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The Raúl Reyes Incident

Colombia Invades Ecuador to Kill FARC Rebels

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The Raúl Reyes Incident

Alvaro Uribe

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

On March 1 of 2008, Colombian security forces crossed the border into neighboring Ecuador to assault an outpost of armed rebels associated with the FARC, a terrorist groups which has been trying to topple the Colombian government. The operation was a success, as more than two dozen rebels were killed including Raúl Reyes (real name: Luís Edgar Devia Silva), a high-ranking rebel leader thought by many to be second-in-command overall. The Colombians also captured computers with documents that seem to indicate that Venezuela has been actively supporting the FARC. The assault also caused a serious diplomatic incident between Colombia and Ecuador.

Background

The FARC, (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or "Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia") traces its roots to the period of violence in the late 1940's and early 1950's following the death of liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and the ensuing riot known as the Bogotazo. They organized as a guerrilla force in the 1960's and have been fighting the Colombian government ever since. They finance their war with drug money and kidnapping. Recently, the government has been increasing operations against the FARC, in part because the father of current president Alvaro Uribe was killed by the FARC in 1983.

The Operation

In the early morning of Saturday, March 1, Colombian armed forces attacked a FARC camp located just over the border in the Ecuadorian jungle. They attacked first with bombs and rockets, followed by an assault by ground troops. There were no Colombian casualties, whereas the death toll from the rebel camp reached 25, including Raúl Reyes, high-ranking FARC leader and their official spokesman. There were three survivors, all women. Once in control of the camp, the Colombians administered first aid to the survivors and left, taking with them the body of Reyes and some computers and external memory devices. Ecuadorian forces soon arrived on the scene, sent the survivors to hospitals and began the bloody cleanup.

A Diplomatic Incident

The government of Ecuador, led by recently elected leftist president Rafael Correa, immediately and loudly protested. It is common practice around the world for subversive groups to have hideouts across the border in neighboring countries, and Ecuador and Colombia had an agreement which stated that Ecuador would not let the FARC have such bases and Colombia would not carry out operations on Ecuadorian soil. The FARC bases were an open secret, however, and Ecuador had traditionally done little or nothing about them. Ecuador (along with Venezuela and Nicaragua) immediately cut diplomatic relations with Colombia.

Mexicans in the Jungle

There were five Mexican students among the FARC rebels on the day of the attack. Four died, and one, Lucía Morett, was one of the three survivors. Morrett claimed that she and the others came to Ecuador as sort of leftist political tourists. They attended the Second Bolivarian Continental Congress in Quito in February, where they made contacts who offered to take them to a FARC camp. She claims that although they sympathized with the guerrillas, they were there as students learning about South American social issues, not as combatants. Mexico asked for compensation for the families of the killed students, but Colombia refused, instead raising questions of what they were doing there in the first place. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said to Mexico's Televisa network: "They were not doing humanitarian work. They were not hostages. So why were they there?"

Once Morett recovered enough to travel, Ecuador cleared her of any charges and allowed her to return to Mexico, where an investigation had been opened into the incident to see if the Mexicans were actively involved the rebels, victims of Colombian violence, or mere spectators as Morett claims. Morett had requested political asylum in Ecuador, as she feared she would be prosecuted for terrorism in Mexico, but her request was denied.

Ties to Venezuela?

By far the most important-and potentially most dangerous-result of the raid was the capture of several computers and memory devices from the rebel camp. An initial report by a Colombian computer forensics team revealed a number of e-mails which seemed to prove that the Hugo Chavez administration in Venezuela was supporting the FARC with weapons and money. According to some of the files, Venezuela offered a "loan" of over $250 million to the FARC, to be repaid when they had taken control of Colombia.

Chavez immediately denied any Venezuelan connection to the rebels, claiming that Colombia had faked the files or planted the computers in an effort to embarrass his administration. After their initial investigation, however, Colombia sent the computers to neutral European police force Interpol for verification. On May 15, Interpol released their report: the computers and files did, indeed, belong to Reyes and were genuine: Colombia had not tampered with them. In Venezuela, Chávez continued to cry foul and deny any involvement with the FARC.

Continued Political Fallout

The incident led to increasingly strained diplomatic relations between Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. All three nations redeployed troops to their borders. Many other Latin American leaders, such as President of Mexico Felipe Calderón, have tried to help the three nations work out their problems peacefully, without plunging all of northern South America into war.

Some unlikely countries were indirectly affected by the raid. In 2002, Colombian senator and presidential hopeful Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped by the FARC, who intended to hold her for ransom. Talks stalled, however, and Betancourt was never released. She was later rescued by Colombian soldiers who tricked the FARC into giving her up.

Tensions between Colombia and Ecuador continued to be high until early 2010, when an energy crisis in Ecuador forced the Ecuadorian government to renew diplomatic ties with Colombia.

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