The Economist – Colombia and Venezuela: The FARC files

Vamos Colombia (foto

Colombia and Venezuela: The FARC Files

They represent only one side of a story, and most of their claims have yet to be independently corroborated. But Interpol has now concluded that the huge cache of e-mails and other documents recovered from the computers of Raúl Reyes, a senior leader of the FARC guerrillas killed in a Colombian bombing raid on his camp in Ecuador on March 1st, are authentic and undoctored. The documents throw new light on the inner workings of the FARC. And they raise some very pointed questions about the ties between Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chávez, and a group considered to be terrorists by the United States and the European Union (EU).

Batches of the documents have been seen by The Economist and several other publications. They appear to show that Mr Chávez offered the FARC up to $300m, and talked of allocating the guerrillas an oil ration which they could sell for profit. They also suggest that Venezuelan army officers helped the FARC to obtain small arms, such as rocket-propelled grenades, and to set up meetings with arms dealers.

Venezuelan officials have dismissed the documents as fabrications. That was contradicted by Ronald Noble, Interpol’s secretary-general, who announced in Bogotá on May 15th, after two months of study by a team of 64 foreign experts, that the computer files came from the FARC camp and had not been modified in any way. Mr Chávez called this “ridiculous”, questioning the impartiality of Mr Noble, who is American, and labelling him a “gringo policeman”. However, in one indication of their accuracy, the documents provided information that in March guided police in Costa Rica to a house where they found $480,000 in cash, as an e-mail suggested.

The FARC are in some ways a throwback to a past era in Latin America. In other ways they are part of the new face of organised crime in the region. Old-fashioned Marxists unmoved by the collapse of the Soviet Union, they have flourished since then by drug-trafficking and kidnapping. Their war against Colombia’s elected government has almost no public support, especially since they showed no interest in making peace during three years of talks with the government from 1999 to 2002. Since then, a determined security build-up by Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s popular president, has put the FARC on the defensive, driving it into remote jungles and savannahs—and towards the country’s borders.

Mr Chávez has long expressed sympathy for the FARC. But Colombian officials, backed by detailed testimony from guerrilla deserters, accuse Venezuela and Ecuador of more than rhetoric, saying they have turned a blind eye to guerrilla camps on their territory. The killing of Mr Reyes, a member of the FARC’s seven-man secretariat, underlined the point. The captured documents seem to confirm that FARC commanders have co-ordinated closely with Venezuelan army and intelligence officers on the border for several years, according to a Colombian official.

The documents also cast light on the FARC’s strategic thinking. Its overriding objective seems to be to obtain international recognition as a “belligerent force” and to persuade the EU to stop labelling it a terrorist group. The guerrillas are desperate to establish a “strategic alliance” with Mr Chávez. But that was still just an aspiration in early 2007, the documents suggest. “We don’t know if we enjoy their trust,” writes Jorge Briceño (alias “Mono Jojoy”), the FARC’s military leader, to other members of the secretariat.

Areas of Operation and Sites of Bombed Camps (foto The Economist)

Contacts intensified last September after Mr Uribe asked Mr Chávez to mediate with the FARC to release the guerrillas’ hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt, a politician with French and Colombian nationality. The secretariat agreed to send one of its members, Iván Márquez, to meet Mr Chávez in Caracas to talk about swapping the hostages for jailed guerrillas—but also, wrote Mr Briceño, “to lay the foundations for mutual political relations…even though this might be in the long term.”

At their meeting, Mr Chávez “approved totally and without batting an eyelid” a FARC request for $300m, Mr Márquez reported to his colleagues in a message published by Spain’s El País and Colombia’s Semana. In a long e-mail 12 days later, Mr Briceño notes that it was not clear whether the money was “a loan or for solidarity” but that the FARC should offer Mr Chávez help in return. According to a document obtained by the Wall Street Journal, Mr Chávez’s interior minister, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, asked the FARC to train Venezuelan soldiers in guerrilla tactics for use if the United States were to invade.

In an e-mail dated February 8th, Mr Márquez and a colleague report that Mr Chávez (whom they identify with the pseudonym “Ángel”) had told them that the first $50m was “available”, with another $200m over the course of the year. However, there is no corroboration as to whether any money was actually paid. Colombian officials have long said that the FARC was wealthy through drug money. So why were they so jubilant about the loan? Perhaps because army pressure against the guerrillas has disrupted their drug business. The government has evidence that some FARC fronts are short of cash and have trouble paying farmers for coca paste, says Sergio Jaramillo, the deputy defence minister.

The secretariat’s e-mail correspondence sheds light on several other matters. It confirms that Manuel Marulanda, the FARC’s veteran leader, is still alive and apparently in overall command. It also shows the FARC’s cynicism about the plight of its hostages. Mr Briceño says repeatedly that he does not expect to achieve the hostage-for-prisoners swap while Mr Uribe is in power but that the FARC will keep pushing it to create problems for the president. When Mr Chávez asked for Ms Betancourt’s release “we told him that if we did that we would be without cards,” Mr Márquez writes.

The e-mails show the extent to which the army has the FARC on the run: the secretariat members often complain of their difficulties in communicating with each other. Days after Mr Reyes was killed another member of the secretariat, Iván Ríos, was murdered by his own bodyguard. This week Mr Ríos’s deputy, Nelly Ávila Moreno (aka “Karina”), surrendered. But the FARC is far from defeated. In an e-mail last August Mr Briceño notes that guerrilla landmines are undermining army morale. Their impact is “very good and we are going to increase them,” he writes.

The e-mails released so far represent only a fraction of the almost 40,000 written documents and 610 gigabytes of data on the computers. For all his bravado, Mr Chávez is clearly discomfited by all this. At a get-together of European and Latin American leaders in Lima on May 16th he was unusually conciliatory. Some Republicans in the United States have seized upon the computer cache as grounds for declaring Venezuela to be a state sponsor of terrorism. This could require the United States to impose trade sanctions on a country from which it buys some 10% of its imported oil—and so is unlikely to happen. And the e-mails are not a smoking gun implicating Mr Chávez unequivocally. It was Mr Márquez and other FARC commanders, not Mr Reyes, who handled relations with Venezuela. So there are no e-mails from Venezuelan officials on his computer.

Even so, the documents should trouble Venezuela’s South American neighbours. None of them echoed Mr Chávez’s call in January for the FARC to be recognised as legitimate belligerents. The centre-left governments in many countries are wary of Colombia’s close alliance with the United States, which supplies it with military aid. But all have signed the Organisation of American States’ democratic charter, requiring them to support, not undermine, each other’s democracies. Last month José Miguel Insulza, the OAS’s secretary-general, said that “no evidence” linked Venezuela to the FARC. But the evidence from the laptops suggests that there is certainly a case to be answered—by something more than a blustering denial.

Colombia’s President: The Uribe Temptation

Alvaro Uribe is slight, bespectacled – and after nearly six years in office still in a hurry. Meet him in the presidential palace and he springs out of his chair, leads visitors to a map and with a plastic ruler explains the malevolent geography that for centuries has made this mountain-blocked and valley-scored Andean country of 44m people so hard to govern. Here is jungle, here savannah, there the 2,200km (1,400-mile) border with Venezuela. Where are the FARC guerrillas? Not long ago they used to be everywhere. Now—he waves his ruler—they have been driven into the remotest jungle, or across the border, and are harried even there.

Mr Uribe is that rarest of beasts: a democratic, pro-American president winning an anti-terrorist war. On the day of his inauguration, in 2002, guerrilla units lurked not only in the lush peaks that tower over Bogotá but sometimes inside the capital itself. During his swearing-in, rockets aimed at the palace landed in a working-class district, killing 19 people and wounding 60. Six years on, however, it is not only Bogotá but Colombia as a whole that has been transformed. This is still a violent country, but the long epidemic of murder and kidnapping, spread in ascending order by class hatred, ideology and drug money, is at last being tamed (see chart). The economy is growing at a lusty 7% a year.

