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Colombia: Behind the freeing of Ingrid Betancourt

By Stuart Munckton

July 5, 2008 -- On July 2, an operation by the Colombian military succeeded in freeing French-Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who had held her prisoner since 2002. Betancourt was the highest-profile FARC-held prisoner and the action, which also liberated 14 other prisoners, captured world headlines.

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More on the struggle in Colombia HERE.

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On July 2, an operation by the Colombian military succeeded in freeing French-Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who had held her prisoner since 2002. Betancourt was the highest-profile FARC-held prisoner and the action, which also liberated 14 other prisoners, captured world headlines.

The liberating of the prisoners was widely celebrated, including by the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez, which has been involved in negotiating with the FARC for the release of its prisoners. According to a Venezuelanalysis.com article, Chavez stated: “We share the jubilation … for the liberation of these persons …”

Chavez reiterated his call, first made in January, for the FARC to release all of its remaining prisoners, and Venezuela’s foreign affairs ministry stated “we wish that this event will open the path to humanitarian accord, the dismantling of war, and the extraordinary achievement of peace”.

Strengthening militarism

While the liberation is welcome, there is little doubt the use of a military raid to free prisoners will be used by the Colombian regime headed by President Alvaro Uribe to strengthen its policies of using military might to crush the four decades-long insurgency by the FARC and, under the cover of fighting “terrorism”, strengthen the repressive apparatus of the Colombian state and its allied death squads against social movements and trade unionists. More trade unionists are killed in Colombia every year than in any other country.

While the military raid will be presented as evidence of the success of Uribe’s strategy, the full story will remain omitted from the corporate media. There was a very real alternative to liberating Betancourt other than through a military raid, an alternative that had, and still has, the potential to lead to a lasting peaceful solution to Colombia’s civil war.

Last year, under intense pressure over a growing paramilitary scandal engulfing his government, Uribe invited Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to help negotiate a humanitarian exchange of around 40 prisoners held by the FARC for the hundreds of FARC fighters held in Colombian and US prisons. A successful prisoner exchange could have been the first step to a peace settlement to end the fighting.

However, just as it looked like Chavez’s negotiations were making headway, Uribe unilaterally ended his role on a flimsy pretext, scuttling hopes for a negotiated exchange. As a sign of goodwill for Chavez’s intentions, the FARC subsequently released six prisoners unilaterally to the Venezuelan government earlier this year.

Plans for any further unilateral releases, potentially including Betancourt, were literally blown apart by the Colombian military on March 1 when it illegally bombed a FARC campsite inside the Ecuadorian border that killed more than 20 people, including civilians. Among those killed was FARC leader and chief spokesperson Raul Reyes, who was in charge of negotiations over Betancourt’s release.

The liberation of Betancourt could have occurred through an exchange of prisoners last year, had Uribe not ended the process. It is possible she could have been released unilaterally had the FARC negotiator not been murdered. Both possibilities could have been the basis for a serious peace process to begin.

A June 2 Bolpress.com article by Isaac Bigio argued that the action “will strengthen Uribe in his battle with the supreme court (which is questioning the ‘legality’ of his election and the fact that 20% of his parliamentarians are tied to paramilitaries) and his moves towards a new election (hoping to extend his mandate, which according to the constitution should end in 2010)”.

“It will also benefit [US Republican presidential candidate John] McCain (who recently went to Colombia) and his hardline ‘anti-terrorist’ strategy in front of [Democratic candidate Barack] Obama (who has asked for a meeting with Chavez and to put a freeze on a Free Trade Agreement with Bogota)”, Bigio argued.

Weakening the continental left

That fact that Uribe succeeded in liberating Betancourt without conceeding anything in return means “his image, as much domestically as internationally, will grow and the continental right wing will want to validate itself in order to launch a counteroffensive against the governments and leftist parties of the region”, according to the article.

“It could have an impact on the US electoral race given that the Republicans will want to use this to maintain themselves in power, demonstrating that the best way to defeat ‘terrorism’ is with investing more in intelligence and military actions.”

Bigio argued in relation to the FARC that “a guerrilla force that discredited itself by carrying out unpopular military actions ends up weakening the left itself … and helps in the consolidation of forces that want a greater liberalisation of the economy.”

He argued that the FARC has been dealt a “strong blow” and “may face new crises at a time when they have changed their leader for the first time”.

