Ecuadoran Frontier Town a Hub for Drug-Running Rebels, Colombia Charges

Ecuadoran soldiers searched the jungle last year for Colombian rebels reported to have camps along the border.
Ecuadoran soldiers searched the jungle last year for Colombian rebels reported to have camps along the border. (By Joshua Partlow -- The Washington Post)
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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

PUERTO NUEVO, Ecuador -- The townspeople in this tiny frontier outpost, deep in the rain forest hugging Colombia's border, say theirs is a quiet, law-abiding community of shopkeepers, subsistence farmers and fishermen.

Authorities in neighboring Colombia, though, contend that Puerto Nuevo is the thriving nerve center for an elite Colombian rebel unit that helps keep a 44-year-old insurgency alive by trafficking cocaine through Ecuador's ports. That unit, the 48th Front, has moved operations here, Colombian officials say, eluding Colombia's U.S.-backed military and creating a nettlesome problem for President Álvaro Uribe's government.

The man behind the strategy, according to Colombian intelligence officers and former guerrillas, is a rebel operative named Oliver "The Fatman" Solarte. He is not a ranking commander, but those who have worked for him say he has become an indispensable cog in the moneymaking apparatus of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as the rebel group is known.

Colombian authorities call Solarte the FARC's merchant of cocaine in this region and say he has forged ties to drug traffickers from Colombia and beyond, including buyers from two of Mexico's drug cartels. The result is steady financing for the fighting units of the FARC, an insurgency that has learned over its long struggle how to remake itself in the face of adversity, bedeviling Colombian policymakers and U.S. governments.

"This town, what's its history?" said a Colombian intelligence agent who has tracked the FARC in this region. "It was built by the FARC."

The intelligence officer, as well as guerrillas who trafficked cocaine for the 48th Front, said that the commander of the unit is Edgardo Tovar but that the man with the nose for business, and a deft sense of how to avoid danger, is Solarte.

"His power comes from controlling the national and international contacts," said a former rebel in the 48th Front who deserted in December after 14 years in the FARC.

'Cash Cows of the FARC'

Senior Colombian government officials say Solarte has built an intricate cocaine-trafficking web in Ecuador, operating labs where cocaine is produced, corrupting policemen and soldiers who man roadblocks, and building links with drug-trafficking groups.

The 48th Front, along with other drug-trafficking units on the borders of Venezuela and Panama, has become more vital than ever for the FARC after a disastrous year in which top commanders were killed in military strikes and thousands of experienced fighters deserted. The Uribe administration's success has in part been due to $7.5 billion in U.S. aid that, since 2000, has helped transform Colombia's military capabilities.

"The FARC sets up cocaine-producing labs on the border areas and takes advantage of the lax and sometimes nonexistent controls in some of our neighboring countries to supply those labs," said Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia's vice minister for defense. "That means that the FARC fronts that are on border areas have become the cash cows of the FARC."

Intelligence officials in Bogota, Colombia's capital, and former rebels who operated in Puerto Nuevo said Solarte feels so supremely confident inside Ecuador that he owns a bar and a market here. They say that with much of the FARC repositioning itself in Colombia's south, the 48th Front's operations have been transferred to a string of dusty outposts in Ecuador's Sucumbios province.

"The 48th Front doesn't spend time in Colombia; it is in Ecuador," said a former guerrilla commander in that unit who spoke about its history and leadership. The commander recently disarmed and is free. But he spoke on the condition of anonymity because his old comrades have placed a bounty on his head for giving up information about the front's operations.

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