Democratic Security? (foto Ministerio de Defensa)

It is good news all round—not least, you might think, for the United States. Colombia provides much of the cocaine snorted up American noses. In Mr Uribe, however, the Americans have an ally who has worked hard, through the American-financed Plan Colombia, to eradicate coca and disrupt the traffickers. More than this, he has made Colombia the odd-man-out in the Andes. Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia are run by anti-American leftists. Mr Uribe believes in free markets and has hitched Colombia’s star to the United States. He even backed the war in Iraq.

Such an ally should be nurtured. Or so says George Bush, who appealed to Congress this week to ratify a long-promised Free-Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia so as not to “stiff” an ally. Stiffed, however, Colombia will probably be. The Democrats on Capitol Hill refuse to be bounced. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, responded to Mr Bush by accusing him of “stiffing” the American people via seven years of lousy economic policies.

Ms Pelosi’s view of Mr Bush is no surprise. But what do the Democrats have against Colombia? Its hopes for an FTA have been caught in a pincer, with protectionists on one side and human rights activists on the other. The Democrats hope to protect American jobs, or, at least, win votes in the forthcoming elections. Groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch say America should withhold the plum of free trade until Colombia cleans up its human rights. Faced by such an alliance it seems safe to predict that Colombia will not win its FTA any time soon.

The quarrel in Washington highlights the difficulty Americans have in resolving the puzzle of Colombia’s leader. Is Mr Uribe to be taken at his own estimation, as the man who is uprooting terrorism not just by employing a bigger and better army but also by strengthening democracy? Or is he, as some on the left say, a militaristic right-winger who behind the scenes is in league with the paramilitaries, the vigilantes who came into being to fight the FARC but turned out to be vicious killers and narco-traffickers in their own right?

If Americans are confused, most Colombians have made up their minds. For bringing order, Mr Uribe was hugely popular even before the boost he enjoyed after last month’s cross-border raid into Ecuador. That attack killed Raúl Reyes, a top member of the FARC’s elusive seven-man secretariat. Better still, the Colombians grabbed several laptops said to contain (Interpol is now examining their authenticity) juicy evidence of the help the FARC receives from Venezuela, whose oil-fired socialist president, Hugo Chávez, is Latin America’s loudest foe of the United States. In the edgy face-off against Mr Chávez, Colombians feel it was their man who kept his cool and emerged the winner.

American labour unions and international human rights groups make much of the fact that trade unionists are murdered in Colombia, and that few of the assassins are investigated and brought to trial. Human Rights Watch says that 17 unionists were killed in first three months of 2008 alone, and more than 400 during the six years of Mr Uribe’s administration. No doubt, there is a problem. Photos of assassinated unionists are posted outside the thick glass security door of the CUT trade-union federation in Bogotá. Police with automatic rifles patrol outside. Carlos Rodríguez, the federation’s head, claims that the killers include right-wing paramilitary groups and “agents of the state”.

Yet these murders, however grotesque, should be seen in the context of a society still emerging from extreme violence. It is not only success against the FARC that has brought about the startling reduction of killing. Between 2004 and 2006 Mr Uribe persuaded the right-wing paramilitaries to give up their weapons. If they gave an account of their crimes, they would be treated more leniently. As a result, the justice system is swamped. Mario Iguarán, the attorney-general, says that in spite of being voted extra resources from Congress, his investigators are overwhelmed by the numbers. Some 4,000 people are being investigated for crimes against humanity; 800 new murders have come to light as a result of confessions alone.

In response to foreign pressure, the government has also set up a special unit to investigate the murder of unionists. But the government points out that union members are less likely to be murder victims than members of the population at large. Some of those killed, it says, may have been victims of common crimes, not singled out as unionists. Besides, says Mr Uribe, the unions have other reasons for opposing him. They do not like his liberal economic reforms. And although Colombians should be, and are, free to join unions, Mr Uribe says, there are historical reasons for distrust. In the 1960s unions were penetrated by Marxists who espoused all forms of struggle, including violence.

All the way with Uribe (foto Reuters)

In appealing to the American Congress to ratify the FTA, Mr Uribe ticks off his achievements: the protection of journalists and unionists, the squashing of terrorism and the extradition during his term of more than 600 drug traffickers to the United States. “We have more to do,” he admits “But we request that we receive recognition of the progress we have made.”

If he is refused, the economic damage to Colombia would not be immediate. A trade-preferences agreement already gives it access to the American market. This can be renewed if the FTA fails. But withholding an FTA after granting such agreements to other countries in the region may knock investors’ confidence. And that, says Mr Uribe, would make it harder to create the jobs needed to wean Colombians from terrorism and narco-trafficking.

The political impact on Mr Uribe himself is a different matter. Some foreign diplomats in Bogotá say the FTA’s failure would land a heavy political blow on a leader who has paid a high price in the neighbourhood for aligning himself with the United States. And yet this danger can be overstated. There is little evidence that Colombians would blame their president rather than the United States. Mr Uribe is still seen by millions of Colombians as their saviour. If anything, indeed, he may be too popular for Colombia’s good.

Having already served two terms, he cannot have a third. But the constitution can be changed, just as it was to allow him a second term in a row. His soaring popularity and confidence may tempt Mr Uribe to see himself as man of destiny, selected by providence to inflict a final defeat on the guerrillas of right and left, uproot the narco-traffickers and turn Colombia into a fully fledged democracy. He has come closer to this goal than any predecessor, but his term ends in 2010. Is it not his duty to seek a third term and finish the job?

The temptation must be strong. If you believe General Freddy Padilla de León, head of the armed forces, the long and bloody war against the FARC is not just beginning to end: this is “the end of the end”.

The general makes no secret of the debt the army feels to Colombia’s present political leadership. For the first time, he claims, the soldiers do not feel they are on their own. Mr Uribe’s programme of “democratic security” has laid down a co-ordinated strategy that combines politics, social intervention and military force. The army has been modernised and provided with “extraordinary” resources. General Padilla says his forces can reach any part of the country’s territory “with precision, surprise and a minimum of collateral damage”. Central to its planning is the notion of legitimacy. With the people’s support, he says, victory is at hand.

Generals exaggerate. The army is still accused of abuses. But the FARC is plainly losing ground and its men are deserting. Though it holds hostages, such as Ingrid Betancourt, it is failing to extract concessions from this tough-minded government. The guerrillas may hope for a softening under a new president. But that is why Mr Uribe may be tempted to stand again.

When asked if he will, he laughs off the question. Until a couple of months ago, the betting was that he would not. The legalities are complex and Congress is rich in rivals who fancy the top job themselves. But since the success of the Ecuador raid and his mano a mano against President Chávez the odds have shortened. His supporters have quietly taken the first step of organising a petition for a third term. One European ambassador says Mr Uribe has started to behave more like a candidate than a president nearing the end of his term. He has groomed no successor.

Mr Uribe might win a third popular mandate. But elite opinion, even among admirers, is mixed. That is because his record is mixed. For example, although the president takes credit for the prosecution of the demobilised paramilitaries, his original plan was to grant them an amnesty; it was Congress and the constitutional court that insisted on tougher terms (and some are still running their rackets). His supporters give Mr Uribe credit for the “parapolitics” affair, under which almost a fifth of Colombia’s Congress members are being investigated for secret links to the paramilitaries. But here it was the Supreme Court that made the running, not the president.

For all its sorry history of violence, says Rafael Pardo, a former defence minister (and possible presidential candidate), Colombia has had some strong and independent state institutions. In Mr Uribe it has a formidably strong president, who has already concentrated a good deal of power in his hands. Whether the independence of the institutions could survive the re-election of the man is, at the least, an open question. And the answer to the question could matter, in the long run, rather more to Colombia than the fate of the FTA.

