By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 16, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela, May 15 -- Interpol, the international police agency, said Thursday that computer files seized by Colombia's army in a raid on a rebel camp belonged to a top guerrilla commander and had not been modified, falsified or forged.
The announcement, made at a news conference in the Colombian capital by Interpol's secretary general, Ronald K. Noble, was a blow to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who sought to discredit the files because they contain information linking his government with a rebel force fighting to topple Colombian President Álvaro Uribe.
"No one can ever question whether or not the Colombian government tampered with the seized FARC computers," Noble said in Bogota, referring to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia by the rebel group's Spanish initials. "We are absolutely certain that the computer exhibits that our experts examined came from a FARC terrorist camp."
The files contain e-mails and other documents that show how Venezuela's populist leader had formed such a tight bond with guerrilla commanders that his key lieutenants had offered help in obtaining sophisticated weaponry such as surface-to-air missiles while delivering lighter arms. The files also document links between the FARC and Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, a close ally of Chávez.
At a news conference in Caracas, Chávez questioned Interpol's impartiality, called the report "ridiculous" and mocked Noble as "ignoble" and a "gringo policeman," referring to his American citizenship. Chávez also called the Interpol chief corrupt and an "international bum."
Chávez also said Colombia committed an international crime by striking the rebel camp where the computers were found. "He came to applaud assassins," Chávez said of Noble and the Colombian officials who attended his news conference. "How sad. How indignant this is."
Chávez has consistently denied arming or funding the FARC.
In Paris, where she was traveling with Correa, Ecuadoran Foreign Minister María Isabel Salvador said the "chain of custody" of the documents had not been guaranteed, so the files had "lost moral value."
Noble said Interpol could not vouch for the content of the messages and other FARC documents. He also explained that the forensic experts who examined the files do not read Spanish, saying this was done purposely to ensure an impartial investigation.
Noble commended the professionalism of Colombian authorities and stressed that "there was no tampering with or altering of any of the data contained in the user files by any of the Colombian law enforcement authorities."
Interpol's findings, after a two-month forensic analysis, could fuel efforts by a small group of Republicans on Capitol Hill to have Venezuela classified as a state sponsor of terrorism. The FARC has long been listed in Washington as a terrorist group.
U.S. officials have worried since early in Chávez's term that the ideological affinity he shared with the FARC had translated into aid. Recently declassified cables, obtained by the nongovernmental National Security Archive in Washington, show how U.S. diplomats in the region believed Chavez was providing secret assistance.
A 2001 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota said Colombia had decided that "holding Chavez close is better than keeping him at arm's length," but noted that the government was still concerned about "Chávez's real intentions and activities, especially vis-a-vis the guerrillas."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a conservative allied with anti-Chávez activists in Miami, said in a statement that international bodies such as the Organization of American States need to condemn Venezuela. "Evidence gleaned from the computers exposes the extent of Chávez's links to the FARC," she said, "including a promise to provide the rebels with money and guns and learn from their experience in guerrilla warfare."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the "highly disturbing" allegations have "deep implications for the people of the region."
After Colombian forces bombed a rebel camp just inside Ecuador on March 1, killing 24 guerrillas and sparking a bitter dispute with Ecuador and Venezuela, Colombian authorities disclosed that commandos sent into the camp recovered three laptop computers, two external hard drives and three USB memory sticks.
An initial analysis of 37,872 written documents and 7,989 e-mail addresses turned up correspondence among rebel commanders in which they discussed conversations with officials including Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín and Gen. Hugo Carvajal, the military intelligence chief. Some messages are from the FARC's commander, Manuel Marulanda, directly to Chávez.
Interpol said the amount of documentation recovered from the FARC camp was enormous.
The computer data totaled 610 gigabytes, including 210,888 images, 22,481 Web sites, hundreds of spreadsheets and thousands of video files. Noble also said his computer experts had decrypted 983 other files, which were turned over to Colombian investigators.
In an interview earlier this week, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the information could be used to paint a picture of the FARC going back decades. "The photos show the history of the FARC, some of them very old, from the early times when they first began," said Santos of the group, founded in 1964.
Noble told reporters that he tried to set up meetings with representatives of Chávez and Correa to discuss the documents and get the cooperation of the two governments, but there was no response.