Tuesday, March 11, 2008
More On The Recent Local (Central/South American) Funny Business
My good friend Eric Jackson of The Panama News has written the following article about the crazy stuff that has been going on. This is not news you folks in the U.S.A. are going to find on your television or in your newspapers, but it's stuff you need to know.
FARC crisis subsides, but something has changed and Panama has had a role
by Eric Jackson
On February 21 and 22, the US Southern Command's Admiral James Stavridis was in Panama for talks with business, political and law enforcement leaders.
Coincidentally or not the next day, according to the National Police's account, a boatload of Colombians was adrift off of the Darien and as the police towed them toward Jaque the six people on that vessel opened fire with automatic rifles and the fire was returned. The Colombians were subdued and arrested, several of them were hospitalized for their wounds and they were identified by police as members of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the main leftist guerrilla force in our neighbors' long-running civil conflict. They were identified as combatants of the rebel army's 57th Front, which operates in areas adjacent to Darien province.
After that stories begin to radically diverge with Alfredo González, a lawyer who says he represents the detained Colombians, alleging that representatives of the US government attempted to interrogate his clients and that Panamanian authorities denied them access to lawyers after they demanded it. Some of the local news organizations also reported, without identifying a source, that the United States had requested that Panama turn the Colombians over to US authorities. All of these allegations were denied by the Torrijos administration.
Meanwhile the National Police said that they found traces of drugs and explosives in the boat and that the Colombians would be charged with drug offenses as well as with assaulting the police in the course of the alleged shootout.
The story got more complicated on February 27, when a purported FARC communique went out over the Internet to various Panamanian media and the government as well. Bearing a FARC letterhead, the message insisted that Panama live up to a claimed agreement with the rebels and release the prisoners, and suggested that hostages might be taken to trade if those in Panamanian custody were not released.
The government called the communication a hoax, with Minister of Government and Justice Daniel Delgado Diamante denying any agreement with FARC and the emails by which the document was sent being traced to an Internet cafe in Arraijan. A 20-year-old working in that business was arrested and the hard drives in the 20 computers on the premises were seized. Later it was reported that the messages came from more than one Internet cafe and the Arraijan man was not charged.
Despite Delgado's denials, there has been a de facto mutual non-aggression pact between Panama's police and FARC for many years, although there have been some breaches of it that include shooting incidents and kidnappings of Panamanian, US and Colombian citizens on Panamanian soil. The drug smuggling and gun running activities of FARC and of right-wing paramilitaries have not been similarly protected, but from Colombian sources there have periodically been reports that irregular Colombian forces do their banking and money laundering here without governmental interference.
That a FARC communique would come from within Panama would not necessarily indicate that it was a hoax, but that it would be directed to the government via the news media would be unusual.
In any case the alleged FARC guerrillas remain in custody, any prospect of them being turned over to the Americans appears remote, and if precedent is any guide they will be quietly released after a relatively brief time behind bars here. Despite all the rhetoric, the reality is that if FARC and Panama's National Police go to war, the cops lose unless backed by US forces. In the event of US intervention, there would be severe political repercussions in Panama, particularly within the ruling PRD. The United States has long offered military assistance to help Panama patrol its border with Colombia, but with minor exceptions for equipment and training this has generally been rejected.
With that situation percolating here in Panama, on March 1 the region was plunged into crisis when Colombian air forces, who had been tipped off by the US forces about a satellite phone that FARC second-in-command and top hostage negotiator Raúl Reyes (whose real name is Luis Edgar Devia) was using, followed that phone's signal to a point three miles into Ecuador from the Colombian border and launched an electronically directed bombardment that killed at least 17 people, most of them FARC rebels but also some Mexican citizens. One of those killed was Reyes and in the wake of the bombardment the Colombian Army went into Ecuador to retrieve what they could. One of the things they allegedly captured in Colombia was Reyes's laptop computer.
The alleged contents of that laptop, as well as of another computer said to have been delivered along with the severed head of a local FARC commander in southern Colombia by a rebel defector, were and still are the subjects of headlines out of Bogota. The Uribe administration claimed, in succession, that documents in the computer it says it captured in Ecuador proved that FARC was seeking to procure 50 kilograms of enriched uranium to make a radioactive "dirty bomb," that Venezuela had financed FARC to the tune of some $300 million and that FARC, in turn, had financed Rafael Correa's campaign for Ecuador's presidency.
However, as the purportedly incriminating documents were released it turned out that they didn't show what was claimed. In one document an "Angel" who was mentioned was supposed to be a code word for Hugo Chávez --- except that the same document made several references to Chávez by his actual name. What was interpreted as a cryptic tale of $300 million given to FARC was on its face a reference to efforts to free a group of 300 FARC hostages. The money for Correa's campaign was somehow inferred from references about contact with Correa.
