While virtually every country in Central and South America, including the Caribbean, has waged in on the debate of the Colombian state conducting an illegal military campaign within Ecuadorian sovereign territory, resulting in the deaths of various high ranking officials in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP), the United States have remained virtually silent. Such silence from the US is quite perplexing consdiering the administrations of Ronald Regan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have wielded a twenty-two year old assault on this insurgency movement.
The United States have deemed the FARC-EP to be, what it considers, a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Therefore, would one not expect, during the so-called ‘war on terror,’ some attention from Washington – other than a few sentences by state officials – following the deaths of both Comandante Raúl Reyes and Comandante Iván Ríos within less than six days of each other; two of the seven highest-ranking members of the organization (lest we forget the hourly visual barrage of images related to the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003 or his execution in 2006). The following makes a case that the United States’ silence has far more to do with a plausible connection to the deaths of Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos rather than simple disinterest.
The Case of Comandante Raúl Reyes (Murdered March 1, 2008)
It has become general knowledge that shortly after midnight on March 1, 2008, the President of Colombia Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón, and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos sanctioned an illegal air and ground assault against the 48th Front of the FARC-EP, which resulted in the death of Comandante Raúl Reyes, one of the members of the insurgency’s Secretariat of the Central High Command, Julian Conrado, a member of the Central High Command (and the insurgency’s most recognized cultural icon through his work as a revolutionary folk-musician), and twenty other members of the FARC-EP.
Hours after the assault had taken place Defense Minister Santos reiterated that Colombian forces began the operation with an air assault followed by a group of Colombian soldiers engaging in a ground combat against members of the FARC-EP Front. Santos expressed that recently obtained intelligence information related to a satellite phone used by Comandante Reyes enabled the Colombian military to pin-point the location of the encampment, subsequently enabling the campaign to take place.
During meetings of the OAS, state officials and representatives from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru condemned the assault. Unsurprisingly, one of the only backers of the illegal military incursion was the US. Nevertheless, President George W. Bush and J. Robert Manzanares, the United States’ representative during the OAS meetings, had very little to say about the greatest achievement ever realized by the United States’ principal ally in Latin America’s forty-four year old civil war with the FARC-EP.
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.
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 ofe Comandante’s 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.
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 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?
For any researcher, academic, environmentalist, or journalist who has spent any significant deal of time within FARC-EP-controlled territory since 2002, the Defense Minister’s ‘official’ account of ‘Rojas’ and two other so-called FARC-EP combatants being solely responsible for the murder of Comandante Ríos is highly problematic. The discussion of Comandante Ríos’ limb being removed by a FARC-EP member is greatly out of character to any informed analyst of the Colombian civil war. There has not been one confirmed case of any FARC-EP combatant in its forty-four years of existence of employing such tactics; however, such a tactic has been systemically employed by paramilitaries, privately funded ‘security forces’, and right-wing civilian vigilantly groups dating back to the 1940s and increasingly carried out over the past decade.
Plausible Paramilitary Role in the Deaths of both Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos
Over the past two years the Uribe and Santos administration have increasing promoted the story that Colombian paramilitarism has come to and end with the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) throughout 2003-2006. Such proclamations are in direct contradiction to existing evidence, eye-witness reports, and escalating violence targeted at civilians critical of the Colombian state and political-economic structure. More accurately the AUC has decentralized its actions and activities through various small-scale organizations rather than that experienced between 1997 and 2006 where a single umbrella organization consolidated leading paramilitary organizations into one dominant structure.
The actions related to Comandante Ríos’ murder are symbolic of those carried out by Colombia’s many far-right paramilitary groups. However, if it was to get out to the general international public that paramilitarism has, in reality, continued within Colombia there could be awkward political and economic consequences.
The Colombian state cannot afford to have a paramilitary group claim responsibility for the murder of Comandante Ríos. This would, once again, demonstrate to the state has either failed in its political capacity to demobilize the paramilitary, or more accurately, that the state has been complicit in covering up the actions of Colombian paramilitarism which are rampant throughout the Colombian countryside.
Rather than supporting the claim that ‘FARC-EP combatants’ committed the assault and subsequent amputation of Comandante Ríos’ hand it is more likely that what transpired was a tactic which has been widely utilized by the paramilitaries over the past several years. Countless researchers and journalists have exposed how reactionary forces dress up in fatigues, making themselves appear to be FARC-EP combatants. Paramilitaries have regularly presented themselves as members of the FARC-EP so as to commit atrocities against civilians in the hopes of creating false condemnations aimed at the insurgency.
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.
There is a two-fold psychological effect inculcated by propaganda related to the deaths of Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos, which is being disseminated through the centralized media, primarily El Tiempo.
1) Systemically exposing sectors of Colombia’s general public to photographs of the bullet ridden and mutilated corpse of Reyes on an hourly basis or the ‘cooler’ containing Ríos’ severed limbs is a tool utilized to intimidate and to deter sympathizers with the insurgency, political activists, and state opponents within Colombia from criticizing the state’s political dominance and promotion of far-right economic policies.
2) 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.
JAMES J. BRITTAIN is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada and the co-founder of the Atlantic Canada-Colombia Research Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.