Latin America’s Economies: A Coming Test of Virtue

When Latin Americans get together with bankers on American soil it has usually been to seek succour for their sickly economies. Yet at the annual meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Miami this week, the relative health of the participants was reversed. Thousands of empty flats in gleaming new skyscrapers clustering around Miami’s downtown hotels bear witness to the severity of the housing-market bust in South Florida. Distracted by their own losses, the investment bankers were in subdued mood or stayed away. The Latin Americans, for their part, were preening themselves over the vigour of their own economies. They hope they have “decoupled” from their giant neighbour to the north.

Are such hopes justified? Latin America is doing better than at any time since the 1960s. Economic growth has averaged over 5% a year since 2004, inflation has been generally low, direct investment is arriving in record quantities, and the region’s current account and fiscal accounts are both in surplus. Of course the average conceals wide (and widening) variations. But to the surprise of some, the credit crunch has so far had little discernible effect. Indeed, as world prices for many of Latin America’s key commodity exports continue to rise, the pace of growth has even accelerated in some countries.

Interest-rate cuts in the United States have prompted a number of investors there to buy higher-yielding Latin American shares and bonds. Most Latin American stockmarkets have been holding up relatively well. The region’s sovereign bonds are no longer tracking junk bonds up north; spreads (ie, the premium over the yield on American Treasury bonds) have risen barely more than one-and-a-half percentage points since last July, while those on American junk bonds have risen five times as much. This month Fitch, a credit-rating agency, raised Peru’s bonds to investment grade.

But strains and anxieties are starting to emerge. Higher world prices for energy and food mean that inflation is edging up. That is testing the policy regime (of inflation targets and flexible exchange rates) that has underpinned the achievement of price stability in many countries over the past decade. Several central banks, including those of Chile and Colombia, have missed their inflation targets. Some have begun to tighten interest rates. Brazil’s Central Bank is widely expected to raise rates on April 16th, ending three years of monetary easing. But this may cause currencies to strengthen further, causing difficulties for exporters just when the current-account surplus is narrowing; Brazil is expected to post a current-account deficit of perhaps 1% of GDP this year, for example.

Dangers Lurk (foto The Economist)

Meanwhile, the troubles in the outside world are raising doubts about growth. So far the best guess is that a mild recession in the United States and a slowing world economy will cut growth in Latin America this year by one point, to 4.5%. Commodity-exporting South America should be relatively unscathed. Even in Mexico, where four-fifths of exports go to the United States, the economy has remained surprisingly robust. But Mexico’s economy still moves in tandem with industrial production north of the border, and this may have further to fall. Production is currently flat; in 2001, when both countries were last in recession, it fell by 5%.

The real worry is 2009. A prolonged recession in the United States would be costly for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean; they would receive less in remittances from migrants and fewer tourists, as well as exporting less. Since that kind of slump would prompt slower growth in Europe and Asia, prices for many commodities would fall, hitting South America too. In such a situation, capital flows to Latin America would almost certainly diminish.

The question is whether Latin America’s governments have the policies in place needed to counteract a slowing world economy, notes Andrés Velasco, Chile’s finance minister. “In Chile the answer is yes,” he says. The government has saved some $15 billion of its windfall copper revenues, and can spend this whenever the economy needs stimulation. To a much lesser extent, this goes for Mexico, Peru and some smaller countries, too. Mexico’s government has launched a public-works programme that will add perhaps 1% of GDP to growth this year. In small and poor Honduras, where migrant remittances account for a quarter of GDP, the government is preparing a similar programme, says Rebeca Santos, the finance minister. At the other extreme, Venezuela, which has used its oil revenue to ramp up public spending and is running a fiscal deficit amid bonanza, will be stretched.

Some economists argue that other countries should do more to imitate Chile’s rigorously counter-cyclical policies. In a paper prepared for the bankers’ meeting (“All that glitters may not be gold”), the IDB’s research department notes that 77% of the extra tax revenues generated by higher growth are being spent in ways that create new entitlements, rather than being invested or saved. It argues that almost two percentage points per year of Latin America’s recent growth, and much of the improvement in its fiscal and external accounts, is the result of good fortune (favourable world conditions) rather than better management.

Maybe so. But whatever the cause, most of the region’s economies are much more robust than they were. For most countries, a repeat of past collapses is “very unlikely”, concedes Santiago Levy, the IDB’s chief economist. “But that’s not the relevant question. The real issue is what we need to do to preserve reasonable growth” in a harsher environment. This means tackling Latin America’s traditional weaknesses in education, productivity and technology. Optimists argue that this is starting to happen, thanks to the past few years of growth and stability. Sceptics are yet to be convinced.

Colombia and its Neighbours: Peace in our Time, on the Box

A week after it began, the diplomatic and military stand-off between Colombia and its neighbours ended in scenes reminiscent of a Latin-American soap opera. At a summit on March 7th in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, transmitted live throughout the region, Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, managed to restore diplomatic relations with Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Relations had been severed after he ordered a bombing raid on a FARC guerrilla camp just inside Ecuador.

After reiterating his apology for violating Ecuadorian sovereignty, Mr Uribe went on to condemn the crimes being committed in Colombia by what he called “the sinister terrorists” of the FARC, whom his three neighbours view as closer to freedom fighters. Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, responded with a conciliatory speech, backing down from earlier talk of war. Mr Uribe took this as his cue to circle the conference room, shaking hands and slapping backs. Even a scowling Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, agreed to declare an end to hostilities. And, in a remarkably harmonious exchange, Mr Uribe and Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, seemed to resolve their bilateral differences in about 90 seconds flat.

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. The peace will surely prove as phoney as the “war” that preceded it, which featured both Ecuador and Venezuela moving troops to their borders with Colombia. Many Colombians reckon it is Messrs Chávez and Correa who should be apologising: the contents of three laptop computers allegedly belonging to the FARC leader, Raúl Reyes, killed in Colombia’s raid on the rebel camp, appear to confirm that Venezuela and Ecuador had close political contacts—or worse—with the FARC, an unreconstructed Marxist group involved in kidnapping and drug-trafficking, which both the European Union and the United States class as a terrorist group.

Mr Chávez, who recently called for the FARC to be recognised as legitimate belligerents protected under the Geneva Conventions, described Mr Reyes’s killing as a “cowardly murder”. But he failed to win support at home and elsewhere in the region for his decision to wade into what was an essentially bilateral incident. Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, for example, did not accept or return several phone calls from Mr Chávez during the stand-off. Venezuela and its allies have denied giving aid and comfort to the guerrillas, and Mr Chávez has claimed credit for “restoring peace to South America”. But the underlying conflict remains.

For Mr Uribe, the information reportedly found on the computers (to be examined by experts from Interpol) is a precious gift. He has agreed not to use it (as he had first threatened) to substantiate a case against Mr Chávez before the International Criminal Court. But many observers believe it was the strong hand this dealt him in Santo Domingo, rather than any real vocation for peace on the part of his neighbours, that brought about the climb-down.

Among the juicy titbits allegedly found on the computers are a $20,000 campaign contribution from the FARC to Rafael Correa; a putative deal between the rebels and Mr Chávez that would have netted them $300m and several hundred used rifles; and attempts by the FARC to obtain uranium for a “dirty bomb” and surface-to-air missiles to neutralise Colombia’s helicopter fleet—a crucial weapon in the army’s recent successes against the guerrillas. Mr Reyes is also said to have recorded his thoughts on how hostage releases, co-ordinated with Mr Chávez and a Colombian senator, would help them all politically.

Within days of killing Mr Reyes, the government had another stroke of luck: Iván Ríos, a second member of the FARC’s seven-man commanding secretariat, was killed, this time by his own bodyguard. After taking Mr Ríos’s passport, ID card and another computer, as well as chopping off his victim’s hand to prove his death, the bodyguard carted his trophy to the nearest army post and gave himself up.