“The defeat of the FARC would have repercussions within the left”, he said. “While one sector will come out of this concluding that individual and isolated violence conspires against their ideals of organising towards a mass uprising, the majority of ‘socialists’ will look to distance themselves from all violent acts in order to appear as ‘moderates’ capable of being good democrats.”

On other hand, “Uribe will want to convert himself into the most popular president in the region and a symbol that the opponents of Chavez, [Ecuadorian President Rafael] Correa, [Bolivian President Evo] Morales and [Nicaraguan President Daniel] Ortega can use to undermine the advance of the ‘pink wave’ in Latin America”.

Uribe’s victory “will be used by the Venezuelan opposition to hit out at Chavez in the Venezuelan regional elections” in November, while it will also be used by the opposition to the Morales government in Bolivia, Bigio concluded.

It is clear the Uribe regime does not want peace, but wishes to cynically use the FARC-held prisoners as political pawns, using the threat of “terrorism” to advance its agenda of staying in power on the back of increased militarisation and hostility to progressive movements — in Colombia and the region.

From Green Left Weekly issue #757 9 July 2008

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Daniel Ortega, Nicaraguan president (FSLN) on Betancourt

Ortega warns of a popular insurrection against rightwing attempts to topple Sandinista government

[This report is based on news coverage from Managua’s Radio La Primerisima. Source: http://www.radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias/general/32963 ]


By Felipe Stuart C.


On Saturday, July 5, President Daniel Ortega warned the US Embassy financed opposition to avoid provoking the people. Ortega spoke to thousands of sympathizers in an act commemorating the 29th anniversary of the retreat of revolutionary forces from the capital during the popular insurrection against the Somoza dictatorship. Youth made a strong presence in the vast throng, along with public sector unionists and militants of the FSLN and the Citiznes’ Power Councils (CPC).


The original June 27, 1979 retreat from Managua to the city of Masaya, about 26 kilometers southeast of the capital, was a tactical operation. It included the urban guerrilla forces of the Sandinista National Liberation Front and thousands of civilians, following several weeks of resisting the assaults of the Somocista army (Guardia Somocista) in the western and eastern barrios of the city.


The guerrillas left the eastern barrios in total silence under cover of the dark. Some six thousand civilians joined the retreat because they feared being killed when the army entered the barrios that had been held by the Sandinistas. When the army detected the procession half way on its march to Masaya, they proceeded to bombard it from the air and with artillery, causing dozens of casualties. But the Guardia failed to block the success of the operation whose additional objective was to reinforce the taking of the southern cities of the country. Less than a month later, these forces would bring about the total defeat of the National Guard of the dictator Anastasio Somoza.


In his message to the rally at the beginning of the commemoration, Ortega said, “We render homage to all the heroes and martyrs on this day. We say to them that will never betray their ideals and their principles. We are Sandinistas, we are anti-imperialists, we are revolutionaries, we are solidary, socialists. And we will keep on defending our ideals and our principles in all battlefields.


“We love peace, but we are ready to resort to the arms of steel if they try to bring down the power of the people.”


Ortega added that “it would be better for those who are on the take from the US embassy to respect the norms and not provoke the people. We want reconciliation but not at the cost of the poor and enrichment of the rich.”


“Wherever our enemies look for us, there they will find us. Wherever the country sell-outs look for us, there they will meet us. Wherever the traitors look for us, there they will find us. Wherever those on the take from the Yankee embassy look for us, there they will encounter us, ready, as our great poet Rubén Darío would say, to raise steel arms of war and the olive branch of peace. We love peace, but we are also ready to take up arms if they try to overthrow people’s power, citizens’ power – what they are now calling a dictatorship. If they try to overthrow the “dictatorship,” which for us is nothing more than the power of the people, the power of the poor, then they are again going to run up against the insurrection of the people, with the insurrection of the masses, with the insurrection of the poor.”


Ortega warned those conspiring to bring down the Sandinista government to think though the logic of their actions. “It would be better for those who are conspiring, for those financed by the Yankees, for those who are financed by the imperialists, to respect the institutional norms that exist in our country; it would be better for them not to provoke the people, to not provoke the poor, to not provoke the farmers, because this power is of the people, it is greatly esteemed Sandinista power.


