attention following Ingrid Betancourt's dramatic release from captivity
should not obscure a surprising revelation: laptop computers
implausibly retrieved from an obliterating air raid on a Farc base in
Colombia are being used to sour the country's relations with Ecuador
and smear the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, in western and
The first of 10 smart bombs guided by GPS
hit its target at 00.25 on 1 March 2008, less than two kilometres from
the Ecuador-Colombia border, along the Putomayo river. Four Blackhawk
OH-60 helicopters appeared out of the darkness with 44 special
commandos from Colombia's rapid deployment force on board. But there
was no fighting: the temporary camp of the Farc (the Marxist-inspired
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) had been destroyed by the
explosions and 23 people killed in their sleep (1). Among them was Raúl
Reyes, the Farc's second-in-command and the group's "foreign minister".
His remains were taken back to Colombia by ground troops as a trophy.
that morning the Colombian president Alvaro Uribe contacted his
Ecuadorian counterpart, Rafael Correa, to brief him on the raid: the
Colombian airborne unit had been attacked from within Ecuador and had
pursued the rebels in legitimate self-defence. But, he assured Correa,
their return of fire came from Colombian territory and didn't violate
Ecuador's airspace. Colombia's defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos,
gave the same assurance later.
Correa took Uribe at his word. Until this incident they had been on
good terms and spoke on the phone every day. Two weeks before, Correa
had said in private to one of the close advisers of the Venezuelan
president Hugo Chávez: "Tell Chávez that I get on very well with Uribe
and that if he wants I can help smooth things out between them." Correa
felt betrayed, a feeling compounded when Ecuadorian military personnel
arrived at the bombed camp: not only had the Colombians violated
Ecuadorian territory, they had also, as Correa put it in a press
conference on 2 March, conducted "a massacre".
death sparked a crisis. Ecuador severed diplomatic relations with
Colombia and deployed 11,000 men along its border. Venezuela also sent
10 battalions to its border. "We don't want war," Chávez warned, "but
we won't allow the [North American] empire, nor its little dog
[Colombia], to weaken us." Nor were they willing to allow it to act
with impunity on its neighbours' territory.
word "condemnation" was avoided, but South American governments
unanimously "rejected" Colombia's incursion. The United States
supported Bogotá in the name of the "war on terror". Craig Kelly,
principal deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Western
Hemisphere Affairs, explained: "What we have said is firstly that a
state must defend itself against the threat of terrorism and that when
you talk about a border, you have to consider the general context,
which [in this case] is a continual violation of the borders by the
Farc." An interviewer asked: "Does that mean that, for example, if
Mexico pursued drug traffickers _into the US, the US wouldn't have any
objection to Mexican forces entering its territory?" Kelly replied:
"I'm not going to get into a theoretical discussion" (2).
has been speculation about the planes used on 1 March. Five
Brazilian-made Supertucanos EMB314s and three US-manufactured A-37
attack aircraft have been mentioned, but the bombs couldn't have been
released from either of those planes. One thing is certain: weapons of
the same sophisticated kind did a lot of damage during the US invasion
long arm of Washington was also discernible when Correa made other
discoveries, notably that his military command had lied to him. Tension
peaked when General Jorge Gabela, the Ecuadorian air force commander,
revealed that the radar nearest to Santa Rosa, the zone where the Farc
camp was located, had been down for maintenance for several days.
Correa sacked the head of the army's intelligence services, Colonel
Mario Pazmiño, and announced in a broadcast to the nation that "the CIA
has totally infiltrated some of Ecuador's military intelligence
bodies". He also replaced defence minister Wellington Sandoval with
loyalist Javier Ponce. Correa's reassertion of his authority also led
to the resignations of the joint chief of staff and the heads of the
army, navy and air force.
soon began to see the consequences of his actions. He had announced in
his election campaign that he would close the US base at Manta. The
lease on this "foreign operating location" granted to the US in 1999
expires in 2009. On 28 February the assembly set up to "refound the
country" adopted an article which asserts that "Ecuador is a land of
peace; foreign military bases or foreign installations with military
purpose will not be allowed." With its state-of-the-art technology,
Manta plays a key role in US military support for Colombia. During the
operation on 1 March it would have controlled the air space the mystery
Colombian government announced that during the raid its army had seized
a laptop (later increased to three laptops) belonging to Reyes, which
revealed that both Chávez and Correa have close links to the Farc.
the absence of hard evidence, questions arise. Reyes' main camp is
known to be in Colombia near the border. In that region the Farc have
many hiding places, secret shelters and secondary camps. Yet the
guerrilla leader had apparently gone to Ecuador with three laptops, two
hard drives and three USB drives – everything but the kitchen sink.