And what did Correa have to say about it? Of course Reyes was in Ecuador, and of course he was in discussions with FARC and Venezuela about it, Ecuador's president claimed. Ecuador and Venezuela were trying to broker the release of more hostages by FARC, and that was the subject of the satellite phone call between Reyes and Chávez that US intelligence monitored, he said.
The weapons of mass destruction angle? Citing unnamed US intelligence sources, ABC news reported that this claim was very doubtful. The details of US capabilities are highly classified, but apparently such a large amount of highly radioactive material can be monitored by American spy satellites unless some sophisticated, expensive and also usually observable shielding methods are used to hide it.
The weapons of mass destuction allegation is a standard mass consumption fantasy out of the George W. Bush playbook, and has even been used by a far-right extremist here in Panama to falsely accuse this reporter of attempting to obtain nerve gas over the Internet. After the Iraq debacle it hasn't played so well.
The allegation that bad guys financed Correa's campaign would have special meaning in Colombia, where US claims that former President Ernesto Samper's campaign had been bankrolled by drug lords led to US pressures from the outside and political turmoil in the Colombian legislature that crippled Samper's presidency and marginalized his Liberal Party. But although Washington likes to make pretenses about who and what Álvaro Uribe is, within Colombia he's widely considered to be the son of a drug baron whose own rise to prominence was founded on a cocaine fortune.
And Chávez and Correa talking to FARC about negotiating the release of hostages? That's arguably a violation of Colombian sovereignty and something that would naturally embarrass Uribe, but a lot of Colombians, particularly the families of hostages, wish those efforts well. The killing of Reyes and the allegations against Chávez and Correa were taken by many Colombians as deliberate sabotage of the process by which more hostages could be released and there were large demonstrations in Bogota to protest against this. Uribe also got demonstrations of domestic support for his hard-line "no negotiations" approach to FARC but these were more subdued, maybe because after years of this approach a definitive military victory over the guerrillas appears to be as far away as it ever was.
There ensued a regional crisis, with Ecuador protesting the violation of its sovereignty, Colombia declaring that it has a right to pursue FARC into neighboring countries and both Venezuela and Ecuador sending soldiers to their Colombian borders in response. Hugo Chávez declared that a Colombian intrusion into Venezuela like that attack that killed Reyes would mean war. Nicaragua's Sandinista government loudly took Venezuela's and Ecuador's side.
Armies crossing international boundaries into neighboring countries are not a popular thing in the Americas. Only the United States gave its unconditional backing to Colombia. Before the Organization of American States Ecuador demanded the sending of a fact-finding team, but Colombia and the United States insisted that only mediators be sent. In the end the OAS unanimously passed a mild resolution lamenting the incident.
Officially, Panama's role in the crisis was as a neutral offering its mediation services. Vice President and Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis Navarro insisted that, as Panama is currently presiding over the United Nations Security Council, it's necessary to be even-handed. This brought about protests in this country, particularly from the left but from many other points along the Panamanian political spectrum as well, that Panama can't allow Colombia's claim of a right to invade us or any of its other neighbors in pursuit of rebels to go unopposed. Non-involvement in Colombia's civil wars is, after all, one of the basic premises of Panama's existence as an independent country.
(The Bogota government has invaded Panama on several occasions to attack FARC or its real or alleged backers, but always through paramilitary proxies whose ties to regular forces the Colombian state has always officially denied. Now, however, the main paramilitary proxy, the United Colombian Self-Defense (AUC), has been more or less disbanded and would not be easily reconstituted for cross-border raids. Moreover, that paramilitary force never had the sophisticated equipment that was used to kill Reyes.)
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa visited capitals throughout the region, warning after a 40-minute visit here with Panamanian President Martín Torrijos that "tomorrow it could be Panama." Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua broke diplomatic relations with Colombia. Then Brazil, by way of the all-Latin American Rio Group, brokered a summit in the Dominican Republic.
As that summit Colombia apologized in a fashion, the estranged presidents shook hands and some guarantees were made about Colombia's maritime border between San Andres Island and the coast of Nicaragua. Over the next few days tensions subsided and broken diplomatic relations were restored.
The fallout from the regional crisis has been an increase in the peacemaking reputations of Dominican President Leonel Fernández, Brazilian President Lula da Silva and the Rio Group, at the expense of the prestige of the Panamanian government, the OAS and Washington. Correa is now calling for a new organization of Latin American countries to supplant the roles that the OAS traditionally played.
Within some of the countries involved, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has appeared a bit too melodramatic with his saber rattling, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has appeared internationally weak and isolated within Latin America and Panamanian President Martín Torrijos has appeared inconsequential in foreign affairs.
And as the dust settles, Panama remains in the uncomfortable position of holding FARC prisoners and not having the strength to effectively resist if the Colombian rebels decide to get belligerent about it.
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