ingrid
Betancourt, a center-left politician with dual French-Colombian

Betancourt's family, together
with human rights organizations and NGOs, have mounted a relatively
successful campaign of public awareness and political pressure
in France: President Sarkozy's government has reiterated its
commitment to free Betancourt, acknowledging the positive role
Chávez and the Venezuelan government have played thus
far. For Uribe, such meddling strengthens FARC diplomacy in Europe,
which is why he wanted Reyes dead. In Uribe's eyes, Reyes and
the FARC paved the way for Betancourt's family and European NGO's
to damage his image and undermine his policy of war as peace.
In 2001, as part of the FARC's "peace process" with
former president Andrés Pastrana, Reyes toured Europe
and deepened existing ties to European governments and NGOs.
As recently declassified documents obtained by the non-governmental
National Security Archive demonstrate, in 1998 Reyes established
contact with a U.S. diplomatic mission in Costa Rica led by Philip
T. Chicola, then director of the State Department's Office of
Andean Affairs. For all intents and purposes, Reyes was the FARC's

For Uribe, then, Reyes was
a rival, a competitor, and according to the mafia rules that
govern politics in Colombia, such people must die. There were
scores to be settled: it was Reyes and the FARC who, in the mid-1990s,
convinced allies in European government and society that Uribe's
security policies in Antioquia were unacceptable in terms of
human rights and international law. And it was Reyes and his
pals (no women were invited) who charmed European politicians
and solidarity groups in Europe in 2001. This set the stage for
Uribe's damaged credibility in Europe after 2002. Since then,
Reyes has presented his organization's position before the European
Parliament: prisoner exchanges that lead to a negotiated peace
settlement. There is strong support for such a policy in official
European circles.

Reyes was not a charismatic
leader, nor is Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, who has
led the FARC since it was founded in 1966. The FARC does not
depend on charismatic individuals for its survival. More important
than Reyes or Marulanda to FARC coffers was Tomás Medina
Caracas, alias "Negro Acacio," a former public school
teacher who became the first FARC commander wanted for extradition
to the U.S. after September 11, 2001, on charges of cocaine trafficking.
At the time of Medina's death in September 2007, much was made
of the putative "blow" it represented to the FARC,
as Medina was the group's answer to Pablo Escobar, managing cocaine
routes and protection rackets through Venezuela, Brazil, and
the Guyanas. Since Medina's death, no one has mentioned him again,
and it would be surprising if his routes had been disrupted or
destroyed without proper media fanfare. At the time of his death,
seasoned commentators were quick to note that as a matter of
policy, the FARC have at least three people ready to take the
place of someone like Medina at a moment's notice. As Fernando
Cubides has argued, the FARC is an "armed bureaucracy."

Thus there is no shortage of
trained personnel to keep the war machine running, and it is
unlikely that the killing of Raúl Reyes will make much
of a dent in its functioning, except in terms of negotiating
the release of the remaining hostages and laying the foundation
for a negotiated peace; in terms of politics rather than total
war. This explains the reaction of French Foreign Minister Bernard
Kouchner, who said, "It is bad news that the man we were
talking to, with whom we had contacts, has been killed. Do you
see how ugly the world is?"

It may tempting to dismiss
Kouchner's question, but his point may be somewhat more subtle:
namely, that Uribe killed Reyes in a deliberate effort to block
the French government from negotiating the release of Ingrid
Betancourt. Were Betancourt to be freed, Uribe would likely come
under international pressure to grant the FARC political status
as a pre-condition for a negotiated political settlement, and
might have to contend with Betancourt's efforts to build a broad
anti-Uribe coalition at home and abroad.

It is doubtful that the United
States was directly involved in killing Reyes, since Plan Colombia
was specifically designed to give the Colombian government the
hardware, surveillance, and training to carry out such missions
on its own. The Bush administration, of course, has greeted the
death of a top FARC "terrorist" with glee, legal niceties
and political subtleties aside. Uribe does not appear to have
asked permission to pursue Reyes into Ecuador, but in light of
past episodes, he had little reason to fear a reprimand from
Washington, and was likely emboldened by past precedent. Whether
Washington gives the green light beforehand matters little, as
long as Uribe's moves are sanctioned ex post facto, as they were
on March 4.