This incident is potentially even more serious for the FARC than Mr Reyes’s death. The computer contained much less explosive material, though it did give details of a planned attack on the Medellín metro. But the effect on guerrilla morale of such high-level betrayal could be devastating. The guerrillas are already on the defensive, and if desertions were to spread, the retreat could become a rout.

Meanwhile, the Organisation of American States (OAS) has set up an inquiry into the Colombia/Ecuador border incident. But its decision not to tackle head-on the issue of the alleged computer data, pleading lack of expertise, suggests that it is unwilling to go to the heart of the problem in the region. Laura Gil, an international-relations consultant in Bogotá, deems the reconciliation to be “very fragile”.

Some kind of multilateral border-verification mission will be required to prevent further incidents. Ecuador has suggested that UN peacekeeping troops be brought in, and Mr Uribe has not rejected the idea, though the OAS secretary-general, José Miguel Insulza, reckons it would be “very difficult” to achieve.

Having emerged, so far, with little more than a slap on the wrist after a highly risky and controversial operation, Mr Uribe is ahead on points. He is unlikely to risk another such raid. But the fault-line running through the Andes seems bound to produce more tremors before long.

Colombia and its Neighbours: On the War Path

Colombian Army Movements (foto EPA)

On few, if any, other occasions has a head of state issued detailed orders for military mobilisation as jauntily as if he were ordering pizza, and on live television. That is what Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, did on March 2nd, after Colombian forces bombed a camp just inside Ecuador, killing Raúl Reyes, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

“Minister of defence!” bellowed Mr Chávez, on “Aló Presidente” (“Hello President”), his weekly radio and television programme. “Send me ten battalions to the border, including tanks.” He also ordered the forward deployment of his new Russian fighter-bombers, threatening that if Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, tried a similar raid on Venezuelan soil he would “send over the Sukhois”. The next day he broke diplomatic ties with Colombia.

Venezuelan troops (pictured above) and tanks duly moved to the more populated points of the long border between the two countries. Customs officials halted Colombian trucks at the busiest crossing point, between Cúcuta and San Cristóbal.

What made this performance odd was that it was Ecuador, not Venezuela, whose sovereignty had been violated. True, Colombia has often accused Venezuela of harbouring guerrilla leaders and tolerating camps near the border similar to the one bombed in Ecuador. But did Venezuela’s president have a guilty conscience?

“Maybe he knew what was coming,” wrote Teodoro Petkoff, a guerrilla leader in the 1960s who now edits an opposition newspaper in Caracas. Mr Chávez’s apparent over-reaction was a pre-emptive attempt to “throw a veil over the revelations he suspected might come from Raúl Reyes’ computer,” suggested Mr Petkoff.

With Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, following Mr Chávez’s lead, this week’s events sent Latin America’s diplomats scurrying to prevent war enveloping the neighbourhood. But they also laid bare that Colombia’s government is coming close to breaking the back of the FARC, and in the process threatening to shine light on its murky relations with neighbouring governments.

When Mr Uribe took office in 2002, the guerrillas were rampant. His predecessor had just halted peace negotiations because the FARC had used a “demilitarised” zone created to host the talks as a base for recruitment and for kidnapping (many of the politicians it has held hostage were seized during the talks). The guerrillas had some 17,000 troops; they blocked main roads and bombarded small towns, kidnapping and killing almost at will. To make matters worse, the state’s inability to provide security had spawned murderous right-wing paramilitary groups.

Mr Uribe’s “democratic security” policy has achieved a dramatic change. By expanding the security forces, he has driven the FARC from populated areas, while persuading most of the paramilitaries to demobilise. Officials reckon they have reduced the FARC’s ranks to fewer than 11,000. But the guerrillas withdrew to the vast tropical lowlands, to areas they have controlled for 40 years. There they resisted a two-year offensive by 18,000 troops. The army could not get near the FARC’s seven-man governing secretariat, of which Mr Reyes (the nom de guerre of Luis Edgar Devia) was a member.

Seeking the Secretariat

Thwarted, the security forces refined their strategy. They put more effort into seeking the FARC’s leaders using information from guerrilla deserters and infiltrators, and from sophisticated bugging equipment provided by the United States. Over the past year, this has started to pay off. Two FARC regional commanders have been killed and one captured. In January and February alone, the army claims to have killed 247 guerrillas and captured 226, with another 360 deserting. This pressure has pushed FARC units to the borders with Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama.

Co;omboa and Its Neighbours (foto The Economist)

Last month the government received a tip off that Mr Reyes was in a camp less than two kilometres (1¼ miles) inside Ecuador. Mr Uribe authorised a bombing raid by Brazilian-made Super Tucano aircraft, which killed at least 21 guerrillas. Colombian troops then crossed the border to recover Mr Reyes’s corpse—and his laptop computers. (They left three wounded women guerrillas unattended.)

Most Colombians were jubilant that the government had struck at the very top of the FARC at last. Mr Reyes handled the guerrillas’ relations with the outside world; he was one of three deputies to Manuel Marulanda, the FARC’s elderly leader. For the first time the security forces have shown that they are capable of infiltrating and defeating the guerrillas through systematic strikes, said Román Ortiz of Fundación Ideas para la Paz, a Bogotá think-tank.

Mr Uribe doubtless thought that Mr Correa could be mollified over the cross-border raid. But spurred on by Mr Chávez, Ecuador’s president sent 3,200 troops to the border and cut diplomatic ties. He demanded an emergency meeting of the Organisation of American States (OAS) to condemn Colombia, and set off on a tour of regional capitals seeking support.

The Lap Top Lode

Almost as important as the killing of Mr Reyes may be the capture of his laptops. Apart from inside information on the FARC, according to Colombian officials, they contain documents which, if true, are embarrassing to Mr Correa but highly damaging to Mr Chávez. As the FARC’s top negotiator, Mr Reyes appears to have met representatives of many governments. According to one email, he met Gustavo Larrea, Mr Correa’s security minister last month. Mr Larrea is alleged to have proposed a formal meeting in Quito to discuss securing the border and negotiating the release of some of the FARC’s 700 odd hostages. Mr Larrea said that Colombian officials knew of his meeting, which was purely to talk about the hostages.

Ecuadorean officials have long swapped complaints with their Colombian counterparts about their mutual inability to prevent the FARC from crossing the border. Ecuador claims to spend $160m a year containing the spillover. It is also angry about Colombia spraying coca fields on the border with weedkiller, which it says drifts south on to other crops.

Nevertheless, Ecuador has given some help to Colombia. Mr Correa claimed that last year his forces dismantled 47 FARC camps inside Ecuador and on three occasions carried out joint operations with Colombian troops. American surveillance aircraft still patrol over Colombia from an air base in Ecuador, although Mr Correa has promised not to renew the lease for this when it expires in 2009.

Raúl Reyes: A Trafficker in Hostages (foto AFP)

By contrast, Mr Chávez has recently been unambiguous in his support for the FARC. He fell out with Mr Uribe last year over his attempt to act as a mediator for the hostages. Since then he has cast aside his previous stance as an honest broker seeking a peaceful solution to Colombia’s internal conflict. When the FARC turned over two hostages to him in January, Mr Chávez hailed the guerrillas as a “true army” whose status as belligerents should be recognised. No other government in the region, not even Cuba’s, echoed this call. On “Aló Presidente” Mr Chávez held a minute’s silence in honour of Mr Reyes, whom he said he had met three times over the years. He declared that Colombia needed to be “liberated” from its “subservience” to the United States.

Another document allegedly on Mr Reyes’s computer showed that Mr Chávez paid (or planned to pay) the FARC $300m. An (unrelated) e-mail to Mr Reyes suggested that the FARC were trying to obtain uranium for a “dirty bomb”. All this prompted some far-fetched exchanges. Mr Uribe said that he would denounce Mr Chávez for “financing genocide”; in return, Venezuela accused Colombia’s police chief, who revealed the contents of Mr Reyes’s laptop, of being a “drug trafficker”.