“It is the power of the people, Sandinista power, a red and black power to defend the country’s blue and white flag. Only (Augusto C.) Sandino with the red and black standard knew how to defend the blue and white flag of the country; only the Frente Sandinista, inheritor of Sandino’s flag, this red and black flag, has known how to keep on defending the blue and white flag of the homeland.”


Ortega argued that this “is the only way that Nicaraguans can enjoy peace and tranquility. We want reconciliation, but not at the cost of exploitation of the poor, nor at the cost of making the rich richer, and the poor, poorer, not at the cost of robbing campesinos of their land, or depriving the people of access to health care and education."


All these conquests were taken from our people beginning in 1990, but are now being regained by the Nicaraguan people through the Government of National Unity and Reconciliation. We have been recovering those conquests since January 10, 2007; we are defending those conquests, and we will keep on recovering more conquests and defending new conquests under the chant of Homeland or Death (Patria Libre o Morir)!”


Ingrid Betancourt's liberation

Ortega used the rally to explain his government’s response to the freeing of and other FARC captives in Colombia. He welcomed the captives’ liberation, but pointed out that only a political solution can bring about peace in that country. President Ortega reminded his listeners that the FARC is not alone in holding political prisoners. “The Colombian army holds captive thousands of human beings; human beings are being held captive not just on one side, but on the other, and they have been submitted to terrible tortures.


“There are signs of harsh treatment of captives by the guerrillas, but also of torture and violation of human rights and disappearances committed by the army and its paramilitary groups.”


Ortega re-affirmed that under no condition would Nicaragua betray its commitment to the three women who were wounded in the attack on a FARC encampment in Ecuador that resulted in the death of dozens of people including FARC leader and negotiator Raúl Reyes. The three include two Colombians (Doris Torres and Martha Pérez) and the Mexican Lucia Morett; they have been granted save haven in Nicaragua. Ortega stated that the Mexicans who were present in the encampment had no military role, but were there as part of a peace initiative. Nicaragua has rejected the Colombian governments demand that the three women be sent to Colombia to face “terrorism” charges. Ortega, in a speech earlier this week warned Colombian president Uribe not to send death squads into Nicaragua to try to kill the three “muchachas.”


The FSLN leader drew a graphic contrast between the Colombian army attack in Ecuador and the liberation of the group of prisoners including Betancourt and three US CIA agents. “Imagine the contrast. On the one hand they resort to state terrorism to attack and encampment in Ecuadoran territory, killing dozens of Colombia, Ecuadoran, and Mexican brothers and sisters, and gravely wounded these three young women; on the other hand, two or three days ago, without firing a single shot, they managed to rescue 15 people.


“What does this tell us? That it is possible to win release of prisoners without firing a single shot, it is possible to attain a negotiated liberation, without firing a sing shot.”


Ortega offered Nicaragua’s unconditional support to a peace process in Colombia. But, “we insist that the Colombian government and its army renounce any resort to acts of terrorism against their own brothers, Colombian brothers, Latin American brothers….”

Betancourt thanks Hugo Chavez

Venezuela: Lies, Kidnapping and a Mysterious Laptop
July 7th 2008, by Johann Hari - The Independent

Sometimes you hear a stray sentence on the news that makes you realise you have been lied to. Deliberately lied to; systematically lied to; lied to for a purpose. If you listened closely over the past few days, you could have heard one such sentence passing in the night-time of news.

As Ingrid Betancourt emerged after six-and-a-half years – sunken and shrivelled but radiant with courage – one of the first people she thanked was Hugo Chavez. What? If you follow the news coverage, you have been told that the Venezuelan President supports the Farc thugs who have been holding her hostage. He paid them $300m to keep killing and to buy uranium for a dirty bomb, in a rare break from dismantling democracy at home and dealing drugs. So how can this moment of dissonance be explained?

Yes: you have been lied to – about one of the most exciting and original experiments in economic redistribution and direct democracy anywhere on earth. And the reason is crude: crude oil. The ability of democracy and freedom to spread to poor countries may depend on whether we can unscramble these propaganda fictions.

Venezuela sits on one of the biggest pools of oil left anywhere. If you find yourself in this position, the rich governments of the world – the US and EU – ask one thing of you: pump the petrol and the profits our way, using our corporations. If you do that, we will whisk you up the Mall in a golden carriage, no matter what. The "King" of Saudi Arabia oversees a torturing tyranny where half the population – women – are placed under house arrest, and jihadis are pumped out by the dozen to attack us. It doesn't matter. He gives us the oil, so we hold his hand and whisper sweet crude-nothings in his ear.