High Stakes
in the Andes

Ecuadorian and Venezuelan government
responses came quickly and unequivocally: within 48 hours, both
broke off all diplomatic ties with Colombia and moved troops,
tanks, and planes to their borders. Ecuadorian President Rafael
Correa explained that in addition to the efforts of Sarkozy and
Chávez, his government had been working on the liberation
of 12 hostages-including Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. mercenaries-at
the time Reyes was assassinated. He added negotiations were at
an "advanced" stage. Chávez jumped in and labeled
Uribe a "criminal, mafioso, paramilitary" in charge
of a "narco-government." In one of his more restrained
remarks, the Venezuelan president said, "It is very serious
that a country arrogates to itself the right to bomb the territory
of a neighbor and commit an incursion to take bodies, violating
many international laws. Think of the consequences, not just
for Colombia, but for your neighbors."

Predictably, Uribe engaged
in an almost surreal effort to re-create the atmosphere of the
build-up to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The smoking gun was
Reyes' laptop, reportedly recovered at the scene. Head of Colombia's
National Police, Gen. Oscar Naranjo alleged that the FARC had
been plotting to get uranium for a dirty bomb: "When they
mention negotiations for 50 kilos of uranium, this means that
the FARC are taking big steps in the world of terrorism to become
a global aggressor. We're not talking of domestic guerrillas
but transnational terrorism." On March 4, the Colombian
government announced that the FARC was building a dirty bomb.
All of this would seem to be a transparent attempt to convince
the U.S. government and the rest of the world that the incident-and
the region-can be neatly slotted into the global "war on

Though allegations have cropped
up repeatedly, as ideologically needed, since Chávez came
to power in 1998, no one has ever documented illicit ties between
Chávez and the FARC; the Uribe government is apparently
now free to invent them. Another item recovered from Reyes' hard
drive purportedly demonstrates that the FARC received $300 million
in payments from Chávez as recently as February. To Gen.
Naranjo, this suggested clear proof of "an armed alliance
between the FARC and the Venezuelan government." A third
item allegedly contains a thank-you note from Chávez during
his stint in prison after his failed coup attempt in 1992. Given
the advanced division of labor within the FARC, it would be odd
indeed if its ambassador kept such delicate-and, in the case
of the "prison letter" from Chávez, dated-information
so readily accessible. For good measure, the Colombian government
also alleged that recovered documents linked the Ecuadorian government
to the FARC.

The Venezuelan government was
not fazed. Vice president Ramón Carrizales said, "We
are accustomed to the lies of the Colombian government. Whatever
they say has no importance. They can invent anything now to try
to get out of that violation of Ecuadorian territory that they
committed." President Correa met with his cabinet to inform
them of his government's position: "They said we had a pact
with terrorists, and that is completely false. We are dealing
with an extremely cynical government."

Perhaps the most hopeful development
to arise out of the whole morass is the new multilateralism in
South America: the regional powers, Chile and Brazil, demanded
an official apology from Colombia to Ecuador, and were followed
by Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru; all countries were eager to
find a peaceful solution through the Organization of American
States (OAS).

There is even more diplomatic
unity against Uribe than there was when he supported the U.S.-preferred
candidate for Secretary General of the OAS in 2005. That was
the first time since the organization was founded in Bogotá
in 1948 under the watchful eye of Secretary of State George Marshall
that the U.S. candidate did not win. In dealing with Uribe's
incursion, South American countries may well make another end
run around the U.S. and Colombia through the OAS, and at the
very least, foreign ministers have agreed to conduct an investigation.
Chávez has proposed to revive the Contadora group of countries
whose governments helped broker peace agreements in Central America
in the 1990s in spite of U.S. government obstructionism. The
latest violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty could convince other
South American countries of the need for such a group.

Poster for victims' march:
"Memory and Dignity for the Displaced, the Murdered, the
Disappeared, the Victims."

The protest march called for
tomorrow, March 6, in Colombia and the world to commemorate the
victims of paramilitary and state violence will be a test of
the political temperature. A range of sectors have promised to
participate: trade unions, human rights groups, families of the
kidnapped and disappeared, women's and neighborhood organizations,
peasant, Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and student groups. If this
push for truth, justice, and a negotiated peace finds an echo
in multilateral diplomatic initiatives, Uribe could find himself
cornered yet again; a frightening prospect, unless progressive
forces in the hemisphere prove strong enough to contain him and
his northern patrón.

Forrest Hylton is the author of Evil
Hour in Colombia
(Verso, 2006), and with Sinclair Thomson,
of Revolutionary
Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics
(Verso, 2007).
He is a frequent contributor to NACLA,
where this essay originally appeared.

Source: CounterPunch