“This is (…) a microphone war,” said General Raúl Salazar, a former defence minister. Like many other Venezuelans, he doubts that it will become a real one. That is not least because many army officers do not want war with Colombia and find Mr Chávez’s actions an “embarrassment”, said another former defence minister, General Raúl Baduel, who is now a prominent opponent of the president.

So what is Mr Chávez’s game? One possible answer is his obsessive search for an external enemy to shore up his waning popularity at home. In December, his political blueprint for a socialist Venezuela, with indefinite presidential re-election, was defeated in a referendum. This came only a year after he won a second six-year term with 63% of the vote, and was the first time he had lost a national vote.

Warring Partners (foto The Economist)

n November Venezuelans are due to vote for mayors and state governors. They are increasingly discontented about crime, an inflation rate that has surged to 25% and shortages of basic goods, including food and cooking gas. Because of Mr Chávez’s mismanagement of agriculture, Venezuela imports much of its food from Colombia. Any lasting interruption of trade would hurt both countries (see chart). Reputable pollsters say that Mr Chávez’s popularity has fallen well below 50%. Visible faction fights have broken out in his newly formed Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela.

Picking a fight with Colombia and supporting the FARC are unlikely to win him friends. One poll, by Hinterlaces, showed 89% opposed to a war and 87% opposed to the FARC. So the reason for his military mobilisation may be to deter Colombia from moving against the FARC camps in Venezuela where some Colombian officials believe that Mr Marulanda is based. A more worrying, though improbable, hypothesis is that Mr Chávez, a former army officer, is throwing off all pretence at being a civilian democrat and, fearing that he may not remain in power for long, wants to launch an assault on what he sees as American imperialism and its regional stooge, Mr Uribe.

Although George Bush gave public support to Mr Uribe, other governments in the region, led by Brazil, tried to drive a wedge between Mr Correa and Mr Chávez. There were signs that this might work. On March 5th Ecuador agreed to an OAS resolution criticising but not formally condemning Colombia. The OAS also agreed to investigate the bombing. Once the region’s diplomats have patched things up between these two countries they face another, more intractable problem: Mr Chávez, still with oil money but politically on the defensive, may have thrown in his lot with an outlaw army of drug-traffickers.

Latin America and the United States: Commerce between Friends and Foes

In his first term as Peru’s president, in the 1980s, Alan García was a firm believer in protectionism, banning the import of foreign cars and even of Chilean wine. But since coming to office again last year he has embraced free trade with a passion bordering on mania. “More trade and more investment [means] less migration, less poverty and less environmental destruction,” he told a meeting in Lima last month convened by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). “You might resign yourself to just having a free-trade agreement with the United States, but for me it’s not enough,” he told his audience, ordering his harried trade minister to secure similar deals with a score of other countries.

That Mr García was so pumped up was perhaps because at long last Peru’s trade deal with the United States, negotiated 18 months ago, looks close to ratification by a hitherto reluctant American Congress. On September 27th the administration sent a bill to Congress after a majority of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee indicated they would back it. Though upsets are still possible, supporters reckon the bill will be approved within weeks. But for free-traders, that is cause for only the faintest cheer.

The benefits to Peru seem clear. Mr García, who when a candidate was sceptical of the deal, now says that it could add an additional percentage point to economic growth (which reached 8% last year). That is mainly because it provides investors with greater security. Peru’s industrialists’ association reckons that it could prompt an extra $9 billion in industrial investment in 2008 and 2009 alone.

Opponents worry that farmers, especially of maize, cotton and wheat, will struggle to compete with their subsidised counterparts in the United States. They also fret that American companies will try to take out patents on Amazonian plants.

Free-traders have other worries. A decade ago, the United States and 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean hoped to negotiate an all-embracing Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). But the mood has changed. The Democrats, who won control of the American Congress last November, are mistrustful of trade agreements, reflecting widespread fears that globalisation has made jobs more insecure in the United States. Mercosur, the trade block led by Brazil, backed away from an FTAA in favour of the Doha round of WTO talks, but these have stalled too. All this comes as some governments in Latin America, led by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, are turning their backs on open trade.

Others have negotiated bilateral free-trade agreements (FTAs) with the United States. But George Bush’s administration has struggled to persuade Congress to ratify them: even before the Democrats took control, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (known as CAFTA-DR) passed by just two votes; as well as Peru, deals with Panama and Colombia (and South Korea) still await approval.

So Latin American politicians, such as Mr García, who see trade as an engine of growth, find themselves caught between American indifference and a resurgent, anti-trade left at home. When they negotiate bilateral FTAs, they are in a much weaker position than they would have been when gathered together in an FTAA.

Even so, the Democrats have insisted on changing the agreements. In May they struck a deal with the administration under which the FTAs would have to include clauses to strengthen labour rights and the environment (see article), while slightly loosening intellectual-property protection (giving more flexibility for generic medicines). The Democrats say this was the only way to restore bipartisan consensus on trade. Some economists note that since countries such as Peru already subscribe to many of these standards, in theory at least, their formal incorporation is no big deal.

Even so, only a minority of Democrats are likely to vote for any of the FTAs. Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank in Washington DC, reckons that at most about 70 of the 232 Democrats in the House of Representatives might vote for the Peru FTA. The agreement with Panama was supposed to be next in line. But the Bush administration has balked over the recent choice to head Panama’s parliament of a politician whom it accuses of killing an American in 1992.

The FTA with Colombia faces even bigger obstacles. The Democratic leadership in the House has refused to back it, arguing that Colombia’s government needs to do more to prevent the killing of trade unionists and to punish officials linked to right-wing paramilitaries. That was a slap in the face for Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s president, who has been Mr Bush’s most loyal ally in Latin America. Colombian officials argue that their efforts to strengthen the rule of law in the face of violence from drug traffickers, guerrillas and former paramilitaries will be undermined by failure to approve an FTA.

This is a powerful point and an objection to the whole structure of trade agreements that is now evolving in Latin America. If the agreements with Peru and Panama are approved, the effect would be to divert trade and investment from Colombia. A recent study by EAFIT, a university in Medellín, and the University of Antioquia found that if the Colombia FTA is not approved and the others are, Colombia’s GDP would be 2.2% smaller and 400,000 jobs would be lost.

Some Democrats, at least, recognise that this would be a perverse outcome. Mr Hakim reckons there is a chance the Colombia agreement could be ratified next year—but only if Mr Uribe’s government takes further steps to protect trade unionists, and these are seen to be working.

The United States’ hard-nosed approach to trade is winning few friends in Latin America. That may become apparent in Costa Rica, which is holding a referendum on October 7th on whether to ratify CAFTA-DR. Polls suggest the result will be close, but opponents appear to have momentum. They recently assembled more than 100,000 protestors in San José, the capital. Although Oscar Arias, the president, insists the accord is vital to his country’s future, his government may have overplayed its hand. Last month one of his vice-presidents resigned after the leaking of a memo in which he advocated scare tactics such as painting opponents as allies of Mr Chávez. Some are—but others merely think CAFTA-DR a bad deal, especially in its intellectual-property clauses.

If the American Congress does ratify the pending FTAs, turning its back on CAFTA-DR could cause Costa Rica to lose jobs—a fate that may also await Bolivia and Ecuador. This whole mess underlines that bilateral deals are a third-best option after the Doha Round or the FTAA. But for those Latin American countries that are ambitious to expand their share of the biggest market for manufactured exports, they are the only game in town.

Venezuela: Hostage, But to Whom?

