LATIN AMERICA: Spectre of Int'l Military Intervention Hangs Over Colombia
The spectre of international military intervention has cropped up again in Latin America, in the context of the debate between the region's leaders on alternative proposals for helping Colombia put an end to an armed conflict that has raged for over four decades.
CARACAS, Jun 12 (IPS) - The spectre of international military intervention has cropped up again in Latin America, in the context of the debate between the region's leaders on alternative proposals for helping Colombia put an end to an armed conflict that has raged for over four decades.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe himself has raised the possibility of a multinational intervention in his country, as a last resort.
The Rio Group, made up of 18 Latin American nations and a rotating representative of the Caribbean Community, opened the door to possible collective action in Colombia during its May 24 meeting in the city of Cusco in southeastern Peru, on the suggestion of Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutiérrez.
On that occasion, the Rio Group -- Latin America's highest- level forum for political consultation and coordination -- agreed by consensus to ask United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to urge Colombia's guerrillas to declare a ceasefire, in order to restart peace talks.
The Rio Group initiative, known as the Cusco Consensus, earned the backing of the Organisation of American States (OAS) general assembly on Jun. 10, which brought together all of the countries of the Americas with the exception of Cuba.
But the leaders meeting in Cusco also stated that if Annan's efforts failed, ''the Rio Group, along with the U.N. secretary- general, and in coordination with the Colombian government, will seek alternative solutions.''
''What are we talking about here? A military intervention in Colombia?'' Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez asked at the time, according to his own account.
''I was told yes, and I told them 'Don't even bother inviting Venezuela to take part in something so horrifying'. If we are going to unite, it is to wage peace, not war,'' he added.
According to the Peruvian weekly Caretas, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos commented to Chávez, when everyone was getting up to go to a dinner in Lima: ''The only Latin American who organised a multilateral for.MDBO/ce .MDNM/was [independence hero Símon] Bolívar,'' whose ideas and values are frequently cited by Chávez.
Lagos, a moderate socialist, said that if Latin America is incapable of resolving its regional problems -- such as the Colombian conflict -- on its own, it runs the risk of U.S. intervention. But, he added, that did not mean that a regional military force should be set up, reported Caretas.
Chávez signed the Cusco Consensus, but did so reluctantly, he said on his weekly Aló Presidente radio programme, because ''never before on this continent has a proposal been advanced like the one set forth by the Ecuadorian president.''
Venezuela's populist left-leaning president said that ''inconceivable international military interventionism, which is sheer madness, is being spoken of very lightly, in a dangerous manner.''
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton told IPS that ''if it is formally or informally brought up again, our position will be the same -- rejection of any military intervention in another country.''
''As a sister nation and as a neighbour, we do not believe that is the solution. We want to be actors in peace processes, not wars,'' said the minister.
Gutiérrez did not respond to Chávez's criticism, and Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Nina Pacari said Quito ''does not believe in any kind of interventionism,'' and that ''there will be no intervention by any country in the Colombian conflict.''
But the right-wing Uribe said that if the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main rebel group, ''does not accept Ecuador's initiative, there could be another way forward, in which all of the countries could help the Colombian government defeat terrorism, militarily and with authority.
''We need support from the international community, because terrorism in Colombia is mainly financed by the international drug trafficking trade, and threatens to destabilise the entire region,'' he argued.
However, when they reported the results of the meeting in Cusco, presidents Alejandro Toledo of Peru and Luiz Inácio ''Lula'' da Silva of Brazil insisted that the request for mediation by Annan ''does not imply intervention by foreign military forces'' in Colombia.
Sources at Brazil's Foreign Ministry said the Lula administration, which took office on Jan. 1, continues to follow the country's traditional policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, such as the Colombian conflict.
They also said that Brazil will only support Annan's efforts, if they are requested and accepted by the Colombian government, and will neither propose nor support any other international plan of action.
Plan Colombia, which was launched by Bogota and Washington to increase U.S. military aid to Colombia for combatting the drug trade, was expanded last year to the counterinsurgency struggle.
Nearly 400 U.S. military advisers are already working in Colombia, the U.S. Defence Department told Congress.
The increasing U.S. military aid, the growing number of advisers, and Washington's decision to include the leftist FARC on its list of international terrorist organisations has fed fears of a direct U.S. military intervention in Colombia.
Uribe ''has realised that foreign military involvement is heavily criticised both within and outside of his country, and for that reason he is going back to the avenue of U.N. participation, which could perhaps lead to a peace-keeping operation, as occurred in the past decade in Central America,'' Venezuelan expert in international affairs Carlos Romero said in an interview.
