Colombia: US hand in Raul Reyes hit?

More than two weeks after Colombia's military incursion into Ecuadoran territory to take out Raul Reyes, a top-ranking leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), voices are being raised about possible US complicity or direction in the hit. On March 9,Simon Romero in the New York Times took a tentative stab at it, noting a similarity between the tactics of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and his pal George Bush—e.g. Washington's nearly identical hit on supposed al-Qaeda militant Abu Laith al-Libi in Pakistan last month…

The raid was one of the most controversial chapters of Plan Colombia, the American program that has disbursed more than $5 billion in aid to Colombia since the late 1990s. And in carrying out the operation without getting Ecuador's permission beforehand, Mr. Uribe took a page from the Bush administration's playbook.

The predawn operation bears remarkable similarities to one carried out in late January by the United States in Pakistan. In that case, the Central Intelligence Agency used a Predator drone aircraft to drop missiles, killing Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior commander of Al Qaeda who had hidden from American officials for years.

Both operations used local informants to track the men down. Both operations were carried out in foreign countries without getting permission beforehand. Both were tactical victories, killing enemies classified as terrorists.

James Brittain on Upside Down World March 13 takes a more aggressive tack ("Was the U.S. Involved in Killing the FARC-EP Leaders?"). He asks some questions that we've been wondering about—like, what kind of aircraft was used in the hit? And does Colombia have the capability? (Why haven't news accounts even been asking this?) Sifting through the available data on the mechanics of the strike, Brittain comes up with this:

When asked if the Uribe and Santos administration had informed Washington preceding the transgression on Ecuadorian soil, Tom Casey, a spokesman for the US State Department, hesitantly stated "No, I'm not aware that we found out about this other than after the fact." Less than assuring complete impartiality, Colombia's Chief of Police, General Oscar Naranjo declared that "I can say for sure that the operation was autonomous." As General Naranjo continued his press conference he did however reveal that the United States had, in fact, been involved in operations connected to the Colombian military assault in Ecuador, albeit indirectly.

General Naranjo asserted that no external forces were involved in the FARC-EP-targeted attack but he did offer that "it is no secret that…a very strong alliance with federal agencies of the US" exists between the Colombian military. Shortly following this statement, a high ranking official within the Colombian Defense Ministry leaked that the United States had been involved in the March 1, 2008 operation. In actuality, the US, through satellite intelligence gathering over southern Colombia and Northern Ecuador, had been able to retrieve signals from the FARC-EP's 48th Front and handed over the identification of the satellite telephone being used by the insurgency to intelligence sectors of the Colombian police. The informant went on to add that it was only then that Colombian officials were able to process the data, thereby enabling the Colombian state to decipherer the exact location of Comandante Reyes. The informant's account of the satellite phone effectively mirrors that made during Defense Minister Santos’ first press conference. The leaked information demonstrated that the US was, at the very least, indirectly involved in the actions of March 1, 2008. That was until March 7, 2008.

On Friday, Ecuador's Defense Minister Wellington Sandoval announced that after further investigation of the area targeted during the March 1 attack it was revealed that the site had been bombarded with at least five bombs ("Smart Bombs"). All five detonations were within a 50-meter diameter during a nocturnal attack, a virtually impossible achievement when concerning the military capabilities and resources of the Colombian Air and Armed Forces. Sandoval claimed that the arms used during the incursion can only be deployed through the use of aircraft which have the capacity to fly at a considerable height and velocity, weaponry that is again not found within the Colombian Air Force. The only Air Force in the region with such an arsenal is the United States.

While the US and the Colombian governments claim that the United States were not involved in the attack that resulted in the death of Comandante Raúl Reyes, it is quite likely that the United States played more than an informal role in the aggression.

Brittain also asks some obvious questions about the subsequent death of FARC leader Iván Ríos —such as, what has been the fate of "Rojas," the comrade who ratted him out?

The Case of Comandante Iván Ríos (Murdered March 4, 2008 or March 7th, 2008)
On the afternoon of March 7, 2008, the country of Colombia was once again the witness of an interruption by Defense Minister Santos taking precedence on both television and radio. Similar to his announcement made six days earlier, Santos announced that a member of the FARC-EP's Secretariat had been killed. To the great surprise of many, the Defense Minister claimed that Comandante Iván Ríos had been killed by another member of the FARC-EP named Rojas (in association with two other combatants associated with the insurgency) on March 4, 2008.

