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FARC No. 2 Dies in Combat
Colombian army operation sparks a row among its neighbors
Alan Mota (al0021)     Print Article 
Published 2008-03-03 06:09 (KST)   
Luis Edgar Devia, better known as Raul Reyes, a top member of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), was killed on Saturday during a Colombian airstrike on a FARC hideout in Ecuador, approximately 2 kilometers from the border.

Seventeen other 17 guerrillas were also killed in the operation, which involved ground forces that approached the base through the jungle as a complement to the airborne attack.

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Reyes was considered by many to be FARC's No. 2 man and a possible successor to the guerilla organization's 77-year-old head Manuel Marulanda. He was also a member of what is called the FARC's "ruling secretariat," a group of around seven people who run the 6,000- to 8,000-soldier army, and considered a sort of "unofficial" ambassador for the group.

In 2000, during the round of negotiations between Colombia and the FARC that took place in Europe, Reyes was one of the members of the delegations set up by the guerrillas to go around the continent in peace talks -- something unexpected for a known hard-liner.

The Colombian operation may weaken the guerrilla force's position and break down the "myth" about its ability to dodge military incursions in the jungle and disappear without difficulty.

Unfortunately, it may also be a dangerous breach of Ecuadorian sovereignty, raising tensions in the region and turning a major victory against the FARC into a nightmare.

First, there's the way the operation was conducted.

According to official accounts from the Colombian army, Reyes was killed in Ecuadorian territory during an air strike that took place on Ecuadorian territory. As of now, it is known that President Alvaro Uribe, who based most of career as head of state on his tough approach against the guerrilla force, has gotten in touch with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, but it was not clear if it happened before or after the attack. Correa has said that "the incident must be clarified a bit."

But the worst reaction to the strike on Reyes came, not surprisingly, from Venezuela and its president, Hugo Chavez. Chavez, who has recently served as a mediator -- not recognized by Uribe -- and third party in the Colombian conflict, called the Colombian incursion on Ecuadorian territory "irresponsible" and "worrisome." He said that a similar move on his country's territory would mean "war."

This represents more than just the latest feud between the two Andean presidents in a string of diplomatic bickering that started with problems over the hostage mediation agreement made by Chavez and Uribe. It is a serious and belligerent statement that could heighten tensions between the countries. And this time around, Chavez might not be the only one to blame.

If the incursion into Ecuador was unauthorized, Colombia might have set a dangerous precedent for other incursions and army operations in the continent. Plus, it makes it much harder for Colombia to ask for cooperation from neighboring countries in future operations, something very necessary considering that FARC forces often disappears into the Amazon rainforest and hide near the border in countries such as Ecuador, Peru and Brazil.

Second, there's the effect the operation will have on FARC forces.

At first glance, the operation was a major hit against the paramilitary forces, and it's likely to have done permanent damage to the hierarchy and even to have destabilized the group to a certain extent. But on second look, no matter the importance of Reyes, the FARC are still very strong, and a retaliation operation would not go unnoticed by the Colombian army or the people, especially by those in the countryside who are closer to the territory dominated by the guerrillas.

So far there hasn't been an official announcement from the group, but this doesn't mean that there is no reason to worry.

The situation becomes more unsettling when considering the hostages that the FARC holds, especially as Reyes' death comes during an important negotiation effort that could have the guerrilla release some of its most important hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who has been held for more than six years.

Betancourt's situation has once again made headlines around the world because of her critical state of health -- physical and mental. French President Nicholas Sarkozy himself has offered to fly to Colombia in an effort to negotiate her release.

The negotiations were in progress and the FARC were said to be willing to cooperate further, having earlier released four hostages in a deal brokered by Chavez.

Until the FARC makes a statement, everything is uncertain. Not only the hostage release but also the current balance between the two sides -- always fragile -- could be closer to a collapse. Any development that undermined this equilibrium would be likely to trigger a major reaction from either side, a reaction that could set the FARC-Colombia situation back a few years.

Among the possible developments, the death of Betancourt is particularly worrisome. In the six years since her abduction she has became a symbol of resistance for Colombians, a very important card in the FARC's game and a major concern for the Colombian government. Is she dies, especially now, Uribe and his government would face one of the biggest embarrassments of his political career, something that would call for an appropriate reaction.

From this moment on, it is very hard to predict how bad things could turn for the South American country.

Yet it's hard to admonish Colombia and its effort to bring down a guerrilla force that dominates 15 to 20 percent of the country's territory, protects the drug lords who give the nation a bad name, defies daily the sovereignty of its army and government and hides in neighboring territories. It's hard to criticize an army that saw the possibility of hitting its biggest enemy where it hurt and potentially weakening it -- it's hard to say the operation was a bad move, under a number of aspects. But under the most important aspect of any move of such magnitude, politically, the killing of Reyes was extremely risky, to say the least.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Alan Mota

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