Latin American leaders face border crisis
Second FARC leader Ivan Rios killed in Colombia by own security chief
AP, msnbc.com, March 7, 2008
BOGOTA, Colombia - A summit of Latin American presidents aimed at defusing a growing border crisis turned into an angry showdown Friday, with finger-jabbing lectures, passionate speeches and a plea for goodwill that prompted stiff hand shakes between the leaders of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
The presidents of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela later joined other leaders in approving a declaration to end the crisis triggered by Colombia's cross-border military attack on a leftist rebel camp in Ecuador.
The dramatic high point of the hours-long passion play came when Dominican President Leonel Fernandez tried to calm things down by urging Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to shake hands with his antagonists. Uribe then marched around the table and shared stiff handshakes with Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
But the appeal for harmony quickly dissolved, as Correa made yet another appeal to Uribe to respect their border, and never again act unilaterally to send commandos into his territory to bomb another rebel camp. If such an act is justified, then no border will be safe, Correa said, to perhaps the day's loudest applause.
The declaration adopted by the 20-nation Rio Group noted that Uribe had apologized for the raid last Saturday, which killed a Colombian rebel leader inside Ecuador's border, and that he pledged not to repeat the violation of national sovereignty.
The declaration, read by Fernandez, also reiterated the firm commitment by member governments to fight threats to national stability from "irregular or criminal groups."
Adding another crushing blow to Latin America's oldest and strongest guerilla movement was the killing of the top rebel leader by his own chief of security on Friday. The security chief gave troops the leader's severed hand as proof, Colombia's defense minister said Friday.
Ivan Rios was the second member of the ruling secretariat of FARC to be killed in a week.
The guerrilla force was already shaken by the death Saturday of its spokesman, Raul Reyes, in a cross-border raid by Colombian troops into Ecuador.
"The FARC has suffered a new, major blow," Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said at a news conference.
Santos said troops launched an operation designed to capture Rios on Feb. 17 after receiving tips that he was in a mountainous area of the western province of Caldas.
On Thursday, he said, a guerrilla known as Rojas came to the troops with Rios' severed hand, laptop computer and ID, saying he had killed his boss.
It was unclear what motivated Rojas to kill his boss, but Santos said it was to "relieve the military pressure."
Santos did not say what happened to Rojas, and he didn't take questions.
The U.S. State Department had a standing bounty of $5 million for Rios, whose real name is Jose Juvenal Velandia. He has been charged with drug smuggling by the United States, and is on a U.S. Treasury Department list of terrorists and drug traffickers.
Youngest member of leadership
In a 1999 interview with The Associated Press, Rios said he joined the insurgency as a student in Colombia's second city of Medellin to avoid being killed by right-wing death squads that had attacked other student activists.
Rios became known across Colombia as one of the rebels' main negotiators in failed peace talks that ended in 2002. He was thought to be around 40 years old.
Rios commanded the FARC's central bloc, which operates throughout Colombia's northwestern coffee region. Security forces say he frequently accompanied the FARC's senior leader, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, in recent years.
Rios "was the youngest member of the secretariat. He was very important to the rebels," said Alfredo Rangel of the Bogota-based think tank Security and Democracy. "This shows the army is capable of taking down the rebels' most important pillars and that any of the leaders can fall at any time."
Harsh words exchanged at summit
Meanwhile, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Uribe said Friday that Colombian rebels helped Correa get elected, citing as evidence a rebel's letter seized during the cross-border raid last week.
Correa walked out of the 20-nation Rio Group summit after the finger-wagging accusation, then returned and denounced the accusation as "infamy."
Uribe said his forces seized a letter during their raid Saturday on a rebel camp just across the border with Ecuador in which Raul Reyes — a rebel leader killed in the raid — told the guerrillas' top commander about "aid delivered to Rafael Correa, as instructed."
Uribe also said that he didn't give Correa advance warning of the attack on Ecuadorean soil because "we haven't had the cooperation of the government of President Correa in the fight against terrorism."
That prompted an angry exchange between the two, as other presidents sought to keep the dialogue civil.
Correa, who has broken off relations with Colombia and sent troops to the border over the incident, denounced Uribe as a liar, portrayed Ecuador as a victim of Colombia's conflict, and proposed an international peacekeeping force to guard their border.
"I reject this infamy that the government of Rafael Correa has collaborated with the FARC," Correa bellowed into the microphone as he accused Uribe of lying. His comments drew loud applause from other leaders, who met Uribe's speech with silence.
Crisis overshadows other summit issues
The summit was to have focused on energy and other issues, but those were overshadowed by the diplomatic crisis in the Andes after the deadly Colombian cross-border raid into Ecuador on Saturday that killed a senior Colombian rebel and 24 others.
It began quietly, with the host, Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, appealing for unity. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said it was time to cool tensions and predicted the summit "is going to be positive."
"People should go cool off a bit, chill out their nerves," Chavez said before the summit started. "I think the meeting today is going to be positive, because it is going to help the debate. We have to debate, talk, and this is the first step toward finding the road."
But the accusations began quickly, with Correa criticizing "the aggression of Colombia" and Uribe saying that Correa is a dishonest partner in the fight against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
"We didn't inform him (of the raid) because we have not had cooperation from the government of President Correa in the fight against terrorism," Uribe said.
Latin American foreign ministers on Thursday drafted a statement saying national sovereignty must be respected. The draft, to be submitted to the presidents on Friday, mirrors one earlier in the week from the Organization of American States, said Chilean Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley.
Military buildup on border
Chavez has ordered thousands of troops and tanks to Venezuela's border with Colombia and threatened to slash trade and nationalize Colombian-owned businesses. Correa has also sent troops to the border, although Uribe has said he won't do the same.
The summit marks the first face-to-face encounters between Chavez, Correa and Uribe since the international crisis began.
Correa told reporters he wants Uribe to apologize for the attack in Ecuadorean territory and give his "formal and firm commitment" that Colombia will never "violate" the sovereignty of another country.
On his arrival in Santo Domingo late Thursday, Chavez claimed the strike was "planned and directed by the United States." Later, he said he had information that "gringo soldiers" participated in the attack, but provided no evidence.
U.S. Southern Command spokesman Jose Ruiz neither confirmed or denied this week that the U.S. military took part in the attack. The latest body was discovered Thursday, according to Ecuador's security minister, Gustavo Larrea.
Uribe is hugely popular among Colombians for cracking down on the FARC, which finances itself through kidnapping and drug trafficking.
Nicaragua, a leftist ally of Venezuela and Ecuador, broke relations with Colombia on Thursday.
France's contacts with rebels cut
The attack also cut off all contacts between the rebels and France, where the freedom of French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt has become a national cause, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Friday.
Uribe has refused to rule out future military incursions into Ecuador or Venezuela, saying he first needs assurances from Correa and Chavez that they are not harboring rebels.
One of the rare regional voices offering support for Colombia was Salvadoran President Tony Saca, who said the Colombian government should be able to defend its citizens.
"We need to understand Colombia has the legitimate right to go after terrorists ... wherever they may be, of course without harming the sovereignty of another country," Saca said.
This report includes information from Reuters and The Associated Press.