It has always been the same with Venezuela – until now. Back in 1908, the US government set up its ideal Venezuelan regime: a dictator who handed the oil over fast and so freely that he didn't even bother to keep receipts, never mind ask for a cut. But in 1998 the Venezuelan people finally said "enough". They elected Hugo Chavez. The President followed their democratic demands: he increased the share of oil profits taken by the state from a pitiful one per cent to 33 per cent. He used the money to build hospitals and schools and subsidised supermarkets in the tin-and-mud shanty towns where he grew up, and where most of his countrymen still live.

I can take you to any random barrio in the high hills that ring Caracas and show you the results. You will meet women like Francisca Moreno, a gap-toothed 76-year-old granny I found sitting in a tin shack, at the end of a long path across the mud made out of broken wooden planks. From her doorway she looked down on the shining white marble of Caracas's rich district. "I went blind 15 years ago because of cataracts," she explained, and in the old Venezuela people like her didn't see doctors. "I am poor," she said, "so that was that." But she voted for Chavez. A free clinic appeared two years later in her barrio, and she was taken soon after for an operation that restored her sight. "Once I was blind, but now I see!" she said, laughing.

In 2003, two distinguished Wall Street consulting firms conducted the most detailed study so far of economic change under Chavez. They found that the poorest half of the country have seen their incomes soar by 130 per cent after inflation. Today, there are 19,571 primary care doctors – an increase by a factor of 10. When Chavez came to power, just 35 per cent of Venezuelans told Latinobarometro, the Gallup of Latin America, they were happy with how their democracy worked. Today it is 59 per cent, the second-highest in the hemisphere.

For the rich world's governments – and especially for the oil companies, who pay for their political campaigns – this throws up a serious problem. We are addicted to oil. We need it. We crave it. And we want it on our terms. The last time I saw Chavez, he told me he would like to sell oil differently in the future: while poor countries should get it for $10 a barrel, rich countries should pay much more – perhaps towards $200. And he has said that if the rich countries keep intimidating the rest he will shift to selling to China instead. Start the sweating. But Western governments cannot simply say: "We want the oil, our corporations need the profits, so let's smash the elected leaders standing in our way." They know ordinary Americans and Europeans would gag.

So they had to invent lies. They come in waves, each one swelling as the last crashes into incredulity. First they announced Chavez was a dictator. This ignored that he came to power in a totally free and open election, the Venezuelan press remains uncensored and in total opposition to him, and he has just accepted losing a referendum to extend his term and will stand down in 2013.

When that tactic failed, the oil industry and the politicians they lubricate shifted strategy. They announced that Chavez was a supporter of Terrorism (it definitely has a capital T). The Farc is a Colombian guerrilla group that started in the 1960s as a peasant defence network, but soon the pigs began to look like farmers and they became a foul, kidnapping mafia. Where is the evidence Chavez funded them?

On 1 March, the Colombian government invaded Ecuador and blew up a Farc training camp. A few hours later, it announced it had found a pristine laptop in the rubble, and had already rummaged through the 39.5 million pages of Microsoft Word documents it contained to find cast-iron "proof" that Chavez was backing the Farc. Ingrid's sister, Astrid Betancourt, says it is plainly fake. The camp had been totally burned to pieces and the computers had clearly, she says, been "in the hands of the Colombian government for a very long time". Far from fuelling the guerrillas, Chavez has repeatedly pleaded with the Farc to disarm. He managed to negotiate the release of two high-profile hostages – hence Betancourt's swift thanks. He said: "The time of guns has passed. Guerilla warfare is history."

So what now? Now they claim he is a drug dealer, he funds Hezbollah, he is insane. Sometimes they even stumble on some of the real non-fiction reasons to criticise Chavez and use them as propaganda tools. (See our Open House blog later today for a discussion of this). As the world's oil supplies dry up, the desire to control Venezuela's pools will only increase. The US government is already funding separatist movements in Zulia province, along the border with Colombia, where Venezuela's largest oilfields lie. They hope they can break away this whiter-skinned, anti-Chavez province and then drink deep of the petrol there.

