Latin American Crisis Resolved

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 8, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia, March 7 -- The presidents of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela on Friday agreed to end a bitter standoff that had resulted in troop deployments, a downturn in trade and a rupture in diplomatic relations.

The crisis began after Colombia bombed a rebel camp last Saturday just inside Ecuador, killing 24 guerrillas, including Luis Edgar Devia, a top commander. The strike marked the first time the army had killed a member of the directorate of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a guerrilla group that has been fighting here for 44 years.

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe had come under criticism from various Latin American governments for the incursion, but at a regional summit in the Dominican Republic on Friday he heartily shook hands with Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. All three of those nations had broken relations with Colombia over the incident.

The resolution of the crisis, at a meeting of the 20-nation Rio Group, came in the form of a declaration that noted Uribe had apologized for the raid and that he promised never to violate another nation's border. "With the apology and the promise of never again violating a brother country, we have overcome this very grave crisis," said Correa, in comments that were broadcast live across much of Latin America.

Although the meeting ended on a positive note, the most serious issue raised in the debate -- that Colombian rebels operate with the help of foreign governments -- has not been resolved and is sure to fester.

The news came soon after the Defense Ministry in Bogota reported the death of a second member of the FARC's top command. Manuel Jesús Muñoz, better known by his nom de guerre, Iván Ríos, did not die in battle, but rather was killed by his own men this week in a mountainous, coffee-growing region of north-central Colombia, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told reporters.

The slaying appeared to reflect serious internal divisions in an organization that has in recent months seen several seasoned, mid-level commanders killed in combat and hundreds more desert.

Colombian officials said that Muñoz's men, tired of running from troops, decided to kill him. Santos said they then severed his hand and presented it, along with Muñoz's identification card and computer, to an army column that had been pursuing the guerrillas. The United States had placed a $5 million bounty on Muñoz's head, accusing him of coordinating drug-trafficking operations.

The issue of Colombian guerrillas and whether they are harbored by Venezuela and Ecuador marked the often heated exchanges at Friday's summit, which had been scheduled previously. Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua focused on Colombia's violation of Ecuador's sovereignty, while Colombia said that its people are under threat from rebels hiding outside its borders.

Uribe came out firing, accusing Correa of ties to the FARC. He cited as evidence a letter culled from a computer that commandos recovered in the camp that belonged to Devia. Uribe said the letter showed that the FARC supported Correa during his 2006 presidential campaign.

Correa, a leftist, U.S.-trained economist, angrily rejected the allegations, accused Uribe of lying and explained that his government has battled against FARC units in Ecuador's northern jungles.

"How hard it is to believe something from someone who has lied so many times," Correa said. "My hands are clean, and free of blood."

Other presidents at the summit applauded the Ecuadoran leader, who along with Chávez had vowed to marshal international condemnation for Colombia's incursion.

Chávez, who had been accused this week of assisting the FARC, also denied any ties. "I have never done it and will never do it," he said. "I could have sent a lot of rifles to the FARC. I will never do it because I want peace."

Uribe, though, said his country had been attacked 40 times since 2004 by Colombian rebels who used Ecuador as a launching pad. He also explained why he didn't inform Correa of the strike against Devia, who had been located with the help of a rebel who deserted, military officials said.

"I didn't inform him of the operation because we have not received cooperation from his government in the fight against terrorism," Uribe said.

Tensions eased after Dominican President Leonel Fernández, the host of the summit, appealed for calm and said, "What all of us would like is for this meeting to end with a hug, a handshake, between the presidents of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador."

With the hearty handshakes, the countries resumed normal diplomatic and commercial relations. Uribe also said that he would not file a complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing Chávez of aiding the FARC, as he had vowed earlier.

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