In his first term as Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe set his face against any negotiation with the country’s left-wing FARC guerrillas, arguing that they had to be militarily weakened before they might talk seriously about peace. In particular, he rejected the FARC’s calls for a “humanitarian accord”, its Orwellian term for swapping the better-known of its kidnapped hostages for dozens of jailed mid-level guerrillas. But in a startling about-face, Mr Uribe has invited Hugo Chávez, the leftist president of neighbouring Venezuela, to try and broker a deal.

That is a sign of how much pressure Mr Uribe, whose father was murdered by the FARC in a botched kidnap, now faces on the issue. The FARC has held a number of hostages for up to ten years because it considers them canjeable (swappable). The 45 people still in that category include Ingrid Betancourt, a politician of dual Franco-Colombian nationality; several other politicians; army and police officers; and three Americans working under contract to the State Department.

Colombian public opinion has veered towards favouring a swap after the killing in June, in circumstances yet to be clarified, of 11 regional legislators held by the FARC for the past five years. A schoolteacher whose son is a hostage drew widespread public support by marching 1,000km (620 miles) to Bogotá to call for a swap. France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has made obtaining the release of Ms Betancourt a priority. At his behest, Mr Uribe in June freed Rodrigo Granda, the highest-ranking prisoner, who promptly decamped to Cuba.

Hitherto, the main sticking point has been the FARC’s demand for the government to withdraw troops from an area where negotiations would take place—something most Colombians oppose. It is to break this deadlock that Mr Uribe turned to Mr Chávez. The two men are ideological opposites but have developed a relationship of wary mutual respect. Mr Chávez leapt with gusto at the chance to be seen as a regional powerbroker. In the past two weeks he has met Mr Uribe and spoken to the families of both the hostages and the guerrilla prisoners.

If anyone can persuade the FARC to deal, it is indeed Mr Chávez. Its leaders have already agreed to meet him in Caracas. It is not long ago that Colombian officials were publicly accusing him of supporting the guerrillas and turning a blind eye to their alleged bases across the border in Venezuela. Raúl Reyes, a FARC leader, gave indirect support to such claims in an interview with La Jornada, a Mexican newspaper, published this week, in which he said he had met Mr Chávez.

Mr Uribe’s defenders have long argued that a hostage swap will merely encourage further kidnapping. The FARC was behind nearly a third of 23,144 kidnappings in Colombia between 1996 and 2006, according to País Libre, a group that helps the families of kidnap victims. But that objection has been undermined by the president’s own success in weakening the FARC. In 1998 the guerrillas kidnapped 1,016 people; by last year that figure had fallen to 122.

The bigger risk is that by bringing in Mr Chávez, Mr Uribe has granted the FARC an avenue to international legitimacy. If that were the prelude to serious peace talks, so much the better. But Mr Chávez, an elected president but one who has ridden roughshod over his country’s institutions, is hardly best placed to persuade the FARC to accept the rules of democracy.

For Mr Chávez, the unexpected role of peacemaker is a welcome break from a string of foreign-policy setbacks. His decision not to renew the broadcasting licence of an opposition television station, his plans to change the constitution to allow himself to be re-elected indefinitely, large-scale purchases of Russian arms and resistance in Brazil to his attempts to join the Mercosur trade block have all diminished his standing in the region.

His new role as mediator may also amplify his hitherto limited influence in Colombia—the main obstacle to his plans to turn his “Bolivarian revolution” into a pan-Andean project. After meeting Mr Uribe he released a group of Colombian paramilitaries arrested in 2004 on mysterious charges of plotting a coup in Venezuela. He also surprised people in both countries by saying he was anxious to resolve a long-standing territorial dispute with Colombia over the Gulf of Venezuela.

But the problem for Mr Chávez—and this might be Mr Uribe’s calculation—could be that in the end the FARC may reckon that it has more to lose than gain by a deal. “The hostages are the only thing the FARC have that gets them heard internationally and gives them any importance domestically,” says Gerson Arias of Ideas para la Paz, a think-tank in Bogotá. Whatever the outcome, all three parties in the coming negotiations face risks, some of which may be unexpected.

A Hero at Home, Villain Abroad

When hundreds of thousands of Colombians poured into the streets on July 5th to protest at the killing of 11 hostages who had been held by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), President Álvaro Uribe chose to read this as support for his tough security policies. “This demonstration is notice to the international community that we cannot, in this hour of pain, give in to the criminals,” he said. But much of the “international community” no longer sees events in Colombia in the way most Colombians do.

At home Mr Uribe is seen as the saviour of a country that was in danger of being turned into a failed state by the rampaging violence of drug-traffickers, left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries. Since he took office in 2002, violence has fallen sharply. As confidence returns, the economy is growing at 8% a year. According to Invamer-Gallup, a pollster, Mr Uribe’s approval rating has remained steady at between 70% and 80% over the past year.

That is despite recent scandals in which a dozen legislators who support him, as well as a former intelligence chief, have been arrested on suspicion of having ties to the murderous paramilitaries; the latest to face investigation is Mario Uribe, a senator and the president’s cousin. In the United States and Europe, on the other hand, Mr Uribe’s reputation has suffered—so much so that in April Al Gore, America’s former vice-president, refused to appear at the same conference as Mr Uribe in Miami.

Reactions to the killing of the hostages highlighted the widening gulf between the perceptions of Colombians and those of the outside world. The hostages were regional legislators who had been held by the FARC for five years. According to the guerrillas they died when an “unidentified military group” attacked the jungle camp where they were being held. Mr Uribe said that there were no government operations on the day in question in the area where officials believe the hostages were held.

The governments of France, Spain and Switzerland have been trying to broker an agreement under which the FARC would swap its well-known hostages, who include three American contractors and Ingrid Betancourt, a politician who holds dual French and Colombian nationality (hundreds more hostages are being held for ransom). Mr Uribe freed scores of guerrilla prisoners. But the FARC insists on the creation of a “demilitarised zone” in which talks should take place. For Colombians, that brings back bad memories of failed peace talks from 1999-2002 in which the FARC used a similar zone for recruitment and criminal activity. Mr Uribe refuses to go down that route again.

After the killing of the 11 hostages, the three European governments condemned hostage-taking. But they also called for an international inquiry into the deaths and urged the government not to use force to rescue captives. Boosted by the demonstrations, Mr Uribe said he could not accept “statements…that measure the FARC and the government by the same yardstick”. Few things rile him more than having his democratic and human-rights credentials questioned internationally.

Yet that is happening more and more. At the end of June the Democratic leadership in America’s House of Representatives announced that it would oppose ratification of a free-trade agreement with Colombia until it could see “concrete evidence of sustained results” on reducing violence, on punishing the killings of trade unionists and on prosecuting politicians with links to paramilitaries.

The Democrats did not set any precise benchmarks. But Mr Uribe is in no position to ignore such views. Since 1999 Colombia has received some $5 billion in mainly military aid from America under a plan to fight drug-trafficking and rebel groups of left and right. Until recently, this enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington. Last month, however, the House of Representatives cut the aid by $60m (to $530m) and earmarked more of the money for social and justice programmes (some of these changes may be reversed by the Senate).

All this exasperates Colombia. Mr Uribe points out that when his country was suffering its worst violence, America was unwavering in its support. That policy has now paid dividends: under Mr Uribe the guerrillas have been pushed back to remote areas and some 30,000 paramilitaries have demobilised. In the eyes of Colombian officials, the aid cut and trade snub in Washington therefore look like a case of punishing success. As for the revelations about paramilitary infiltration of politics, the officials argue that these have come to light only because of the climate of greater security in the country. And although some of the president’s supporters have been found to have had links with the paramilitaries, there is no evidence that Mr Uribe himself knew of them.

