War Drums in the Andes

At first blush, the Colombian incursion into Ecuador this weekend to kill a top leader of the FARC guerrilla group had nothing to do with Venezuela. Yet every regional fracas in Latin America seems to involve Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and this one is no exception. Chavez was first to condemn the Colombian operation, and did so more heatedly than Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. Both countries have since severed diplomatic relations with Colombia, which has struck back with a series of allegations about Venezuela and Ecuador's relations with the FARC. The three-way dispute raises fears of a regional military conflict and highlights the complications of security in the region.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has aggressively sought to eradicate the FARC, and now claims his neighbors have been offering the group significant financial support as well as safe haven within their territories, a charge both Venezuela and Ecuador deny. Documents from a rebel laptop seized by the Colombian government indicate ties between Chavez and the FARC, but the nature of those ties is ambiguous. A 2004 report from the International Crisis Group warned that Colombia's borders were the "weak link" in President Alvaro Uribe's security strategy, and suggested that unless Colombia forged a joint strategy with Ecuador and Venezuela, it would not be able to resolve its conflict with the FARC. "If anything, Bogota had shown too much forebearance [sic] of its neighbors' FARC support," says a Washington Times editorial.

Despite virulent rhetoric from all sides, most analysts concur that a regional war is unlikely. For one, Venezuela's military capabilities pale in comparison to Colombia's, thanks to years of counternarcotics support from the United States. Stratfor, an intelligence analysis website, says it is "skeptical" of Venezuela's ability to sustain forces outside its borders. Significant economic ties among the three countries also make a more serious conflict unlikely, analysts say. Most believe, however, that tensions will continue for the foreseeable future. Regional defense spending has also been on the rise in the past year, raising some concerns about a Latin American arms race.

While Colombia trades accusations with Ecuador and Venezuela, the specter of the U.S. policy looms large over the region. The technology Colombia used to target the FARC in Ecuador was funded by Plan Colombia, a $5 billion package meant to counter drug trafficking. Some critics say the aid has gone to fight the FARC instead. "Plan Colombia [has] proved to be far more effective as a counter-insurgency plan than as an anti-drug plan, though it [has] been sold to the American public as the latter," writes Michael Reid in a new book on Latin America. The Colombian government asserts that eliminating the FARC, which funds much of its activities with drug trafficking, will help curb the country's narcotics problem.

U.S. response to the current saber-rattling has been restrained. "It is very positive that the Bush administration has chosen not to throw gasoline on the fire by aggressively taking Colombia's side," writes Colombia expert Adam Isacson. Some analysts suggest the United States needs to revise its counternarcotics policy in Latin America. Colombian journalist Maria Cristina Caballero writes in Newsweek that unless the next U.S. president alters drug policy toward the region, groups like the FARC will be able to expand their operations. In the newly released 2008 International Narcotics Strategy Report, the State Department singles out Venezuela, noting its lack of cooperation on counternarcotics. A 2006 CFR special report urged the United States to open dialogue with Venezuela on issues such as drug trafficking, while a 2004 CFR report suggested that a regional approach that spurred cooperation among the Andean countries was necessary to tackle the problem successfully.

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