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.
"Over there, they have camps and labs for coca and training camps, with courses on explosives, workshops," said the commander, who is in his 30s and spent two decades in the FARC.
The Ecuadoran government of President Rafael Correa says that far from tolerating the FARC, it has deployed as many as 11,000 soldiers to the border and built new military posts. Ecuador's security forces destroyed 78 FARC camps last year, up from 48 the previous year, said Miguel Carvajal, minister for internal and external security.
"This country is a victim of a conflict that is not ours," Carvajal said in an interview in Quito, Ecuador's capital. "We spend millions of dollars in deploying military and police to control our frontier from armed groups that come from Colombia, and they want to tell the world that we tolerate the FARC, which is insulting."Ties to Ecuador Alleged
Residents of Puerto Nuevo, with its two main streets, meagerly stocked shops and school, insisted that the FARC plays a minor role.
"I know nothing about guerrillas. I haven't seen them," Luz Miranda said.
Rebel deserters say FARC trainers operate camps in the region to teach fighters the art of bombmaking, including letter bombs and "bunker buster" mortar shells. The local big town, Lago Agrio, is filled with brothels, bars and pool halls used by Colombian fighters taking a break from the war.
One of the FARC's top seven commanders, Raúl Reyes, lived in a series of camps in Sucumbios for a year until he was killed March 1, 2008. That day, under Uribe's orders, Colombian fighter planes bombed his camp, killing two dozen rebels, including Reyes, and touching off a diplomatic dispute with Ecuador that has yet to be resolved.
In interviews and reports from Colombian government interrogations provided to The Washington Post, former rebels said there was a level of acceptance of the FARC by some Ecuadoran authorities, though they did not link Correa directly to the group. They described a web of corruption involving military officers and policemen in Ecuador who permitted rebels to operate in exchange for bribes.
"To say that Correa supports the guerrillas, well, it is under the table," said the former FARC commander who spent two decades in the group. "To say the military supports the FARC -- no, not all of them, but some do."
Carvajal, Ecuador's minister for internal and external security, said that "it would be naive" to think that corruption does not taint Ecuadoran police and soldiers. But he said that Ecuador's critics have exaggerated the problem and that his country is a world leader against narco-trafficking.The Southern Bloc
Several guerrillas, though, described Carvajal's predecessor, Gustavo Larrea, as the point man for contacts with the FARC.
Larrea's deputy, José Ignacio Chauvín, was charged this year in a drug-trafficking case involving an Ecuadoran gang that prosecutors say worked closely with the 48th Front. Chauvín did not deny having ties to the FARC, telling reporters that he had been friends with Reyes, the slain commander.
Documents seized from Reyes's computers after Colombian authorities bombed his camp include messages he and other commanders exchanged that paint a close relationship with Larrea and former general René Vargas, now ambassador to Venezuela. In those documents, guerrilla commanders also spoke of funds funneled to Correa's successful 2006 campaign and recount how guerrilla commanders urged Correa emissaries to permit the FARC to operate more freely.
Larrea and Vargas could not be reached for comment, and the Correa administration has rejected the Reyes documents as fabrications of Colombia's government.
Carvajal said Larrea's visits to the FARC focused on securing the release of hostages held by the group, a role he said was similar to that of presidents of other Latin American and European countries. "Why don't they condemn the president of France, the presidents of Brazil or Argentina?" he asked.
But Colombian authorities and rebel deserters said the collaboration with Ecuadoran authorities has helped keep revenue generated by the 48th Front flowing to eight other fronts that form the Southern Bloc. Colombian officials say that has created a welcoming business environment for contacts such as Cachi, a Mexican who rebels say frequently made deals with Solarte.
Former guerrillas say Solarte impresses Cachi -- whose real name is unknown to the rebels -- by showcasing his influence with local authorities and his affluence. And Cachi is not the only one who comes looking for cocaine.
"People from all over show up, daily," said a deserter from the 48th who worked with Solarte.
"The truth is that catching Oliver or killing Oliver would kill the Southern Bloc," the man said, referring to Solarte by his first name, "because he is the owner of the contacts."