Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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Chavez and the FARC Threaten Wider Regional Conflict
The reaction of presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador to the killing of FARC commander Raul Reyes is now threatening to plunge South America into a disastrous conflict.

"This could be the start of a war in South America," Chavez said. He warned Colombian president Alvaro Uribe: "If it occurs to you to do this in Venezuela, President Uribe, I'll send some Sukhois" _ Russian warplanes recently bought by Venezuela.

This is no small threat. In the past several years Chavez has spent , according to the Defense Intelligence Agency, $4.3 billion in weapons in 2005-2006, more even than China. This includes a Kalashnikov assault rifle (AK-47) factory licensed from Russia. For a nation not at war, this is hardly an auspicious sign.

This is the alliance many of us have warned of for some time. Chavez, Correa, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Evo Morales in Bolivia have been trying for some time now to form an anti-American bloc in Latin America but have no coherent ideology to counter the changes in the world.

It is no secret that the Bush administration has taken even less interest in Latin America than Clinton and Bush I. The consequence of this short-sighted world view is the emergence of an axis that is fed on Venezuela's oil riches and the FARC's cocaine bonanza.

As I have said before, I do not want to use this forum to debate the rationality or efficiency of the U.S.-led "war on drugs." The policy is what it is, and is unlikely to change soon. So, in that context, the FARC has chosen to engage in a criminal activity that provides it with hundreds of millions of dollars. This river of money allow the group to control criminal pipelines that move drugs, weapons, illegal aliens, stolen cars etc. across our borders with impunity, on a daily basis. That is no small threat.

The economic bonanza of this alliance, coupled with the failure of previous governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela to deal with endemic corruption and real social issues, have given this axis access to power.

The main beneficiary of the current hue and cry by nations that have long sheltered the FARC-designated a terrorist entity for its drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion activities-is, of course, the FARC itself. For the first time in more than two decades the group, numbering some 10,000-15,000 combatants, has international backers who favor giving it a place at the regional table.

This is a huge step for a group that primarily funds itself through organized criminal activities, and whose once-staunch Marxist ideology has long been lost in the mists of the jungles where the group operates. For years even the radical Latin American left shunned the FARC because of its ideological bankruptcy and criminal actions.

Chavez's affinity to the group-currently holding more than 700 hostages-was already clear.

Asking his nation to hold a moment of silence to honor Reyes, the FARC's second-in-command and ideologist who has been fighting for several decades, showed a far stronger relationship that Chavez had publicly shown. Reyes was the public face of the FARC, and the one who has justified the policy of kidnapping as a legitimate weapon.

How one can call the death in combat of a person who has publicly identified himself as an armed combatant as a "cowardly murder" is hard to imagine, yet both Chavez and Correa used that phrase, as if Reyes were an heroic figure.

Rather than dealing with the fact that the FARC has long used eastern Ecuador as a sanctuary, along with Venezuela, the question should be not where Reyes was killed or whether he was asleep at the time of the strike. After all, he has shown no hesitation in kidnapping civilians, ambushing the army and was a clear military target.

The question is, but how come he was living in a camp in Ecuador that was permanent enough to have a refrigerator, computer operations and electricity? This was no small, overnight slip across the border, but a much more permanent set up.

Most damaging to the region are the documents found in Reyes' computer, showing that Correa, like Chavez, is seeking a more formal alliance with the FARC. While Ecuador accuses the Colombian police of fabricating this evidence, it seems highly unlikely for several reasons.

All the rebel groups I have dealt with, even in the pre-compuer age, kept extensive records of their actions and contacts. The FARC does, in part, because its high command is dispersed and many decisions of import are made by consensus. The compuer age, of course, has made that easier.

Gen. Oscar Naranjo, the commander of the Colombian National Police, is one of the few officials I have known for years whose integrity I would vouch for. And Colombia, if it were fabricating, would not alienate a neighbor where relations were not yet sour, but would seek to put the onus on Chavez, who is a more dangerous player in the region.

The war mongering by Chavez is unlikely to explode into all out war. Even he must know that most of Latin America, and certainly the United States, will not let him overthrow an elected government in a democratic society.

But it does mean that he has given carte blanche for the FARC to operate with impunity from Venezuela, inviting an escalation in regional tensions and violence that can only bring more chaos.
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