The Defense Minister proceeded to tell the press that after those deemed responsible had killed Comandante Ríos they severed his right hand in order to prove to Colombian officials that the youngest member of the Secretariat was dead. It was then stated that the three insurgents took the severed limb, along with Comandante Ríos' laptop and identification and handed them over to members of the Colombian Army and the Colombian Attorney General Office’s Technical Investigation Body (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación, CTI). During a brief press conference related to this incident, Defense Minister Santos said that the Colombian army had launched an operation designed to capture Comandante Ríos on February 17, 2008 after (again) receiving intelligence that he was located in a mountainous region in the Department of Caldas. Unlike the March 1, 2008 press conference, however, Santos did not entertain any questions or reveal any additional information other than that listed above and that Comandante Iván Ríos had been officially pronounced dead.

Confusion immediately began to envelop the events presented by Defense Minister Santos. The reason for the uncertainty was that previous to the "official" pronouncement of Comandante Ríos death another state official within the Prosecutors Office of Colombia had given a different account concerning the death of the FARC-EP leader.

An anonymous official had prematurely contacted the press and reported that Comandante Ríos had been killed on March 7, 2008 during an attack carried out by a unit of the Colombian Army in conjunction with members of the CTI in Aguadas, just outside the Samaná Municipality within the department of Caldas. This again mirrors events as revealed in the case of Comandante Reyes death; intelligence provided to state officials, upper level official presenting sanitized sanctioned accounts explaining the deaths of the FARC-EP’s high command, and lower-level officials disseminating alternative accounts of the actual on goings during said transgressions.

Another strange complexity related to Comandante Ríos' death is simply, where is Rojas? One would think that the state would put forth details concerning who Comandante Ríos’ murderer was, what his social background or personal identification is, how the killing occurred, what has happened to Rojas, etc. Interestingly, however, nothing related to the above queries concerning Rojas were released.

Brittain perhaps underestimates the potential for internecine intrigues within the FARC apparatus:

If Comandante Ríos was, in fact, murdered by Rojas, such events surrounding the death are quite perplexing due to the actual structure and formation of the FARC-EP. It is difficult to understand how one FARC-EP combatant let alone three were capable of breaking rank [sic] and violently reacting against not only a highly-ranked officer but a leader within the FARC-EP's Secretariat. Each Comandante associated with the Secretariat has a cadre of more than a dozen immediate personnel which are not only responsible for the Comandante’s protection but oversee the on goings of the guerrilla camp in which the leader is situated. From first-hand experience, all meetings and interactions with the Comandante are coordinated each day and formally scheduled. Prior to each meeting, the party invited must wait and ask for approval to enter the Comandante's barracks. Once approval has been arranged it is only then that a member is escorted into the Comandante's quarters by at least one other armed guard. How is it then that not only one but three armed FARC-EP combatants were able to violently enter into Comandante's Ríos’ barracks directly in front of an entire FARC-EP Front, which includes two FARC-EP Companies and two FARC-EP Guerrilla Squads which contain, on average, at least twelve combatants per squad?

His conclusions are not surprising:

Plausible US Role in the Deaths of both Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos
The Bush administration has had great difficulty in getting a new Free-Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia passed. Internal congressional protests by sectors of the Democratic Party have opposed the legislation, due to allegations and proven atrocities committed by the paramilitaries, crimes that the Colombian state has allowed to go unpunished. Many of these politicians argue that the Colombian state and the US government and military have failed to quell the illicit drug-trade or decrease the FARC-EP's strength throughout the Colombian countryside even though billions of US dollars have been spent. Therefore, if the Bush administration was able to claim even the slightest victory over the FARC-EP than they could argue that their counter-insurgency funding has been successful and that a new FTA should be supported in Congress.

There is a distinct possibility that the United States may have been involved in the actions leading up to Comandante Ríos' death. US Special Forces and Marines have been illegally engaged in counter-insurgency campaigns within the country of Colombia for years. Even though the legal number of US troops cannot exceed 800 state forces (and 600 private forces), thousands have been operating in campaigns against the FARC-EP. For example, Peter Gorman published that as far back as 2002 roughly 1,100 US counter-insurgent troops were on "orders to eliminate all high officers of the FARC." This does not even highlight what possible actions private US-based contradicted counter-insurgent forces may be carrying out.

Examining the propaganda value of the attack to Uribe and Bush, Brittain himself sounds a bit like the FARC's PR department:

Telling the world that Comandante Ríos' was murdered by his own comrades is a tactic employed to decrease external solidarity from sectors of the international community, who may now falsely believe the argument that the largest and most powerful Marxist-Leninist revolutionary social movement in Latin America is loosing ground, power, and influence in the Colombian countryside. At the same time, such accusations are internally disseminated in the hopes of destabilizing the FARC-EP itself. Claiming the rank-and-file have abandoned the leadership and that the movement is collapsing is a strategy to destabilize the insurgency's many Squads, Companies, Columns, and Fronts.

