In a Conflict that Crosses Borders, Ecuadorans Track an Elusive Foe

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 8, 2008; Page A01

ALONG THE SAN MIGUEL RIVER, Ecuador -- The captain held a finger to his lips, and his soldiers crouched on either the side of the jungle path. He saw the pair of footprints pressed into the mud behind a tree, which he recognized as marks from the rubber boots preferred by the Colombian guerrillas he was after.

"Guard post," a soldier whispered.

Capt. William Pozo of the Ecuadoran special forces disappeared around a bend in the path. The air was so hot and wet the jungle seemed to be panting. Sweat beaded on the soldiers' cheeks. They could hear little but their own breathing and the shrieking of an unseen bird. Pozo returned a few minutes later.

"There is a guerrilla camp here," he told them. It was the second camp they had found in three days. "But they've already left."

The four-decade-long conflict between the government of Colombia and guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, is not confined by borders. And while Colombian forces have scored major victories this year -- guerrilla commanders killed; hundreds of rebels deserting; prisoners, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, freed -- the view from neighboring Ecuador near the frontier is different.

The Ecuadoran soldiers who pursue the guerrillas operate along a 366-mile-long border, most of it marked by rivers that can be crossed at any point by canoe. In this remote jungle, they have found weapons dumps, cocaine labs and hundreds of guerrilla camps linked by footpaths that ribbon for miles through the undergrowth.

Of the few people who live here, many are Colombian settlers, some of them refugees fleeing the guerrilla war or toxic fumigants sprayed over the coca fields of southern Colombia, some of them farmers conspiring with the guerrillas. Some are guerrillas themselves. The soldiers can rarely tell who is who.

"I do not think that this is the end of the FARC. I do not think that the FARC's days are numbered," said Lt. Col. Juan Carlos López, an intelligence officer with the Ecuadoran division that patrols the Colombian border. "They have a fight that will last for a long time."

That the guerrillas live and conduct their clandestine activities outside Colombia has sparked a regional crisis this year -- and bitter allegations by Colombia that the Ecuadoran and Venezuelan governments are either sympathetic to or collaborating with the fighters.

After Colombia bombed a guerrilla camp two miles inside Ecuadoran territory on March 1, killing FARC commander Luis Edgar Devia, alias Raúl Reyes, and more than 20 others, Ecuador cut off diplomatic relations and Venezuela dispatched tanks to the border. The tensions have eased in recent weeks, but both Ecuador and Colombia accuse the other side of doing far less than it should to eradicate the guerrillas.

Such politics seem a distant abstraction for the 17 commandos of the Ecuadoran 26th Special Forces Group, whose members rappelled from a helicopter into the forest south of the San Miguel River on July 21 to begin a patrol. Their mission was as simple as it was difficult: to find the guerrillas and destroy their camps in Ecuador.

In six days of near-constant hiking, they covered just 11 miles, slowed by knee-deep mud and murky rivers. Each man was weighed down by 80 pounds of equipment on his back, an M16 in one hand and a machete in the other. Vines lashed their faces. Insects mundane and fantastic found every body crevice. Other teams might be 1,000 yards away, but that distance could take several hours to traverse.

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