He pointed out that the Argentine government of Carlos Menem (1989-1999) had discussed the possibility of taking part in a multilateral force for peace-keeping missions within the framework of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, of which the United States is a signatory.
''What worries neighbouring countries, and Brazil in particular, is that the relationship between the United States and Colombia in the fight against terrorism could turn into direct U.S. participation in the conflict,'' said Romero, a professor of international studies at Venezuela's Central University.
Carlos Pérez Llana, a professor of international relations at the University of San Andrés in Argentina, told IPS that ''the aim is to 'multilateralise' a national conflict.''
''The guerrilla movements in Colombia existed prior to the phenomenon of narcotrafficking,'' said Pérez Llana, who described Uribe as ''a young man who oversimplifies things.''
Referring to the new regional proposals, Romero underlined ''Brazil's concern for stability and governance in the region, as requisites for economic development, and in particular stability in the Andean area and Colombia.
''Making projections based on the current variables, it is very unlikely that a multilateral force would be set up to intervene in the region,'' he predicted.
Pérez Llana, meanwhile, said the possibility that the United States would commit troops to the conflict in Colombia ''is very remote...especially given the country's geographic characteristics.
''In recent years, Washington has deployed its forces in wide- open spaces, not jungles,'' he noted.
But Víctor Poleo, an economy professor at Venezuela's Central University who specialises in the petroleum industry, said ''the United States aims to control the Andean region for its wealth in hydrocarbons, and, pointing farther to the future, for its water resources and biodiversity.
''In that sense, Colombia is playing the role of a wedge in the region, like Israel in the Middle East.''
- Viviana Alonso in Argentina, Gustavo González in Chile, Kintto Lucas in Ecuador, and Mario Osava in Brazil contributed to this report. (END)
First extradited Colombian rebel appears in U.S. court in Miami
By CATHERINE WILSON
Posted June 7 2003
MIAMI -- A Colombian rebel accused of killing three American aid workers refused to sign a form advising him of his U.S. legal rights before his extradition, an FBI agent testified Friday.
Agent Ron LeBlanc said he traveled to Colombia and spoke to Nelson Vargas Rueda more than three weeks before the member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia was sent north under tight security.
LeBlanc said he formally identified Vargas, a key legal requirement for U.S. prosecution, but Vargas refused to sign a Miranda rights warning sheet.
Vargas was flown to Fort Lauderdale on an FBI jet May 28. He faces trial in Washington on an indictment charging him with murder conspiracy in the kidnap-murder of Americans who were helping set up a rural school system in 1999.
A hearing to determine whether he should stay in jail until trial was delayed until Tuesday on a defense request for more information about the investigation.
Vargas has been held in solitary confinement, and jailers have removed his prosthetic right leg. Marshals push him in and out of court in a wheelchair.
Terence Freitas, 24, of Los Angeles, Ingrid Washinawatok, 41, of New York City, and Lahe'ena'e Gay, 39, of Pahoa, Hawaii, were shot to death a week after they were kidnapped. Vargas, 33, is accused of shooting one of the women.
The FARC considered the three to be either U.S. military advisers or CIA agents, the indictment said.
They were helping set up a school system for the U'wa Indian tribe in the vast eastern plains bordering Venezuela. FARC leaders admit executing the three, whose bodies were found across the border in Venezuela.
Vargas was arrested more than three years ago and has been in jail since. He is one of six FARC members to be charged in the killings and is the first Colombian rebel ever to be extradited to the United States.
The murders prompted the United States to suspend all contact with the leftist rebel group which has been fighting the Colombian government for nearly 40 years. The United States lists the FARC as an international terrorist organization.
Expelled financier denied bond in money laundering case
Here, the drug wars know no borders
Colombia's turmoil charges across borders
Posted on Sun, Jun. 01, 2003
By Juan Forero
ContraCostaNews.com-NEW YORK TIMES
LA COOPERATIVA, Venezuela - More than ever, Colombia's 39-year-old civil war is spreading beyond its porous borders, bringing to its five neighbors a troubling brew of armed leftist rebels, right-wing death squads, drugs and refugees.
Increasingly, the guerrillas have set up camps and the drug traffickers used by both sides to support their forces have opened transport corridors through isolated jungles in other countries as a Washington-backed drug eradication program in Colombia has intensified.
The refugee problem is also spilling over, with more than 300,000 Colombians having crossed into Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela in the past four years, according to U.N. estimates that have not been publicly released.