But at least he is asking the right questions. Which is more than you can say for the justly maligned "mainstream media."

See our last posts on Colombia and the Ecuador crisis.

  1. What became of “Rojas”?
    Bloomberg offers some clues, as well as a few other tidbits:

    Colombia Pays Rebel in Boss’s Murder as FARC Weakens
    March 14 — Colombian President Alvaro Uribe ordered a reward paid to a former rebel who killed his commander, setting aside moral concerns as the government tries to provoke betrayals among the weakening insurgents.

    Pedro Pablo Montoya, known as Rojas, will get part of a $2.7 million reward for slaying Ivan Rios, a top commander in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Rojas, Rios’ security chief, turned on his boss while troops closed in, then cut off the dead man’s hand as evidence and surrendered with Rios’ computer. Three other informants will share the reward.

    “We pay for information and other types of collaboration,” Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told reporters today in Bogota. “What we have in that computer is very valuable information.”


    Rebel Succession

    On March 12, troops killed a guerrilla known by the alias Genaro, second in command of one of the FARC’s most active and bloody columns known as the Teofilo Forero Mobile Column.

    Santos said information provided by Rojas has enabled the army to intensify operations against two guerrilla fronts in Antioquia, Caldas and Choco provinces.

    The FARC, financed by kidnapping and drug trafficking, is led by 77-year-old founder Marulanda, who may be in Venezuela and suffering from cancer. Disease and combat casualties have cut the FARC’s ranks to about 8,000 fighters from more than 17,000 at its peak, according to government figures.

  2. “Smart bombs” in FARC hit?
    On March 11 Fernando Cordero, vice president of Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly, told Ecuavisa television that the Assembly’s Sovereignty Commission would “do an audit” of the US military base at the southwestern town of Manta to see if the base was used in a March 1 bombing raid by the Colombian military against a camp of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) inside Ecuadoran territory. The FARC second-in-command, Raul Reyes, was killed in the raid, along with about 20 other guerrillas and four visiting Mexican students. On March 6 Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa indicated that the attack was carried out with “smart bombs”; some people doubt that the Colombian air force has the capability to use these hi-tech weapons. The US will have to leave the base in 2009, when a 10-year lease expires. (La Jornada, Mexico, March 12, via Weekly News Update on the Americas)

  3. Ecuador: ID bombs used on FARC camp
    Citing unnamed sources in the Ecuadoran Air Force (FAE), on March 21 the Quito daily El Comercio reported that US “smart bombs” of the sort the US fired at Iraqi targets during the 1991 Gulf War were the ones the Colombian military used in a March 1 attack on a camp of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Ecuadoran territory.

    The FAE sources reportedly said the camp was hit with 10 GBU 12 Paveway II bombs, 500-pound laser-guided weapons made by the US; the same sources said these bombs are not usually part of the arsenal employed with Brazilian Supertucano airplanes or Israeli Kfirs, the planes favored by the Colombian Air Force. The Colombian military insists that it used conventional bombs, fired from eight of its planes: five Supertucanos and three US-built A-37 planes. Ecuadoran authorities also are questioning the reasons for the flight of an HC-130 airplane, used for refueling helicopters, from the US base at Manta, Ecuador, just hours before the March 1 attack. On March 20 the ABN agency distributed a FARC communique, dated March 14, charging that the US Southern Command had led the attack. The FARC also denied that Reyes’ computer could have survived the bombing, “which pulverized everything around it.” The Colombian government has charged that the computer has files compromising the Ecuadoran and Venezuelan governments. (La Jornada, Mexico, March 21 from AFP, DPA, Prensa Latina; March 22 from AFP, DPA, Notimex; AFP, March 23)

    On March 17 the Bogotá daily El Tiempo published a photograph, supposedly from a laptop computer found at the FARC camp, which it said showed Reyes together with Ecuadoran internal and external security minister Gustavo Larrea. It was in fact a picture of Patricio Etchegaray, general secretary of the Communist Party of Argentina, who said he had a long interview with Reyes three years ago at a rebel camp. El Tiempo issued a retraction in the afternoon, saying its information came from the Colombian police. El Tiempo is partly owned by the Santos family, which currently has two members in the government: Vice President Francisco Santos Calderon and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos Calderon. (LJ, March 18 from DPA, AFP, Reuters)