Until we break our addiction to oil, our governments will always try to snatch petro-profits away from women like Francisca Moreno. And we – oil addicts all – will be tempted to ignore the strange, dissonant sentences we sometimes hear on the news and lie, blissed-out, in the lies.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

Improbable Database of a Farc Commander

July 7th 2008, by Maurice Lemoine - Le Monde Diplomatique

Media attention following Ingrid Betancourt's dramatic release from captivity should not obscure a surprising revelation: laptop computers implausibly retrieved from an obliterating air raid on a Farc base in Colombia are being used to sour the country's relations with Ecuador and smear the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, in western and Latin-American media.
The first of 10 smart bombs guided by GPS hit its target at 00.25 on 1 March 2008, less than two kilometres from the Ecuador-Colombia border, along the Putomayo river. Four Blackhawk OH-60 helicopters appeared out of the darkness with 44 special commandos from Colombia's rapid deployment force on board. But there was no fighting: the temporary camp of the Farc (the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) had been destroyed by the explosions and 23 people killed in their sleep (1). Among them was Raúl Reyes, the Farc's second-in-command and the group's "foreign minister". His remains were taken back to Colombia by ground troops as a trophy.

Early that morning the Colombian president Alvaro Uribe contacted his Ecuadorian counterpart, Rafael Correa, to brief him on the raid: the Colombian airborne unit had been attacked from within Ecuador and had pursued the rebels in legitimate self-defence. But, he assured Correa, their return of fire came from Colombian territory and didn't violate Ecuador's airspace. Colombia's defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos, gave the same assurance later.

Initially Correa took Uribe at his word. Until this incident they had been on good terms and spoke on the phone every day. Two weeks before, Correa had said in private to one of the close advisers of the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez: "Tell Chávez that I get on very well with Uribe and that if he wants I can help smooth things out between them." Correa felt betrayed, a feeling compounded when Ecuadorian military personnel arrived at the bombed camp: not only had the Colombians violated Ecuadorian territory, they had also, as Correa put it in a press conference on 2 March, conducted "a massacre".

Reyes' death sparked a crisis. Ecuador severed diplomatic relations with Colombia and deployed 11,000 men along its border. Venezuela also sent 10 battalions to its border. "We don't want war," Chávez warned, "but we won't allow the [North American] empire, nor its little dog [Colombia], to weaken us." Nor were they willing to allow it to act with impunity on its neighbours' territory.

Unanimously rejected

The word "condemnation" was avoided, but South American governments unanimously "rejected" Colombia's incursion. The United States supported Bogotá in the name of the "war on terror". Craig Kelly, principal deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, explained: "What we have said is firstly that a state must defend itself against the threat of terrorism and that when you talk about a border, you have to consider the general context, which [in this case] is a continual violation of the borders by the Farc." An interviewer asked: "Does that mean that, for example, if Mexico pursued drug traffickers _into the US, the US wouldn't have any objection to Mexican forces entering its territory?" Kelly replied: "I'm not going to get into a theoretical discussion" (2).

There has been speculation about the planes used on 1 March. Five Brazilian-made Supertucanos EMB314s and three US-manufactured A-37 attack aircraft have been mentioned, but the bombs couldn't have been released from either of those planes. One thing is certain: weapons of the same sophisticated kind did a lot of damage during the US invasion of Iraq.

The long arm of Washington was also discernible when Correa made other discoveries, notably that his military command had lied to him. Tension peaked when General Jorge Gabela, the Ecuadorian air force commander, revealed that the radar nearest to Santa Rosa, the zone where the Farc camp was located, had been down for maintenance for several days. Correa sacked the head of the army's intelligence services, Colonel Mario Pazmiño, and announced in a broadcast to the nation that "the CIA has totally infiltrated some of Ecuador's military intelligence bodies". He also replaced defence minister Wellington Sandoval with loyalist Javier Ponce. Correa's reassertion of his authority also led to the resignations of the joint chief of staff and the heads of the army, navy and air force.

Correa soon began to see the consequences of his actions. He had announced in his election campaign that he would close the US base at Manta. The lease on this "foreign operating location" granted to the US in 1999 expires in 2009. On 28 February the assembly set up to "refound the country" adopted an article which asserts that "Ecuador is a land of peace; foreign military bases or foreign installations with military purpose will not be allowed." With its state-of-the-art technology, Manta plays a key role in US military support for Colombia. During the operation on 1 March it would have controlled the air space the mystery planes overflew.

