Following the death of Raul Reyes at the hand of Colombian forces Ecuador has followed Venezuela in stationing troops on its border with Colombia. There is an escalating military standoff between the three countries. Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan President, called for the country’s armed forces to be placed on a war footing after Colombia killed a top Marxist guerrilla on Saturday just inside Ecuadorean territory. “If you think of doing this in Venezuela, we are going to send you some Sukhoi [fighter jets]," Mr Chávez said. “We don't want war, but we aren't going to allow the US empire, which is the master [of Colombia] ... to come and divide us.”
Ecuador, ruled by Rafael Correa, a Chávez ally, initially reacted calmly to news of Colombia's military operation that killed top FARC commander Raúl Reyesand at least 16 other rebel fighters. But he sharply stepped up his rhetoric after consultations with Mr Chávez, who blasted his Colombian counterpart as a "criminal" and a puppet of the US Government.
Ecuador has now expelled the Colombian ambassador in Quito, with the President calling the operation “an unacceptable aggression”.
Colombia has claimed that the Ecuadorean Government was developing links to the FARC rebels, who are classified as a terrorist group by the US and European Union. Colombian authorities displayed a document they said had come from a laptop seized from FARC rebels in the operation. The letter, which detailed a meeting between Reyes and the Ecuadorean security minister, Gustavo Larrea, showed that “Ecuador was interested in making official its relations with the FARC”, a Colombian official said.
Despite the rising tempers in the region, many analysts believe that an outright war is not imminent. Some believe that Mr Chávez is using the incident to distract from his problems at home and to rally wavering supporters to his side. “Chávez is facing an extremely difficult situation inside his own country,” said Carlos Malamud, Latin America analyst at the Madrid-based Royal Elcano Institute. “His popularity has dropped considerably and his greatest concern is the lack of basic products on the shelves. So he wants to try to rally his supporters and Venezuelans in general behind nationalist and anti-imperialist slogans.”
However, analysts worry that a misstep by any one of the three sides in the conflict could spark fighting along what has traditionally been a volatile border. “When you play with fire, you could get burnt,” Mr Malamud said. “Someone on either side could make a mistake that ends up blowing up into conflict.”
Colombian president, Álvaro Uribe, had previously ended an effort by Mr Chávez to negotiate an exchange of 40 political hostages held by FARC for hundreds of guerrillas in Colombian jails. Mr Uribe accused Venezuela’s leftist president of backing the Marxist rebels in its four-decade quest to overthrow the Colombian Government. Chávez has dropped any semblance of even-handedness in the conflict, calling Colombia’s operation “a cowardly murder” and lauding the dead FARC commander as “a true revolutionary”.
Presumably the hallmark of a true revolutionary is to be part of a group that makes money though extortion kidnapping and facilitating the cocaine trade. Perhaps Chavez will extend the same praise to the Mafia. Amidst the presidential dick swinging there is a real risk that a minor incident could be the trigger for a pointless war. Here’s hoping the people of Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia do not have the stomach for conflict.