José Obdulio Gaviria, an adviser to Mr Uribe, says Colombia’s government will have to keep repeating its message over and over until it gets through, just as if it were dealing with “slow students”. To some degree, however, the problem is not so much the message as the messenger. In Washington Mr Uribe is paying the price for his high-handed manner, seemingly dodgy friendships and, above all, for having been an enthusiastic ally of George Bush. And even if Colombia’s message does at last get through to Washington’s “slow students”, the trade agreement may still fall victim to the Democrats’ general lack of enthusiasm for free trade.

Mr Uribe says he cannot allow Colombia to be treated as a “servant” of the United States. But he has little choice. Outsiders might treat him with more respect if he threatened to legalise cocaine or cosy up to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s oil-rich anti-American leader. But the latter, at least, might irritate Colombians too.

Trade, Death and Drugs

EIight days after workers at a company exporting ornamental plants in Antioquia in northern Colombia informed the management that they planned to form a union, the death threats began. “If you persist with that idea we will have to dissuade you with bullets,” reads a letter sent in January to Ancizo López, the president of the newly formed union. Later came threatening phone calls, a shotgun fired at the door of his home and graffiti on his street reading “death to [guerrilla] collaborators.”

Mr López is still alive and so is his union. But others have not been as fortunate. International labour organisations consider Colombia the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. The government says 60 union members were murdered in 2006, and nine have been killed so far this year. Union sources put the figure for last year at 72.

The fate of trade unionists seems set to put paid to Colombia’s chances of securing a free-trade agreement with the United States. The Democrats who control the American Congress reached a deal with the administration on May 10th to ratify similar agreements with Panama and Peru. Colombia’s was excluded because of the trade-union issue.

To make matters worse for Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s president, the argument over ratifying the trade agreement comes as he faces almost weekly new claims of links between his supporters and right-wing paramilitary militias. The government argues that such claims are being made only because of the big improvement in security achieved by Mr Uribe in his first term from 2002 to 2006.

Mr Uribe took that argument to Washington, DC earlier this month. He personally lobbied many leading Democrats to try to convince them that under his watch Colombia has become safer for trade unionists. Even on the unions’ own figures, murders have fallen to less than two-fifths of the number in 2001.

There are two further strands to the government’s pitch. First, it has taken steps to protect union activists and to investigate the murders. Second, officials say that, while in the past trade unionists may have been killed because of their activism, nowadays most of the deaths are for unrelated reasons. Colombia, after all, is still a violent country in which people of all backgrounds are victims of crime. The government does not object to international pressure on the trade-union issue, says Carlos Franco, Mr Uribe’s human-rights adviser, but “first it should be reasonable and second it should be objective.”

These arguments cut little ice with the Democrats and NGOs in the United States—or with trade unionists in Colombia. Congress should not give Mr Uribe the “prize” of the trade agreement while past killings of unionists remain unpunished and murders continue, argues Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group.

Like many other sections of Colombian society, unions have been caught up in the conflict between left-wing guerrillas, their paramilitary foes and other violent drug gangs. In the past, the guerrillas recruited union leaders as part of their strategy of combining armed action with political agitation. Paramilitaries have tended to equate union activity with support for the guerrillas.

All the main union federations now reject violence. But “the perception remains that unions are troublemakers,” says Elver Herrera of the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), a union-related think-tank based in Medellín. He adds that because of that perception and the attendant danger, only 4.8% of Colombian workers are unionised, compared with 13% in the United States.

The ENS says many unionists were killed during contract negotiations or strikes, though it keeps no specific statistics on this. In the most shocking allegation, Jorge Noguera, who headed a civilian intelligence agency from 2002-05, is facing criminal charges over claims that he provided paramilitaries with a list of trade unionists under government protection. Several of those listed were later killed.

Because so few of the murders have been investigated, in many cases it is hard to determine the motive. In 98.8% of cases, nobody has been punished, says Domingo Tovar of the CUT, the main trade-union confederation—though that is down from 99.9% last year. In the past 18 months, prosecutors have secured 50 convictions in 37 cases. In January, the attorney-general’s office set up a special unit with 13 prosecutors and 78 investigators to probe 200 “priority” cases among more than 2,000 unsolved killings of trade unionists reported between 1991 and 2006.

The unit stems from an agreement last year between the government, the unions and business leaders after talks brokered by the International Labour Organisation. The ILO has set up an office in Colombia to monitor labour issues. Luis Carlos Villegas, who heads the main business federation, says that he and the main union leaders have lunch once a month with Mr Uribe to discuss these questions.

Whatever the record in the past, Mr Uribe’s government can point to some progress in making Colombia safe for trade unions. But that message is being drowned out amid mounting evidence—as well as improbable claims—concerning the infiltration of politics by the paramilitaries. On May 14th, the authorities ordered the arrest of 19 politicians and businessmen, including five congressmen. They join another eight legislators already behind bars. All are from the north coast, where the paramilitaries were especially powerful.

Originally formed to fight kidnapping and extortion by the guerrillas, the paramilitaries ended up controlling politics and drug-trafficking in areas under their control. Most of them have now demobilised under a peace agreement in which their leaders were offered reduced sentences in return for confessing crimes and compensating victims. Since last year, more than 60 leaders have been in jail.

But they continue to cause problems for the government. This week, Semana, a newsmagazine, published transcripts of telephone conversations in which the jailed chiefs gave orders about drug shipments and murders. These were only part of a wider illegal phone-tapping exercise whose targets included opposition leaders. Mr Uribe reacted by sacking the police chief for the phone-tapping. His replacement, Oscar Naranjo, has a reputation for integrity and competence.

The paramilitaries disarmed because their leaders expected to escape serious punishment. Now many face jail terms. This week, in what looked like retaliation, Salvatore Mancuso, the top warlord, claimed that Francisco Santos, Mr Uribe’s vice-president, and Juan Manuel Santos, his defence minister, had both incited paramilitary actions during the 1990s. Mr Uribe dismissed the claim, for which there is no supporting evidence.

There is little doubt that some of Mr Uribe’s supporters had links with the paramilitaries, just as many on the left in Colombia once had ties to guerrilla groups. The president’s underlying argument is that only tighter security, a stronger state and the rule of law will allow trade unionists, like other Colombians, to live safely. Getting there means boosting the relative size of the legal economy. Cocaine consumers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere pump some $3 billion-5 billion a year into Colombia, most of which goes to the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. They will be among the first to rejoice if the Democrats kill the trade agreement.

The Perils of Para Politics

On the outskirts of María la Baja, a nondescript town on Colombia’s swelteringly hot Caribbean coast, the road is lined with palm-thatched mud huts. They are the new homes of some 7,000 people displaced by violence from their small farms in the nearby hills. They say that their problems began when the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) appeared in the hills in 2000, stealing their cattle. Matters deteriorated further when right-wing paramilitaries began to kill people whom they thought were guerrillas and forced others to sell or yield their land at gunpoint.

But in the past couple of years “things have improved a lot,” says Carlos Ortiz, one of their leaders. The reason: on July 14th 2005, the local paramilitary group handed over its weapons and disbanded under a peace agreement with the government of President Álvaro Uribe in which some 30,000 of the militiamen have demobilised across the country. As part of Mr Uribe’s security build-up, marines have set up a base on the edge of the town, while police patrol the main road north to the port of Cartagena.

“We go back to our farms by day now,” says Julio César Azeredo, another of the displaced. But, he adds, “it’s not safe to stay at night.” If this corner of northern Colombia is no longer marked by the bloody massacres of a few years ago, its new-found peace is fragile. “The people have lost confidence in everyone, they don’t trust any authority,” says Giuseppe Svafrena, an Italian Catholic priest who is helping them.

Fragile it may be, but the improvement in security in places like María la Baja is real enough. On the strength of it, Mr Uribe secured a second four-year term with a landslide 62% of the vote in an election last May. But his second term is proving to be more complicated than his first.