Opening salvo

The Colombian government announced that during the raid its army had seized a laptop (later increased to three laptops) belonging to Reyes, which revealed that both Chávez and Correa have close links to the Farc.

In the absence of hard evidence, questions arise. Reyes' main camp is known to be in Colombia near the border. In that region the Farc have many hiding places, secret shelters and secondary camps. Yet the guerrilla leader had apparently gone to Ecuador with three laptops, two hard drives and three USB drives - everything but the kitchen sink. According to the Ecuadorian army, the 10 missiles made craters 2.4m wide and 1.8m deep and destroyed the vegetation all around, yet the computers emerged without a scratch.

What a tale those laptops told. The Spanish daily El País, which is the spearhead of a campaign against the progressive governments of Latin America, didn't stop to question the authenticity of the revelations. On 12 March its readers learned in an article, "Farc finds refuge in Ecuador", that "guerrillas drive around the north of Ecuador in vans, as a member of the OEA (Organisation of American States) attested. He privately expressed astonishment at encountering fully equipped guerrillas in restaurants in border country."

What readers didn't see was a letter sent to the editor of El País on 15 March by the OEA's secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, in which he expressed his "astonishment and indignation": "I can assure you that this claim is absolutely false. The OEA does not have special missions, nor does it have representatives at any level deployed on Ecuador's northern border, therefore it is impossible that any member of the organisation could have made such a statement" (3).

Reyes and his guerrillas were in Ecuador. Reyes had for months been the key contact for the representatives from France, Spain, Venezuela and Ecuador negotiating hostage releases, including that of the French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt. The Farc have long been intransigent over their demand for direct dialogue with the Colombian government. They insisted on "humanitarian exchange" - hostages for guerrillas - or nothing. Their aim is political: to achieve the status of legitimate combatants by gaining recognition from the Colombian government. The Farc have been on the list of terrorist organisations since 2002 but have never accepted that they are terrorists. Uribe wanted to avoid giving them recognition at all costs.

Chávez mediates

The mediation which Chávez set in motion on 31 August 2007 broke a stalemate that had lasted since 2002. The guerrillas freed seven hostages unconditionally, leading Caracas to say: "The Farc are using a more political logic, which is a positive sign for how things could develop." But hostages warmly thanking members of the Venezuelan government dressed in red must have been a great source of irritation to the Colombian president.

Open dialogue had been ongoing in Caracas through the intermediary of Farc leaders Iván Marquez and Rodrigo Granda, and sometimes even with Reyes at the camp in Ecuador. The French and Ecuador governments knew this. A troubling detail is that a week before the 1 March raid, French representatives met Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, in Panama. Restrepo told them they should stay in contact with Reyes. "He's the one who can help you. He's your man. He can help you get Ingrid freed." This explains Correa's fury: "Look how low Alvaro Uribe has sunk! He knew that in March 12 hostages were going to be freed, including Ingrid Betancourt. He knew that, and still he used his contacts to spring this trap." Kill the negotiator and you kill the negotiation.

But the hostage aspect of this crisis took second place to the revelations at a news conference on 3 March by the director general of the Colombian police, General Oscar Naranjo. He revealed that, based on computer equipment found near Reyes' body, there was an "armed alliance" between the Farc and the Venezuelan government, as well as political and economic links between Correa and the guerrillas from the time of his election campaign.

Media revelation

The media went to town with these "explosive documents" from the seized computers, which the Colombian intelligence services had helpfully filtered. Prominent were the Spanish El País (4) and the Colombian daily El Tiempo, which is owned by the Santos family, to which both the vice-president and the defence minister belong. On 4 March El País ran with "Bogotá unmasks the Farc's support". On 10 May, in the first of a series of articles by Maite Rico, "The Farc papers point the finger at Chávez", readers learnt that "without raising an eyebrow Chávez approved a request for $300m" from the guerrillas. On 12 May the article condemned by the secretary general of OEA appeared. The day before Rico had written of "groups linked to Chávism which regularly train in Farc camps in Venezuela". There were even claims of waiting lists to take part in their courses.