The problems are most pronounced here in Venezuela, where a 1,400-mile border has become a flash point between the left-leaning government of President Hugo Chavez and its ideological opposite in Colombia under President Alvaro Uribe.
The complications were obvious on a recent day in this hamlet just inside Venezuela.
Just miles from a Venezuelan military base, a ragtag band of about 10 Colombian rebels took a break, supremely at ease as they lolled on makeshift beds, their Kalashnikov assault rifles hung from wooden posts. They swatted mosquitoes as they chatted with their first foreign visitors.
"We are here because the people wanted us here, so we have come," said the commander, who identified himself as Jose.
He was referring to the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who became a regular presence here four years ago and have been increasingly welcomed by poor Venezuelans and Colombian refugees.
In late March, with the world focused on the war in Iraq, Venezuelan military aircraft bombed and strafed this outpost.
The target was not the leftist rebels, who regard Chavez as something of a hero, but the Colombian paramilitary group that had pursued the guerrillas across the border.
Colombian officials and Venezuelan opposition leaders condemned the bombing as an intervention by Chavez in Colombia's war.
Venezuela angrily rejected the criticism, saying Colombia had failed to control its borders and allowed both sides to bring their conflict across the scarcely patrolled frontier.
Jose, the rebel commander, predictably took Chavez's side. "They were defending themselves, and their sovereignty," he said of the Venezuelan government, which he called "revolutionary, just like us."
After the bombing, the paramilitaries fled back across the Gold River into Colombia. Refugees and high-ranking Colombian officials said the Venezuelans continued to strafe them, firing into Colombian territory.
The bombing and strafing are signs of a new intensity in the spread of the civil conflict and led to a hasty meeting in April between Chavez and Uribe, who promised to work together.
In recent months, vast fields of Colombian coca, the tropical plant that yields cocaine, have been sprayed from the air and destroyed.
In response, growers and traffickers have relied increasingly on border areas -- in some cases, in other countries -- to plant and transport illegal crops and drugs, Colombian and U.N. officials say.
In turn, the guerrillas and paramilitary groups -- both classified as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department -- intrude, fighting over control of the crops, the drug trafficking corridors and the field hands needed for harvesting.
According to Colombian intelligence reports and Venezuelan landowners, Colombian guerrillas kidnap ranchers, extort money from businessmen and traffic in drugs.
Colombian intelligence reports also say that the rebels have set up temporary camps in at least three Venezuelan states, eluding Colombian forces and their de facto paramilitary allies.
"It is an area that allows them to rest, to reorganize and regain momentum to again come back into this country," a Colombian general said in a telephone interview.
Venezuelan landowners and merchants who live along the border have accused the Venezuelan military of ignoring or colluding with rebels.
It is unclear whether that is government policy, but U.N. officials, Venezuelan farmers and aid groups report that Venezuelan military units have tolerated the rebels for years.
"I believe they have a policy that they will not attack the guerrillas if the guerrillas do not attack them," said a senior U.N. official who works on border issues. "The Venezuelan military does not have a belligerent policy toward Colombian guerrillas."
The Venezuelan government denies partisanship. It has 20,000 troops along the frontier, and will send 4,000 more, officials say.
"It is not true what they say," said the commander of a marine patrol on the Gold River. "We repel both of them, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries."
Colombia: a catastrophe -- and a miracle, too
Esther Bohn Groves
A pastor in Colombia, Latin America, heard gunshots. Looking out his window, he saw three paramilitary men walking away as a man shot in both legs dragged himself to the pastor's door and scratched on it.
If he opened the door to help, he and the wounded man would both be killed. As he agonized, two of the paramilitaries returned in a taxi, dragged the shooting victim into it, and went off. A local policeman came to the door and asked about the gunshots. The pastor replied someone had been shot and taken away. Then the three paramilitary men returned with the taxi and took the policeman away.
Elsewhere, a youth discovered two brothers and a friend had been tortured, killed and dismembered. The family tried to bury remains, but a helicopter above them began shooting, and they ran for their lives. Warned they had 15 days to leave home or be killed, they fled, and with help from aid organizations, settled in a community for the displaced. But in the tin-roofed, whitewashed church there, two armed men shot a Sunday-school teacher dead in front of the children.
These incidents are only a few describing violence in war-torn Colombia, said Steve Ratzlaff, of Lincoln, Neb. He visited the country on a learning tour sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee and told about it recently at the MCC warehouse in North Newton. The tour's purpose, he said, was to learn about causes of violence in Colombia and how the United States is involved, and to extend moral support to churches and peace-and-justice advocates there.