Mr Uribe faces two immediate problems. One involves the future of the former paramilitaries, and the risk that many return to violent crime. The other involves their past: the government has been rocked by a series of revelations of links between politicians, officials and the paramilitaries. Those revelations (dubbed “parapolitics”) risk doing serious damage to Mr Uribe’s standing abroad, and especially in the United States. But for most Colombians the more pressing issue is consolidating the gains in security. In opinion polls some 70% of respondents continue to support Mr Uribe, despite the parapolitics scandal. To understand why requires some recent history.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the left-wing guerrillas of the FARC and its smaller rival, the ELN, grew steadily, reaching a peak of almost 20,000 troops. Their expansion owed much to money from drugs, kidnapping and extortion. They were also helped by Colombia’s impossible geography and relatively weak state. The flip side of a long democratic tradition has been that Colombia’s politicians never allowed the army to become strong.

In response, some army commanders and landowners formed paramilitary militias (known as “self-defence” groups) to fight the guerrillas. Yet some of these were quickly taken over by drug-traffickers and many imposed a reign of terror equal to or worse than that of the guerrillas. Colombia began to look like a failed state. That prompted Andrés Pastrana, Mr Uribe’s predecessor, to start to strengthen the security forces and to seek American aid.

Mr Uribe was elected on a pledge to get tough after the FARC had shown no interest in peace in three years of talks with Mr Pastrana. He has expanded the security forces by a third, adding 60,000 troops and 30,000 extra police. He placed permanent police detachments in 150 municipalities (out of a total of 1,080) that lacked them. He created a new force of 20,000 part-time “popular soldiers” for local guard duties. Six new mountain battalions occupied the high Andean massifs which had served as corridors and refuges for the FARC. He turned the army into an offensive force, with nine new mobile brigades.

The Uribe Effect (foto The Economist)

All this changed the course of the war. The FARC were driven from central Colombia, from the populated triangle marked by its three main cities, Bogotá, Medellín and Cali. For the first time in years, Colombians can drive between most of the country’s cities without risk of kidnap or hold-up. Partly as a result, the economy has rebounded as businesses from oil companies to manufacturers ramp up investment (see chart). “My administration began the process of taking back the country,” Mr Uribe says.

This security build-up and Mr Uribe’s reputation as an implacable foe of the guerrillas enabled his government to persuade the paramilitaries, grouped in the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), to disarm. They did so under a controversial Justice and Peace Law. This stipulates that those accused of massacres or other barbarous acts can benefit from a reduced sentence (of no more than eight years) if they confess and surrender illegally obtained assets. The biggest incentive is that the government will not extradite them to face drugs charges in the United States as long as they co-operate.

This peace process has been highly controversial. One set of criticisms concerns its terms and another its implementation. Many human-rights groups, the paramilitaries’ victims and much of the opposition considered the law too lenient and its application too lax. So did the Constitutional Court, which stiffened the law.

Only last August were the top leaders jailed pending court hearings. Rafael Pardo, a Liberal senator who broke with the president over the law, says that he thinks the paramilitaries have demobilised their counter-insurgency apparatus and moved out of drugs to avoid extradition but are moving, unchecked, into other crime

Mr Uribe’s defenders argue that Colombia is doing something which no other country has managed. “It’s a peace process with an undefeated military group in which justice is being applied with no amnesty,” says Eduardo Pizarro, who heads the government’s reconciliation commission. Mr Uribe accuses his critics of double standards, since they never complained about (and some benefited from) past peace talks with guerrillas in which total amnesties were offered.

But the process is certainly a messy one. The attorney-general’s office—a branch of the judiciary rather than the executive in Colombia—has been swamped. A special unit of 35 attorneys has been set up, but it needs more staff and resources. Some 25,000 people have registered as victims of the paramilitaries. Mario Iguarán, the attorney-general, says that charges may eventually be brought against up to 400 of the leaders; he hopes to begin cases against 57 jailed chiefs this year.

The government’s scheme to integrate the former paramilitaries into civilian life has been flawed. They receive a monthly stipend of up to 358,000 pesos ($162), but two-thirds of them have yet to receive promised training and only two-fifths have jobs. The government did the demobilisations “with a system which was only just being created and the system collapsed,” says Frank Pearl, whom Mr Uribe recruited from the private sector last year to sort out the programme.

Colombia (foto The Economist)

The big fear is that many will return to violence. The best estimates are that between 2,500 and 3,600 have joined “second-generation” paramilitary groups. But officials say that some of these are drug-trafficking outfits or purely criminal bands.

For all its flaws, Colombia’s peace process has quickly acquired a momentum of its own. One of the strongest signs of that is the parapolitics scandal. This began when police arrested a paramilitary leader who had failed to rendezvous in a designated area, confiscating his computer. This contained a treasure trove of information concerning the political contacts of the paramilitaries, who once boasted that they controlled a third of Colombia’s Congress.

The revelations are an embarrassment to Mr Uribe. The ten politicians (nine legislators and a provincial governor) so far arrested, all from the north coast, belong to parties that support him. But most of the allegations against them date from 2002, when they backed the official Liberal candidate against Mr Uribe, who ran as an independent. More damaging is the arrest of Jorge Noguera, whom the president named to head the intelligence service.

Mr Uribe’s critics have seized on all this to argue that the president is in cahoots with the paramilitaries. But there is no evidence. The president counters that he has supported judicial investigations and full confessions by the paramilitaries. “The country needs to know in depth the tragedy…to realise what is the future we need: a country of institutions, without guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug-traffickers and corruption,” he said in an interview with The Economist. If Mr Noguera is found guilty, Mr Uribe promises to apologise.

That the parapolitics investigations have got so far is in part a result of greater security. “Witnesses are coming forward because they do not have to fear,” says Mr Iguarán. “Who would have dared before to go to the district attorney or the judge and declare that the chief of the AUC was in league with the government, the mayor or a congressman? It’s an unanticipated consequence of the Justice and Peace Law.”

It also shows how widespread penetration of politics and government by the paramilitaries was. Officials are quietly attempting a similar clean-up of the armed forces. A decorated colonel was charged before the civilian courts last year after subordinates said that he passed off murdered civilians as dead guerrillas. The defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos, is easing out other officers and working on reforms of military training. He says that control of territory, rather than bodycount, will henceforth be the army’s performance criterion.

Colombia is only at the beginning of a long and difficult road to peace. Cleaning up the army is a necessary condition for vanquishing the paramilitaries completely, argues Alejandro Reyes, a sociologist at Bogotá’s Rosario university. “Otherwise the civilian population won’t collaborate with the security forces.”

Such collaboration is vital. The FARC are diminished but unbeaten. They think history is going their way: Hugo Chávez in Venezuela has expressed sympathy for them in the past; so has Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s new president. It will take more fighting to persuade them to negotiate, let alone submit to the Justice and Peace Law.

And parapolitics risks weakening Mr Uribe’s grip on Congress. A tax reform that would have raised government revenues has been watered down. The government did manage to renew a wealth tax which should provide $4 billion over the next four years. That money will go into more helicopters, and surveillance gear to try to track down the FARC leadership.

The other task is to achieve lasting security in places like María la Baja. There Pedro Vásquez, a former policeman who spent seven years as a paramilitary leader, says that townspeople still come to him to complain of crimes and extortion “because they don’t trust the police”. Some of his former troops want to return to action, something he doesn’t want to do.

Carlos Gaviria of the centre-left Democratic Pole, Mr Uribe’s defeated opponent in last year’s election, says more is needed than just the presence of the army. The state should be present, too, with “schools, hospitals and job-creation”.

Colombia’s peace process has hitherto relied on the driving will of the president, a workaholic whose face is grey with permanent fatigue. Lacking are teamwork and institutions. Luis Alfonso Hoyos, who heads the president’s social-development agency, points proudly to a situation-room next to his office where representatives from 13 ministries co-ordinate policy and action. But that is in Bogotá, a long way from places like María la Baja.

The Econonist, May 22nd 2008

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