According to the Ecuadorian army, the 10 missiles made craters 2.4m
wide and 1.8m deep and destroyed the vegetation all around, yet the
computers emerged without a scratch.
a tale those laptops told. The Spanish daily El País, which is the
spearhead of a campaign against the progressive governments of Latin
America, didn't stop to question the authenticity of the revelations.
On 12 March its readers learned in an article, "Farc finds refuge in
Ecuador", that "guerrillas drive around the north of Ecuador in vans,
as a member of the OEA (Organisation of American States) attested. He
privately expressed astonishment at encountering fully equipped
guerrillas in restaurants in border country."
readers didn't see was a letter sent to the editor of El País on 15
March by the OEA's secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, in which he
expressed his "astonishment and indignation": "I can assure you that
this claim is absolutely false. The OEA does not have special missions,
nor does it have representatives at any level deployed on Ecuador's
northern border, therefore it is impossible that any member of the
organisation could have made such a statement" (3).
and his guerrillas were in Ecuador. Reyes had for months been the key
contact for the representatives from France, Spain, Venezuela and
Ecuador negotiating hostage releases, including that of the
French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt. The Farc have long been
intransigent over their demand for direct dialogue with the Colombian
government. They insisted on "humanitarian exchange" – hostages for
guerrillas – or nothing. Their aim is political: to achieve the status
of legitimate combatants by gaining recognition from the Colombian
government. The Farc have been on the list of terrorist organisations
since 2002 but have never accepted that they are terrorists. Uribe
wanted to avoid giving them recognition at all costs.
mediation which Chávez set in motion on 31 August 2007 broke a
stalemate that had lasted since 2002. The guerrillas freed seven
hostages unconditionally, leading Caracas to say: "The Farc are using a
more political logic, which is a positive sign for how things could
develop." But hostages warmly thanking members of the Venezuelan
government dressed in red must have been a great source of irritation
to the Colombian president.
dialogue had been ongoing in Caracas through the intermediary of Farc
leaders Iván Marquez and Rodrigo Granda, and sometimes even with Reyes
at the camp in Ecuador. The French and Ecuador governments knew this. A
troubling detail is that a week before the 1 March raid, French
representatives met Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace, Luis Carlos
Restrepo, in Panama. Restrepo told them they should stay in contact
with Reyes. "He's the one who can help you. He's your man. He can help
you get Ingrid freed." This explains Correa's fury: "Look how low
Alvaro Uribe has sunk! He knew that in March 12 hostages were going to
be freed, including Ingrid Betancourt. He knew that, and still he used
his contacts to spring this trap." Kill the negotiator and you kill the
the hostage aspect of this crisis took second place to the revelations
at a news conference on 3 March by the director general of the
Colombian police, General Oscar Naranjo. He revealed that, based on
computer equipment found near Reyes' body, there was an "armed
alliance" between the Farc and the Venezuelan government, as well as
political and economic links between Correa and the guerrillas from the
time of his election campaign.
media went to town with these "explosive documents" from the seized
computers, which the Colombian intelligence services had helpfully
filtered. Prominent were the Spanish El País (4) and the Colombian
daily El Tiempo, which is owned by the Santos family, to which both the
vice-president and the defence minister belong. On 4 March El País ran
with "Bogotá unmasks the Farc's support". On 10 May, in the first of a
series of articles by Maite Rico, "The Farc papers point the finger at
Chávez", readers learnt that "without raising an eyebrow Chávez
approved a request for $300m" from the guerrillas. On 12 May the
article condemned by the secretary general of OEA appeared. The day
before Rico had written of "groups linked to Chávism which regularly
train in Farc camps in Venezuela". There were even claims of waiting
lists to take part in their courses.
