Apr 09, 2003
The presidents of Colombia and Venezuela will meet April 23 in the border city of San Cristobal de Tachira, Venezuela, in an effort to ease bilateral tensions and find ways to improve border security. However, beyond a possible joint statement pledging political support for making the border between the two countries more secure, the meeting likely will achieve little -- and security problems could begin to have an impact on the wider region.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez wants Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to take action against Colombian rebels that appear to roam freely on the Venezuelan side of their 1,200-mile shared border. The two presidents will meet April 23 in efforts to ease bilateral tensions and step up security measures.
The meeting is significant: Bilateral security issues involving the two countries are beginning to have a wider impact on the entire region, possibly spreading into Brazil. Failure to obtain Venezuela's cooperation in these matters would only reinforce Colombian suspicions that the Chavez regime has some kind of political arrangement with rebel groups, allowing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) to enter Venezuelan territory without fear of interdiction. However, an agreement is unlikely to be forthcoming.
Since 1999, Venezuela's government has denied any Colombian rebel presence exists within its territory, and officials in Caracas maintain that the Colombian state is responsible for the collapse of security along the border. Caracas also claims that threats from paramilitary forces aligned with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) are greater than any alleged threats from Colombian rebels: Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said recently that the growing insecurity and violence in the region is caused by "Bogota dumping all of its guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers there."
In addition to these different perceptions, the two leaders also find themselves at very different points in their presidencies -- another factor that could influence the outcome of talks. Chavez appears to be on a high right now, while Uribe seems to be down.
Chavez has survived a difficult year that included a failed military rebellion in April 2002 and a two-month national strike that fizzled out at the end of January. Now he is moving to consolidate power by neutralizing his opponents in the oil industry and private sector. Chavez apparently is feeling more confident and in control of the situation in Venezuela as well -- reflected by the fact that he has resumed his rhetoric against U.S. policy initiatives such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas, recently condemned the U.S. war against Iraq and has blamed the Colombians for the border problems.
Uribe took power in Colombia in August 2002 amid high expectations that he would make speedy progress in reforming the country's political institutions, defeating its rebel groups and improving security in cities and rural areas. However, Uribe recently appears to have lost the initiative in Congress, endangering his proposed political and economic reforms. The nation's economy also shows no signs of strengthening.
Moreover, the FARC and ELN are holding their own despite increased army offensives that now result in an average of four "contacts" a day between army units and rebel forces, senior Colombian military sources say.
Although the meeting between Uribe and Chavez officially concerns bilateral issues, the U.S. and Brazilian governments will be paying attention to see whether Chavez makes a firm commitment to cooperate with Colombia more effectively. Examples of effective cooperation would include Venezuelan military interdiction of all Colombian armed irregulars found in the country and concerted bilateral efforts to shut down the reported smuggling of weapons and munitions to the FARC through Venezuela.
If Chavez does not make that commitment, U.S. and Brazilian policymakers likely will take it as a sign that the Colombian conflict will continue to spread regionally -- abetted by the Chavez regime's apparent indifference to reports that hundreds of FARC fighters from at least seven rebel fronts are deployed along the border.
Colombian military intelligence sources in Bogota tell Stratfor that FARC forces during the past two years have expanded their presence on the border from a point near the Brazilian city of Cocuy -- where the Colombian, Venezuelan and Brazilian borders meet, deep within the Amazon region -- all the way to Castilletes on the Guajira Peninsula, which juts into the Caribbean Sea.
The FARC's 1st Front controls the area from Cocuy to Maroa, while the 16th Front is deployed between Maroa and Puerto Paez. The 10th Front operates between Puerto Paez and Guasdualito, and the 45th Front roams from there to Cucuta. The FARC's 33rd Front is based between Cucuta and Catatumbo, and its 41st and 59th Fronts are located between Catatumbo and Castilletes, military sources in Bogota say.
FARC forces are easily able to travel by river from Colombia into Venezuela down at least six major waterways, including the Guainia, Guaviare, Ventuari, Orinoco, Meta and Arauca rivers, and a host of smaller rivers that are rarely, if ever, patrolled by Colombian and Venezuelan military forces. Further north, starting about at the border crossing that separates El Amparo, Venezuela, from Arauca, Colombia, FARC forces also have literally hundreds of roads and paths that cross the border into Venezuela.
