By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 15, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela, May 14 -- High-ranking officials in Venezuela offered to help Colombian guerrillas obtain surface-to-air missiles meant to change the balance of power in their war with the Colombian government, according to internal rebel documents.
Venezuelan officials served as middlemen with Australian arms dealers and agreed to help the rebel commanders travel to the Middle East to receive missile training, according to files on computer hard drives seized by Colombian authorities and shown to The Washington Post. In interviews, Colombian officials said they have no evidence that the guerrillas obtained the antiaircraft missiles but added that Venezuelan authorities appear to have provided light arms, thousands of rounds of ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The disclosures have already started to reverberate in the Bush administration and among Latin America policymakers on Capitol Hill, where a small group of Republicans has proposed classifying Venezuela, a major oil exporter to the United States, as a state sponsor of terrorism. The United States and Europe long ago blacklisted the rebel organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as a terrorist group.
At Colombia's request, Interpol, the international police agency, has completed an extensive forensic analysis on the hard drives, which were confiscated in an army raid on a rebel camp on March 1. On Thursday, Interpol is expected to announce that there is no evidence that anyone tampered with the hard drives after they were seized, though the agency cannot vouch for the veracity of the rebels' claims, according to an American official knowledgeable about the study.
The documents are the latest to be released among 16,000 files and photographs being reviewed by Colombian and U.S. officials that describe meetings between FARC commanders and Venezuelan officials, including Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín; the military intelligence chief, Gen. Hugo Carvajal; other top generals such as Clíver Alcalá; and Amilkar Figueroa, who organizes Venezuela's civilian militias.
President Hugo Chávez, who has publicly lauded the FARC and characterized Colombia's government as illegitimate, ridiculed the latest batch of correspondence Sunday as "imbecilic documents." He cast Colombian President Álvaro Uribe as a "manipulator" linked to drug trafficking and charged that the Bush administration is using the documents as a pretext to invade Venezuela from Colombia.
Communications Minister Andrés Izarra, speaking to a group of American newspaper editors on Tuesday in Caracas, called the findings "laughable."
"It's part of the lies that are spread around every day against what we are doing," he said.
Colombian officials made dozens of documents available to reporters shortly after commandos recovered laptops and hard drives in a rebel camp just inside Ecuador's northern border. The documents belonged to Luis Edgar Devia, alias Raúl Reyes, a top commander killed in an airstrike on the camp.
But documents released more recently to the Wall Street Journal, El Pais of Madrid and The Post reveal that ties between Venezuela's government and the FARC included plans to procure a range of arms to help the guerrillas turn back Colombian government offensives.
"What they show is that the level of cooperation was much more than what we had earlier estimated," Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said in an interview this week. "We knew there was a level of cooperation, but not as intense, not as close and not as effective as we're now seeing."
Former FARC guerrillas who operated in southern Colombia and along the Venezuelan border said in interviews that their units received Venezuelan munitions. Colombian intelligence officials also described the funneling of weaponry, with one official providing documents showing how Colombia's military has confiscated more than 210,000 rounds of Venezuelan-made ammunition in FARC camps since 2003.
"We believe they act in Venezuela, fully protected, and that from there they prepare terrorist acts," one intelligence operative in Colombia said of the FARC. "There is fluid communication between the two."
Santos, in some of his strongest comments to date, said Colombia has frequently provided the Caracas government with information about the activities of the FARC inside Venezuela. That information has included the locations of senior members of the group's leadership. "We have in various opportunities told them about guerrilla chiefs in Venezuela, about the presence of narco-trafficking in Venezuela, of camps in Venezuela, and they have never responded," he said.
In Washington, officials are worried that Venezuela's aid to the FARC, if proved, could threaten the progress Colombia has made against the FARC. "I think the obvious problem is that a serious threat to both Colombia and a terrorist threat in the region has apparently had pretty direct support from Chávez and his government," John P. Walters, the White House drug policy chief, said by phone from Washington.
Still, a high-ranking official in the Bush administration and senior aides in Congress said the United States must remain cautious about drawing conclusions from the documents and prudent about the adoption of policy initiatives.
After a recent fact-finding trip to the region, Carl Meacham, a senior aide to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted in a report that a hard line against Venezuela could damage trade with the United States and inadvertently strengthen Chávez's position.
Colombian officials have also debated the ramifications of a tough stance, since it could endanger $6.5 billion in annual trade with Venezuela. Santos, the defense minister, said, "I want to normalize relations with Venezuela because it would be convenient for all of us." He added: "But to do that, they cannot help the FARC."
Colombian officials and former FARC guerrillas said the close ties between the group and Venezuela are not new, though officials in Chávez's government and rebel commanders have drawn closer since 2005.
One mid-level guerrilla who recently deserted described how Venezuelan forces provided the ammunition the FARC needs for its assault rifles, as well as explosives. The guerrilla, who operated inside Venezuela's border, said Venezuelan authorities also provided sanctuary to guerrilla units escaping Colombian attacks.
"It's a state policy. What we were told was that Chávez liked to see us expand in Venezuela and in Colombia," said the guerrilla, who spoke on the condition his name not be used.
In FARC correspondence, the guerrillas talk about obtaining weapons either directly from the Venezuelans or with their help. On March 1, 2007, a commander named Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry says Venezuelan intelligence operatives offer "parts to build" antiaircraft missiles.
Another letter, from a commander named Luciano Marin Arango on Jan. 20, 2007, talks of how two Venezuelan officials, identified in an earlier e-mail as Gens. Carvajal and Alcalá, provided "85mm antitank rockets." Colombian officials believe the "rockets" are grenade launchers, often used to attack police outposts.
In another message dated Sept. 6, 2007, Marin Arango tells other FARC leaders that he met with two Australian arms dealers with the help of Figueroa. The items for sale included "Chinese missiles" that are "very easy to operate and they guarantee the instruction," he wrote, speaking of antiaircraft missiles.
In exchange, FARC documents show, the Venezuelans have asked the FARC to train the Venezuelan army, in order to repel the U.S. invasion Chávez frequently warns is about to come.