With intimidation, assassination, kidnapping and disappearances, the guerrillas, paramilitaries (mercenaries hired by the wealthy to protect their land and responsible for 70 percent of political assassinations), and state army terrorize people. Ratzlaff reported 33,000 persons were killed last year, and 1,000 flee their homes every day. Colombia is first in assassinated labor leaders, first in kidnappings, second to Russia in assassinated journalists and second to Sudan in number of refugees. As a Colombian said, "Sadness is a part of who we are."
Ratzlaff said coca production for the drug trade finances guerrilla and paramilitary operations, while the state army has government money and receives $1.3 million a day from the U.S. through Plan Colombia, much of it used for military support, most of the rest for aerial spraying of coca fields to wipe them out and a small amount to ease rampant hunger and social suffering. But his tour group learned coca field fumigation often harms regular crops and, contrary to U.S. claims, may make land unusable for agriculture for years.
Why is our country so involved in Colombia? It's not just the drug trade, the Americans were told. "Most Colombians told us that they thought oil was the ultimate aim. Colombia sits on large oil reserves," Ratzlaff said. Neighboring Venezuela has huge oil reserves, and U.S. policy is to keep an eye on them and to subsidize security of U.S. oil corporations in the two countries.
Four percent of property owners in Colombia own 62 percent of the land and are taking more, he said. "The rich own the press, the soft drink companies, the oil companies, almost any major enterprise." It disturbs him that the U.S. enables this, and that the U.S. is the biggest weapons-maker and gun-runner in the world. "We cannot continue to increase spending on the military and cut taxes. It will prove to be our economic ruin," he believes.
Yet within catastrophe in Colombia is a miracle, Ratzlaff said. "Churches are strong; without them there would be much more death, and there certainly would be less hope. Despite the fact that pastors can be killed for assisting the poor and displaced, they continue to reach out to those who are hurting." At a Colombian "sister church" to Hyde Park Mennonite Church, Boise, Idaho, children greeted his tour group, holding poster hearts that spelled out, "Brothers & sisters, we love you," followed by singing and a meal. Nearly 300 jammed a Catholic cathedral to worship, Ratzlaff said -- "an exhilarating moment of God in the midst of despair and hopelessness. It didn't solve the problem, but it gave us hope that eventually the God of history would prevail."
Father Jorge told them, "One day, hopefully, the good people of the world will work together for peace in the world so that the evil people can't make war."
Esther Bohn Groves writes occasionally for the Kansan. She lives in North Newton.
First extradited Colombian FARC rebel appears in U.S. court
sun-sentinel.com-The Associated Press
Posted May 29 2003, 4:55 PM EDT
MIAMI -- The first rebel extradited by Colombia appeared in a U.S. court Thursday to face charges in the killing of three Americans who were helping set up a rural school system near the Colombia-Venezuela border.
Nelson Vargas Rueda, a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was brought into court in a wheelchair, missing the prosthetic right leg he wore for the flight north Wednesday.
Speaking through a Spanish interpreter, Vargas said he owned a house in Colombia but has had no job for three years and has no money to hire an attorney.
A public defender was named to represent him at a bond hearing next Tuesday. After that, he likely will be flown to Washington to face trial on a federal murder conspiracy indictment.
Vargas, 33, is charged in the 1999 executions of Terence Freitas, 24, of Los Angeles, Ingrid Washinawatok, 41, of New York City, and Lahe'ena'e Gay, 39, of Pahoa, Hawaii.
The Americans were in Colombia to help set up a school system for the U'wa Indian tribe in the vast eastern plains bordering Venezuela. Rebels kidnapped the trio in February 1999 and later executed them. Their bullet-riddled bodies were found across the border in Venezuela.
Vargas was arrested in Bogota in June 2001 and has been in jail since. He is one of six members of the rebel group known as the FARC to be charged in the killings.
The FARC has admitted its fighters killed the Americans but blamed a rogue lower-level commander and said he would be punished by the insurgent group.
The murders prompted the United States to suspend all contact with the leftist rebel group fighting the Colombian government for nearly 40 years.
The United States lists the FARC as an international terrorist organization and has provided Colombia with millions of dollars, mostly in military aid, to fight the guerrillas.
The United States also wants Colombia to extradite several other FARC rebels, including top leaders, as well as a paramilitary leader in drug trafficking cases.