When The Economist wrote about Chávez's generosity in providing $300m to the Farc on 24 May, it mentioned as its source a message from Raúl Reyes reproduced in El País and the Colombian weekly Semana. It also quoted from a document obtained by the Wall Street Journal: "The Venezuelan interior minister, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, asked the Farc to train Venezuelan soldiers in guerrilla tactics." It's unclear whether the Wall Street Journal copied the Miami Herald, which printed the same claim.

The improbable was followed by the bizarre: between 2000 and 2002, the Farc and ETA allegedly planned an attack in Madrid on prominent Colombian figures - the current vice-president Francisco Santos Calderón, the former head of state, Andrés Pastrana, and the former ambassador in Spain Noemi Sanín (El Tiempo, 2 June). BBC Mundo reported on 5 March that the Farc had tried to get hold of uranium to make a dirty bomb.

According to the Reyes documents, Chávez's friendship with the Colombian rebels dated back at least as far as 1992. When he was imprisoned for a failed coup attempt in February that year, he received $150,000 from the Farc (Le Figaro, 5 March and Wall Street Journal, 11 March). He must have spent it all in the prison canteen, because when he was released in 1994, he had no money and had to stay in a small apartment in central Caracas belonging to his future minister of the interior, Luis Miquilena, who also lent him a car.

Though it was more cautious, Le Monde ran a piece on 12 March about a Farc deserter: "According to the deserter, the Farc leader Iván Marquez and its commander-in-chief Manuel Marulanda are staying in Venezuela". That will stick in the reader's mind, as will the Figaro heading "Dangerous liaisons between the Farc and Chávez" (15 May).

In Venezuela, the dailies El Nacional and El Universal, along with the private channels Radio Caracas Télévisión (RCTV) and Globovisión, are having a field day. They are only too happy to broadcast the views of the governor of Zulia state or the former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, accusing president Chávez of betraying the country.

One of the many editorials in the Washington Post about Venezuela sums up this media firestorm: "If managed correctly, the laptop scandal will surely deepen the domestic political hole into which the would-be `Bolivarian' revolutionary is sinking."

Verified by Interpol

Throughout, Bogotá and the media have relied on a seemingly unimpeachable line of defence: the validity of seized documents has been verified by Interpol. And yet, closer examination yields interesting results.

General Naranjo requested Interpol's independent opinion of the eight key "exhibits" (the computer equipment) on 4 March. Interpol's report was presented in Bogotá on 15 May by its secretary general, the American Ronald Noble. He paid extensive tribute at his press conference to General Naranjo, who was seated beside him, and to the Department of State Security (DAS), the political police (5). Naranjo, the former head of the Colombian anti-drug police, had to stand down after his brother, Juan David, was arrested in Germany in March 2007 for drug trafficking. He was implicated by the Venezuelan interior minister for his links with the "narco" Wilmer Varela (assassinated on 29 February). As for the DAS, its former director, Jorge Noguera, was arrested on 22 February 2007 for allowing paramilitaries to use its resources.

According to Noble's report (6) and statements, Interpol's role was limited to "(a) determining the actual data contained in the eight seized Farc computer exhibits, (b) verifying whether the user files had been modified in any way on or after 1 March 2008, and (c) determining whether Colombian law enforcement authorities had handled and examined the eight seized Farc computer exhibits in conformity with internationally recognised principles for handling electronic evidence by law enforcement." But "the remit of the IRT and Interpol's subsequent assistance to Colombia's investigation did not include the analysis of the content of documents, folders or other material on the eight seized Farc computer exhibits. The accuracy and source of the user files contained in the eight seized Farc computer exhibits are and always have been outside the scope of Interpol's computer forensic examination."

Interpol's team of experts, who came from Singapore and Australia and didn't speak Spanish, didn't examine the contents of the files. Perhaps this is understandable: in the 609.6 gigabytes in the eight "exhibits" there were 37,873 text documents, 452 spreadsheets, 210,888 images, 22,481 web pages, 7,989 email addresses (no reference to emails, though they were widely quoted in the media), and 983 encrypted files. "In non-technical terms, such a volume of data would correspond to 39.5 million full pages in Microsoft Word format and . . . would take more than a thousand years to go through it all at a rate of a hundred pages per day."

