By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 13, 2008
BOGOTA, Colombia, Sept. 12 -- The United States on Friday accused three top aides to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of helping Colombian guerrillas traffic in cocaine and battle the Colombian government, the first time the Bush administration has publicly outlined tight links between what it calls a terrorist group and the highest echelon of Venezuela's government.
Former interior minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín and two leading intelligence officials helped the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia procure weapons in the group's effort to overthrow Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's U.S.-backed government, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a document placing sanctions on the three. The United States and Europe have blacklisted the FARC, as the rebel group is known, as a terrorist organization. The group is widely reviled in Colombia for carrying out kidnappings and assassinations.
The new move by the Bush administration signals a low point in relations between the administration and Chávez, who has used his nation's vast oil wealth to help political allies such as Cuba and, critics say, radical leftist groups across Latin America. The designation marks an escalation in the Bush administration's conflict with Chávez, whose country is a major source of U.S. oil imports, at a time when the firebrand populist has significant economic leverage because of high world petroleum prices. The ideological confrontation has rippled across the region.
The U.S. announcement came a day after Chávez recalled his ambassador in Washington, Bernardo Álvarez, and said American Ambassador Patrick Duddy had 72 hours to leave Venezuela. Chávez called his decision an act of solidarity with his ally in Bolivia, President Evo Morales, who on Wednesday ordered the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador in La Paz, Philip S. Goldberg, as his government faced rising unrest. Both South American leaders say the Bush administration is trying to foment turmoil, topple their governments and take over their countries' natural resources.
On Friday, the United States ordered Bolivian Ambassador Gustavo Guzmán to leave. Also on Friday, Honduras postponed the accreditation of the U.S. ambassador, in support of Venezuela and Bolivia.
Tensions in the Andes have been high all week, as protesters in Bolivia sacked buildings and damaged natural gas installations in a direct threat to Morales's government. On Friday, Bolivian media reported that more than 10 demonstrators were killed in Pando state in the north on Thursday. Meanwhile, in a throwback to the Cold War, two Russian strategic bombers arrived in Venezuela this week for what were called training exercises in the Caribbean.
Gen. Jesús González, commander of strategic operations for the Venezuelan armed forces, said in a hearing before Venezuela's National Assembly that the country was "under threat" and that the United States was behind a recent plot to assassinate Chávez.
The United States usually issues sober denials to the Venezuelan government's frequent declarations of U.S. plots. This time, Washington upped the ante.
"I think the United States just thought this was enough," said Myles Frechette, a former American diplomat who worked in Venezuela. "It's an appropriate move by the United States, saying this isn't just Colombia saying this, we have other sources, these guys are doing this stuff and it's time to focus on it."
In a statement issued Friday morning, Adam J. Szubin, director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said that the move, known as a designation, "exposes two senior Venezuelan government officials and one former official who armed, abetted and funded the FARC, even as it terrorized and kidnapped innocents."
Under the designation, any property that the three Venezuelans own in the United States would be frozen, and any American doing business with them could face criminal penalties.
U.S. officials said that Rodríguez Chacín, who resigned Monday from the Interior Ministry for what he called personal reasons, was the Venezuelan government's main weapons point man for the FARC, facilitating the sale of arms to the rebels. Colombian and American officials said Rodríguez Chacín frequently met with rebel commanders, particularly with two top leaders who are said to be in Venezuela, Luciano Marín, alias Iván Márquez, and Rodrigo Londoño, also known as Timochenko.
Colombians became particularly incensed with Rodríguez Chacín when Venezuela brokered the FARC's release of two hostages in January. The liberation was taped by Venezuelan state television. As the hostages were handed over, Rodríguez Chacín told the rebels: "We are very aware of your struggle. You are the ones that have to maintain this effort."
The Treasury Department said Venezuela's military intelligence director, Hugo Carvajal, protected FARC drug shipments from seizure by honest Venezuelan authorities, provided weaponry and helped the rebels maintain their stronghold along Colombia's eastern border with Venezuela. American officials also said Carvajal provided FARC members with identification documents that allowed them to travel inside Venezuela.
Henry de Jesus Silva, director of the Venezuelan government's intelligence and prevention services, is accused of assisting the FARC in drug trafficking while advocating closer ties between the Venezuelan state and the rebel group.
American officials, speaking to reporters on the condition that their names not be used, said that much of the case against the Venezuelans came from computer hard drives that Colombian commandos recovered after their air force bombed a rebel camp inside Ecuador in March. The hard drives belonged to a senior rebel commander, Luis Edgar Devia, alias Raúl Reyes, who was killed.
"What has been striking for us about how President Chávez has managed the relationship is that he has developed a small coterie of officials who have gone beyond traditional corruption and sought to build a political and strategic relationship with the FARC," one senior Bush administration official said. He said the relationship was designed both to attack Colombia, which Chávez views as an obstacle to his international ambitions of building an alliance in South America, and to promote Chávez's image.
In May, Colombian officials provided The Washington Post with documents showing how Venezuelan officials appeared to have provided light arms, thousands of rounds of ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades to the FARC. The officials said that Venezuela also offered to help the guerrillas obtain surface-to-air missiles but that there was no evidence the guerrillas obtained such weapons. Interpol, the international police agency, studied the Reyes computer hard drives and concluded that the files containing the incriminating evidence had not been modified or falsified.
American officials said that in addition to the three Chávez aides who were named Friday, they know of other figures close to the Venezuelan leader who have helped the FARC. Colombian authorities have identified two of them as Gen. Cliver Alcalá and Amilcar Figueroa, who has had a role in organizing Venezuelan civilian militias.
"It's actually a fairly small group of people, but it's larger than three," said the senior American official. "We know who those people are, and we're watching them very closely."
The revelations in the Reyes computer have hurt Chávez's international reputation. With the FARC's own image in tatters in the wake of publicity about the group's violation of international humanitarian law, Chávez announced in June that the armed struggle was a relic of the past and called on the FARC to release the hostages it holds.
Uribe and Chávez met and announced they would patch up their relationship. But senior Colombian officials have said they believe that Chávez and other Venezuelan officials remain close to the FARC. "We don't believe a word he says," one official said recently.