By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 7, 2008
BOGOTA, Colombia, March 6 -- A trove of correspondence recovered during a raid on a guerrilla camp is providing a rare window into how Colombia's largest rebel group has drawn closer to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in an effort to acquire money, arms and the political recognition the organization craves.
If authentic, the documents would make clear for the first time that Chávez's affinity for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has translated into more than rhetoric on its behalf.
The documents were discovered Saturday on three laptop computers and two hard drives after Colombian forces bombed a rebel camp 2,000 feet inside Ecuador, killing 24 guerrillas, including Luis Edgar Devia, a member of the FARC's ruling secretariat who used the name Raúl Reyes.
The correspondence appears to show that Venezuelan officials are eager to work with rebel commanders to isolate Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, an ally of the Bush administration. The documents also include letters to Chávez from FARC leader Manuel Marulanda.
There are no missives from Chávez, however, and on Wednesday the Venezuelan president called Colombia's characterization of his ties to the FARC a lie.
"I deny it. I have to deny it as absolutely false," he said.
The e-mails and letters that form the brunt of the correspondence recount meetings with Chávez, top Venezuelan intelligence officials and other emissaries sent by the government in Caracas to convene secretly with FARC commanders. Colombia's National Police released 15 documents culled from the computers and hard drives this week. Another 30 documents, provided on two CDs to The Washington Post by senior government officials, paint a fuller picture of the rebels' ties with Chávez.
"What's important is for your government and the FARC to have ample relations as friends and good neighbors for the future of our two people," Marulanda said in a letter dated Sept. 22.
Full of Colombian slang and revolutionary lingo, the documents appear to be briefing papers that analyze the FARC's relationship with Chávez and discuss options available to the guerrilla group. They suggest that commanders see a clear benefit to building a relationship with the Venezuelan leader. Many letters are signed by Devia, who was the group's public face.
The chief of Colombia's National Police, Brig. Gen. Óscar Naranjo, said the government has asked a team from Interpol to examine the laptops and hard drives to confirm that they belonged to FARC commanders. That multinational team is to work in Bogota on Tuesday.
"We have nothing to hide," Naranjo said by phone Thursday afternoon. "We're entirely open to any technical review."
The raid on the camp has triggered a regional crisis, with Ecuador, Venezuela and now Nicaragua -- a close ally of Chávez's government -- breaking off relations with Colombia. The Colombian government has responded with an aggressive diplomatic offensive in Latin America and Europe to highlight what officials often have said privately but are now saying publicly -- that Chávez supports a terrorist group that has killed thousands of Colombians.
"What's true is we're going to use all the political and judicial resources on a situation we consider grave, the support of President Chávez to the Colombian guerrillas," Vice President Francisco Santos said Thursday during a trip to Brussels, according to the Reuters news service. "It's a clear support, a support that's in clear evidence in the documents pulled from Raúl Reyes's computer."
In several letters, FARC commanders discuss funding received from Venezuela, both in cash and through partnerships in which the rebels would sell gasoline in Colombia and launder money in Venezuela. There are also messages about a drug-trafficking deal, though they do not implicate Venezuelan officials, and talk of the acquisition of armaments.
"We're talking arms and money, gasoline and political space," said one intelligence official who is sifting through the material and who spoke on condition of anonymity.
FARC commanders refer to "300" they are to receive from Venezuela -- which intelligence officials here believe signifies $300 million. The commanders do not elaborate on what "300" means, but there are missives in which they discuss ensuring that it makes it into their hands safely.
The man overseeing the operation, according to the documents, is "Angel," who Colombian authorities believe is Chávez.
"A bird in your hand is worth more than 100 in the air, say those who know the business," Devia wrote in late 2007. Jorge Briceño, considered the FARC's top military strategist, asked in a Jan. 14 note to other commanders, "Who, where, when and how will we receive the dollars and store them?"
In another letter, addressed to the rest of the FARC secretariat, Devia reports that a leading Colombian senator has received money for social programs in Colombia. "If that's correct, we can't dismiss getting ourselves 250 million for the Plan," he said, referring to the group's efforts to isolate the Uribe government and strengthen rebel forces.
The Colombian strike against the FARC has outraged Chávez, who has called it "a war crime," while raising the specter of war with Uribe's government.
In recent weeks, Chávez has drawn closer to the FARC and more antagonistic toward Uribe's government and its benefactor, the United States. Colombia's government characterizes the FARC as little more than a murderous band of drug traffickers, though the group retains some support in rural hamlets where the state has almost no presence. The United States and Europe have listed the group as a terrorist organization.
In January, to rousing approval in Venezuela's Congress, Chávez said the FARC was not a terrorist group but an insurgent force that had a "project that is respected here." The FARC's stated goal, well-known to most Colombians and also made clear in several of the recovered documents, is to topple Uribe's government.
Chávez has met in Caracas with Iván Márquez, another member of the FARC's inner circle, and other guerrillas to negotiate the release of six Colombian hostages. He has recently been working to liberate others.
In the documents, the guerrillas see Chávez's involvement as benefiting their cause of being removed from international lists of terrorist groups. "He wins for his geopolitical objectives, and we, without a doubt, will win recognition as a belligerent force," Marulanda told other commanders on Sept. 22.
FARC commanders also see an alliance with Chávez as crucial to the strengthening of their military position and the possibility of "consolidating" along the loosely patrolled, 1,300-mile border between the two countries. "He's permitting us to advance together on the Bolivarian project," Briceño, the military strategist, told the secretariat in a Nov. 22 note, referring to Chávez's self-styled revolution.
Much of the correspondence deals with the so-called humanitarian accord, swapping four dozen high-profile hostages for hundreds of FARC members held in Colombian jails. In the correspondence, FARC commanders discuss Chávez's proposals to win the release of hostages, as well as a plan to move the hostages and 500 jailed guerrillas to Venezuela. The documents show Chávez as eager to meet with guerrillas and win the release of hostages.
"He also asked about Ingrid," Márquez said to the secretariat Dec. 23, referring to Ingrid Betancourt, the best-known hostage. "But we told him that if we did that, we'd be left without any chips."
In the documents, particularly in letters to Chávez, the guerrillas praise the Venezuelan president's rule and frequently appear to address many of the issues he considers important. Foremost is opposing capitalism and U.S. influence in Colombia.
In his Sept. 22 letter to Chávez, Marulanda said the United States has a 3,000-man military contingent in Colombia.
"What do you think of that, Mr. President?" he asked.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.