The Economist wrote about Chávez's generosity in providing $300m to the
Farc on 24 May, it mentioned as its source a message from Raúl Reyes
reproduced in El País and the Colombian weekly Semana. It also quoted
from a document obtained by the Wall Street Journal: "The Venezuelan
interior minister, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, asked the Farc to train
Venezuelan soldiers in guerrilla tactics." It's unclear whether the
Wall Street Journal copied the Miami Herald, which printed the same
improbable was followed by the bizarre: between 2000 and 2002, the Farc
and ETA allegedly planned an attack in Madrid on prominent Colombian
figures – the current vice-president Francisco Santos Calderón, the
former head of state, Andrés Pastrana, and the former ambassador in
Spain Noemi Sanín (El Tiempo, 2 June). BBC Mundo reported on 5 March
that the Farc had tried to get hold of uranium to make a dirty bomb.
to the Reyes documents, Chávez's friendship with the Colombian rebels
dated back at least as far as 1992. When he was imprisoned for a failed
coup attempt in February that year, he received $150,000 from the Farc
(Le Figaro, 5 March and Wall Street Journal, 11 March). He must have
spent it all in the prison canteen, because when he was released in
1994, he had no money and had to stay in a small apartment in central
Caracas belonging to his future minister of the interior, Luis
Miquilena, who also lent him a car.
it was more cautious, Le Monde ran a piece on 12 March about a Farc
deserter: "According to the deserter, the Farc leader Iván Marquez and
its commander-in-chief Manuel Marulanda are staying in Venezuela". That
will stick in the reader's mind, as will the Figaro heading "Dangerous
liaisons between the Farc and Chávez" (15 May).
Venezuela, the dailies El Nacional and El Universal, along with the
private channels Radio Caracas Télévisión (RCTV) and Globovisión, are
having a field day. They are only too happy to broadcast the views of
the governor of Zulia state or the former presidential candidate Manuel
Rosales, accusing president Chávez of betraying the country.
of the many editorials in the Washington Post about Venezuela sums up
this media firestorm: "If managed correctly, the laptop scandal will
surely deepen the domestic political hole into which the would-be
`Bolivarian' revolutionary is sinking."
Verified by Interpol
Bogotá and the media have relied on a seemingly unimpeachable line of
defence: the validity of seized documents has been verified by
Interpol. And yet, closer examination yields interesting results.
Naranjo requested Interpol's independent opinion of the eight key
"exhibits" (the computer equipment) on 4 March. Interpol's report was
presented in Bogotá on 15 May by its secretary general, the American
Ronald Noble. He paid extensive tribute at his press conference to
General Naranjo, who was seated beside him, and to the Department of
State Security (DAS), the political police (5). Naranjo, the former
head of the Colombian anti-drug police, had to stand down after his
brother, Juan David, was arrested in Germany in March 2007 for drug
trafficking. He was implicated by the Venezuelan interior minister for
his links with the "narco" Wilmer Varela (assassinated on 29 February).
As for the DAS, its former director, Jorge Noguera, was arrested on 22
February 2007 for allowing paramilitaries to use its resources.
to Noble's report (6) and statements, Interpol's role was limited to
"(a) determining the actual data contained in the eight seized Farc
computer exhibits, (b) verifying whether the user files had been
modified in any way on or after 1 March 2008, and (c) determining
whether Colombian law enforcement authorities had handled and examined
the eight seized Farc computer exhibits in conformity with
internationally recognised principles for handling electronic evidence
by law enforcement." But "the remit of the IRT and Interpol's
subsequent assistance to Colombia's investigation did not include the
analysis of the content of documents, folders or other material on the
eight seized Farc computer exhibits. The accuracy and source of the
user files contained in the eight seized Farc computer exhibits are and
always have been outside the scope of Interpol's computer forensic
team of experts, who came from Singapore and Australia and didn't speak
Spanish, didn't examine the contents of the files. Perhaps this is
understandable: in the 609.6 gigabytes in the eight "exhibits" there
were 37,873 text documents, 452 spreadsheets, 210,888 images, 22,481
web pages, 7,989 email addresses (no reference to emails, though they
were widely quoted in the media), and 983 encrypted files. "In
non-technical terms, such a volume of data would correspond to 39.5
million full pages in Microsoft Word format and . . . would take more
than a thousand years to go through it all at a rate of a hundred pages
a lot of data for one man to produce. Especially Raúl Reyes, constantly
on the move in the jungle, living the dangerous life of a guerrilla.