That's a lot of data for one man to produce. Especially Raúl Reyes, constantly on the move in the jungle, living the dangerous life of a guerrilla. But it wasn't too much data for the Colombian government, which within a few hours had begun releasing a continuous stream of revelations from the files. Nor was it too much for journalists who wove the documents (authenticated by Interpol) into their own stories.

A troubling lack of rigour

The Interpol report shows a troubling lack of rigour. It says Reyes and Guillermo Enrique Torres, alias Julián Conrado, a Farc commander, were killed in the operation (page 10). But Bogotá, which had announced the death of Conrado on _1 March, had to retract that after a DNA examination of the only body (apart from Reyes) brought back by their forces. Similarly, the statement "Farc has been designated a terrorist organisation by Colombia, other governments and Interpol" (page 10) requires qualification. The designation has only been adopted by the US, Colombia, Peru, the EU, and Israel (31 countries in all), or 17% of the 186 countries that are Interpol members.

More significantly, the statement: "the eight seized Farc computer exhibits belonged to Raúl Reyes" or: "the eight seized Farc computer exhibits" (both page 10) should more properly have been: "the eight exhibits given to Interpol by the Colombian authorities". Interpol has accepted the Colombian version of events, though there was no witness present to verify that the equipment was actually found near the body of the Farc leader. This provoked Correa to say on 13 May when he visited Paris: "Who can show that the computers were indeed found in the Farc camp?"

In the first fax Naranjo sent on 4 March to request Interpol help, he mentioned "three computers and three USB devices" (Appendix 2 of the report). In his reply of 5 March, Noble agrees on behalf of his organisation to examine "three computers and three USB keys" (Appendix 3). But on 6 March, in a letter to Interpol from the director of DAS, Maria del Pilar Hurtado, the equipment has become "three laptop computers, the three USB keys and [for the first time] two hard-disc drives" (Appendix 4). Where did these hard drives come from? Had no one noticed them before?

The overall conclusion of the report is that "no data were created, added, modified or deleted on any of the these exhibits between 3 March 2008 at 11.45 am [the date and time when they were entrusted to the computer forensic specialists of the Colombian Judicial Police] and 10 March 2008 when the exhibits were handed over to Interpol's experts to make their image discs" (page 29). It also states that "access to the data . . . [during the same period] conformed to internationally recognised principles for handling electronic evidence by law enforcement" (page 28).

But what happened between 1 March and 3 March? An officer of Colombia's anti-terrorist unit "directly accessed the eight seized Farc computer exhibits under exigent and time-sensitive circumstances" (page 30) and they were all connected to a computer "without prior imaging of their contents and without the use of write-blocking hardware" (page 31). As a result of this, during those three days, "access to data . . . did not conform to internationally recognised principles for handling electronic evidence by law enforcement" (page 8). This is not insignificant, as Interpol discovered that a total of 48,055 files "had either been created, accessed, modified or deleted as a result of the direct access to the eight seized exhibits by Colombian authorities between the time of their seizure on 1 March 2008 and 3 March 2008 at 11.45am" (page 33).

No court of law anywhere could rely on the results of such a report to pass judgment on anyone. But that doesn't stop the rumours or the headlines. The rumour mills are now turning in Ecuador and Venezuela. Even if today the conditions are not yet right for Venezuela to be classed as a terrorist or rogue state, this campaign is creating the right conditions in public opinion. According to Maximilien Arvelaiz, an adviser to President Chávez: "George Bush wants to leave behind a time bomb so that, whatever the outcome of the election in November, it will be very difficult to soften US policy on Venezuela."

But an unforeseen turn of events can never be ruled out -- as has been shown by the spectacular, surprise release by Colombian troops of the French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages, held for years by Farc guerrillas in jungle captivity. ________________________________________________________

(1) Among the dead were an Ecuadorian, four Mexican students and a Colombian soldier killed, not in combat, as Bogotá claimed when it accorded him a state funeral, but by a falling tree.

(2) BBC Mundo, London, 7 March 2008.

(3) www.vtv.gob.ve/detalle.php?s=2&...

(4) The centre-left El País belongs to the multinational Prisa group, which controls more than 1,000 radio stations in Spain, the US, Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina and Chile with a total audience of 30 million listeners.

(5) www.interpol.int/Public/ICPO/speech...

(6) The full public report in English can be downloaded here: www.interpol.int/public/ICPO/PressR...

Translated by George Miller

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