    Relations remained tense between Ecuador and Colombia, which have not resumed normal diplomatic relations since just after the March 1 attack. On March 21 Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa said the situation would get worse if it was true that one of the 23 people killed in the attack was Franklin Aizalia Molina, an Ecuadoran mechanic who lived with his parents in Quito. The parents said photographs of a body identified as that of FARC negotiator, propagandist and songwriter “Julian Conrado” (Guillermo Enrique Torres) were really of their son, who had disappeared around the time of the attack. The Ecuadoran government was to send a delegation of officials and relatives of Aizalia Molina to Bogota on Mar. 24 to present fingerprints and genetic material to help establish the body’s identity. (LJ, March 23 from Prensa Latina, DPA, AFP)

    From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 23

  4. US denies role in Reyes hit
    From the New York Times, April 21 (emphasis added):

    MANTA, Ecuador — Chafing at ties between American intelligence agencies and Ecuadorean military officials, President Rafael Correa is purging the armed forces of top commanders and pressing ahead with plans to cast out more than 100 members of the American military from an air base here in this coastal city.

    Mr. Correa — who this month dismissed his defense minister, army chief of intelligence and commanders of the army, air force and joint chiefs — said that Ecuador’s intelligence systems were “totally infiltrated and subjugated to the C.I.A.” He accused senior military officials of sharing intelligence with Colombia, the Bush administration’s top ally in Latin America…

    [T]ensions persist over his clash with top generals, which emerged after Colombian forces raided a Colombian rebel camp in Ecuador last month. The raid against the rebel group, the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, put Ecuador and its ally Venezuela on edge with Colombia. Twenty-five people were killed, including Franklin Aisalla, an Ecuadorean operative for the group, known as the FARC.

    The face-off between Ecuador and Colombia ended at a summit meeting in the Dominican Republic, but it has begun again over revelations that Ecuadorean intelligence officials had been tracking Mr. Aisalla, information that was shared not with the president, but apparently with Colombian forces and their American military advisers.

    The leak became evident when video and photo images surfaced in Colombia and Ecuador showing Mr. Aisalla meeting with FARC commanders.

    “I, the president of the republic, found out about these operations by reading the newspaper,” a visibly indignant Mr. Correa said last week during an interview in the capital, Quito, with foreign correspondents. “This is not something we can tolerate. He added that he planned to restructure the intelligence agencies to give him greater direct control over them. [Quote fails to close in original text—sic!]

    In a rebuke of senior military officials, Mr. Correa named as defense minister his personal secretary, Javier Ponce, who was an outspoken critic of the armed forces in his previous careers as a poet and an editorial writer at some of Ecuador’s largest newspapers.

    That move and other dismissals stand in contrast to Mr. Correa’s conciliatory policies toward the military after he took office last year, which included salary raises for soldiers; a 25 percent increase in the 2008 military budget, to $920 million; and lucrative highway construction contracts for companies controlled by military officials…

    Through holding companies, the armed forces still control TAME, one of Ecuador’s largest airlines, and enterprises in the munitions, shrimp fishing, construction, clothing, flower farming and hydroelectric industries, making the military one of the country’s most powerful economic groups.

    Mr. Correa has not challenged these financial interests. But he and his political supporters are moving forward with efforts to shift the military away from its traditional reliance on training and assistance from the United States and toward strengthening ties with the armed forces of other South American countries.

    The first indication of his plans to shift the country’s focus was his promise to end the American presence at the Manta base once the United States’ lease expired in 2009.

    This month his supporters, in an assembly convened to propose a new constitution, took up the cause, approving a measure that would go a step further and effectively outlaw foreign military bases in Ecuador after the lease expires. Since the American post at Manta is the only foreign military outpost in Ecuador, it was clear the move was a deliberate and very public swipe at the United States, which spent more than $60 million to build the facilities here for Awacs surveillance planes and crew members.

    The “forward operating location,” as the American post is called, came into existence in 1999 in a 10-year deal with Ecuador after the Pentagon and Panama’s government failed to agree on the use of Howard Air Force Base in Panama. The agreement, negotiated under extreme economic distress by a Ecuadorean president who was overthrown months later, includes no rent for Ecuador.

    Mr. Correa has long been irked by the agreement, but his government’s unease intensified in recent weeks after reports that the Manta base may have been used for support by American military personnel in Colombia’s bombing raid of the FARC camp last month. United States Air Force officials here have denied the reports.

    “The only aircraft of ours that was flying at the time of the raid was a Coast Guard four-prop that was a thousand miles over the Pacific,” Lt. Col. Robert Leonard, the ranking United States military officer in Ecuador, said in an interview in Manta, while acknowledging that the Pentagon was already looking at alternatives to the Ecuador base.

    See our last post on Manta.