But it wasn't too much data for the Colombian government, which within
a few hours had begun releasing a continuous stream of revelations from
the files. Nor was it too much for journalists who wove the documents
(authenticated by Interpol) into their own stories.
A troubling lack of rigour
Interpol report shows a troubling lack of rigour. It says Reyes and
Guillermo Enrique Torres, alias Julián Conrado, a Farc commander, were
killed in the operation (page 10). But Bogotá, which had announced the
death of Conrado on _1 March, had to retract that after a DNA
examination of the only body (apart from Reyes) brought back by their
forces. Similarly, the statement "Farc has been designated a terrorist
organisation by Colombia, other governments and Interpol" (page 10)
requires qualification. The designation has only been adopted by the
US, Colombia, Peru, the EU, and Israel (31 countries in all), or 17% of
the 186 countries that are Interpol members.
significantly, the statement: "the eight seized Farc computer exhibits
belonged to Raúl Reyes" or: "the eight seized Farc computer exhibits"
(both page 10) should more properly have been: "the eight exhibits
given to Interpol by the Colombian authorities". Interpol has accepted
the Colombian version of events, though there was no witness present to
verify that the equipment was actually found near the body of the Farc
leader. This provoked Correa to say on 13 May when he visited Paris:
"Who can show that the computers were indeed found in the Farc camp?"
the first fax Naranjo sent on 4 March to request Interpol help, he
mentioned "three computers and three USB devices" (Appendix 2 of the
report). In his reply of 5 March, Noble agrees on behalf of his
organisation to examine "three computers and three USB keys" (Appendix
3). But on 6 March, in a letter to Interpol from the director of DAS,
Maria del Pilar Hurtado, the equipment has become "three laptop
computers, the three USB keys and [for the first time] two hard-disc
drives" (Appendix 4). Where did these hard drives come from? Had no one
noticed them before?
overall conclusion of the report is that "no data were created, added,
modified or deleted on any of the these exhibits between 3 March 2008
at 11.45 am [the date and time when they were entrusted to the computer
forensic specialists of the Colombian Judicial Police] and 10 March
2008 when the exhibits were handed over to Interpol's experts to make
their image discs" (page 29). It also states that "access to the data .
. . [during the same period] conformed to internationally recognised
principles for handling electronic evidence by law enforcement" (page
what happened between 1 March and 3 March? An officer of Colombia's
anti-terrorist unit "directly accessed the eight seized Farc computer
exhibits under exigent and time-sensitive circumstances" (page 30) and
they were all connected to a computer "without prior imaging of their
contents and without the use of write-blocking hardware" (page 31). As
a result of this, during those three days, "access to data . . . did
not conform to internationally recognised principles for handling
electronic evidence by law enforcement" (page 8). This is not
insignificant, as Interpol discovered that a total of 48,055 files "had
either been created, accessed, modified or deleted as a result of the
direct access to the eight seized exhibits by Colombian authorities
between the time of their seizure on 1 March 2008 and 3 March 2008 at
11.45am" (page 33).
court of law anywhere could rely on the results of such a report to
pass judgment on anyone. But that doesn't stop the rumours or the
headlines. The rumour mills are now turning in Ecuador and Venezuela.
Even if today the conditions are not yet right for Venezuela to be
classed as a terrorist or rogue state, this campaign is creating the
right conditions in public opinion. According to Maximilien Arvelaiz,
an adviser to President Chávez: "George Bush wants to leave behind a
time bomb so that, whatever the outcome of the election in November, it
will be very difficult to soften US policy on Venezuela."
an unforeseen turn of events can never be ruled out — as has been
shown by the spectacular, surprise release by Colombian troops of the
French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages,
held for years by Farc guerrillas in jungle captivity.
Among the dead were an Ecuadorian, four Mexican students and a
Colombian soldier killed, not in combat, as Bogotá claimed when it
accorded him a state funeral, but by a falling tree.
(2) BBC Mundo, London, 7 March 2008.
The centre-left El País belongs to the multinational Prisa group, which
controls more than 1,000 radio stations in Spain, the US, Mexico,
Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina and Chile with a total audience
of 30 million listeners.
(6) The full public report in English can be downloaded here: www.interpol.int/public/ICPO/PressR…
Translated by George Miller