Finally, the Perija Sierra range running from Catatumbo nearly to Maicao offers easy access into Venezuela from the Colombian side of the border, but is much more difficult to access the other way: The Venezuelan side has fewer access roads and towns. This might help explain why coca growers in northeastern Colombia have been migrating slowly in the past two or three years into the Venezuelan side of the Perija Sierra.
Separately, the Brazilian daily Extra on April 6 published details of a March 20 Brazilian military intelligence report that places the FARC well inside northeastern Brazil -- all the way to the point that the borders of Brazil, Venezuela and Guayana meet. The report also said FARC forces in that area are extorting money from illegal Brazilian gold and diamond miners known as garimpeiros, and are believed to be engaged in drugs- and weapons-smuggling as well.
The report does not describe how the FARC was able to deploy forces so far beyond Colombia, but a cursory look at a map shows two possible routes. The first would be by traveling downriver from eastern Colombia to Manaus, Brazil, then north by highway through Boa Vista to Santa Elena de Uairen, Venezuela. However, the problem with this route is that it potentially would expose the FARC to interdiction by Brazilian police, and it includes and military checkpoints between Manaus and Santa Elena de Uairen.
The second possible route is through Venezuela, traveling east from where the Meta River flows into the Orinoco River, and then traveling either by water or land to Ciudad Guayana, and from there directly south to Santa Elena de Uairen. This route is significantly shorter than the first, and it passes through Venezuela.
Additionally, the intelligence report quoted by Extra said the FARC has formed an Amazon Front that numbers about 300 permanent members and is supported by approximately 80 civilian militia based in the Colombian city of Leticia and the Brazilian city of Tabatinga, which face each other across the Amazon River in northwestern Brazil.
From Colombia, the FARC guerrillas could infiltrate northwestern Brazil via the Ica, Japura and Jaupes rivers. All three of these rivers, and dozens of smaller ones, empty into the Amazon River or the Negro River before these two waterways converge at the city of Manaus, which has an international airport and also connects by overland highway through the jungle to northern Bolivia and eventually to central-eastern Peru.
Although FARC leaders repeatedly have pledged that their forces would not intrude into neighboring countries or stir up trouble beyond Colombia, recent developments suggest the pledges are not being honored. Colombian intelligence analysts believe that FARC and ELN units are behind the creation of a two-year-old border region group that calls itself the Bolivarian Liberation Front (FBL). This Venezuelan group, which claims to model itself after the FARC, is located inside a rough triangle bound by the cities of San Fernando in Apure state, Barinas and San Cristobal in Tachira state.
The FBL is believed to number several hundred Venezuelans and former members of the now defunct Colombian Popular Liberation Army (EPL) militant group, and its actions are largely confined to kidnapping and extortion. However, the group took credit for a bomb that exploded recently at the Colombian consulate in Caracas.
In Brazil, the FARC reportedly has formed strategic partnerships with the country's largest organized crime gangs, Brazilian daily O Globo reported recently. In exchange for weapons and munitions, FARC instructors reportedly are teaching Red Command gang members in Rio de Janeiro how to operate automatic weapons, manufacture bombs and organize mass prison escapes.
Brazilian security services detained Chilean national Carlos Orlando Messina Vidal on March 29, and charged him with being a FARC trainer working with organized crime gangs in Rio de Janeiro. Another six suspects sought by Brazilian authorities appear to have escaped. Against this backdrop, political aides are planning a meeting between Venezuelan leader Chavez and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, though an exact date has not been announced. Officials said recently that the meeting would concern bilateral economic and investment issues.
However, trade and investment could be eclipsed by Brazilian security concerns about the FARC's alleged partnerships with Rio de Janeiro crime gangs and its apparent expansion across northern Brazil. Given these circumstances, da Silva might feel compelled to ask his friend Chavez why Venezuela is not doing more to help rein in the FARC.
Copyright 2003 Strategic Forecasting LLC. All rights reserved.