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COLOMBIA / ECUADOR
On the way to war?
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
2/12/2004
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Ecuador’s traditional neutrality towards Colombian conflict is broken.

The capture in Ecuador of a Colombian guerrilla leader, the first joint intelligence operation between the two countries and the United States, and troop mobilizations at the border have drawn Ecuador directly into Colombia’s internal conflict.

Colombian guerrilla commander Juvenal Palmera Pineda, No. 4 in command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and known as Simón Trinidad, was detained in Quito on Jan. 2 in a “routine operation” of migratory control, according to Commander General of the Police Jorge Poveda.

“In the migratory control operations, he (Palmera) was detained on Amazonas Avenue in Quito,” Poveda said in a terse statement.

A 53-year-old economist with a post-graduate degree from Harvard, Palmera left his job as a banker in Valledupar, Colombia, in 1987 to join the FARC. During the peace talks with the government of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) that collapsed in February 2002, Palmera was part of the FARC negotiating team. Palmera — who had 155 orders for his arrest issued in Colombia and should face 59 trials — was in charge of the FARC’s finances.

The day after his arrest, in spite of a request for asylum by Palmera himself, Police Intendant Fabián Villarruel resolved that Palmera be deported and that afternoon he was in the hands of Colombian military officials in the border city of Ipiales.

Perhaps this episode would have gone by without incident if the Colombian Minister of Defense, Jorge Alberto Uribe, had not revealed that Colombian and US agents provided support in Palmera’s capture.

“This is the result of an exemplary operation by our security forces, the Police and the Army in this case, and with the vital high-level support of the government and Police in Ecuador as well as the United States government,” the Colombian minister said.

The Colombian position was backed up by the presentation of videos in which Palmera is observed in several places in Quito, as well as with information that a surveillance operation had been carried out since June of 2003 with the participation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States and Intelligence Directorates of the Colombian Police and Army.

However, Ecuador’s Minister of Government, Raúl Baca Carbo — who had taken over the post in the last week of December — said that “we do not tolerate police operations in our country without the necessary permits and I think in this regard our sovereignty has to be defended.” He also denied having known about foreign military operations in the country.

The Minister of Foreign Relations Patricio Zuquilanda said that he had not given permission “for military personnel, and much less armed, to enter the country.”

The statements of Baca and Zuquilanda differed with those of Marty Estell, director of Public Affairs of the US Embassy in Quito, who said that her government “has worked very closely and for a long time with the Ecuadoran police, for this reason we are very happy with the job.” She added that, in this case, Colombian and Ecuadoran agents participated and “all the laws of the country were respected.”

In statements to the Colombian press on Jan. 4, Ecuadoran president Lucio Gutiérrez acknowledged the tripartite cooperation in this operation.

“This helps to improve the security in our countries, and hopefully this will be one more ingredient so that our peoples understand that the only way we have to follow is one of dialogue, peace, one of burying forever violence as a solution to our differences,” Gutiérrez said.

The series of explanations provided by authorities did not satisfy Ecuadoran legislators which is why Baca had to go before Congress on Jan. 22 to explain the violations of national sovereignty, as military and intelligence operations had been carried out without the proper permits. According to the El Tiempo newspaper of Bogotá, “eight Colombian military personnel were carrying out surveillance of the guerrilla leader for six months; these were acting as undercover agents.”

Baca once again denied having known about any such occurrences and asked that Palmera’s activities in Ecuador be investigated. “What we should be worried about is what he was doing in Quito,” said the minister, adding that the case was closed.

The questions about the participation of the Ecuadoran government in Palmera’s arrest and its cooperation with the Colombian government increased when it became known that the army had ordered an impressive military operation on Jan. 26, sending 300 soldiers of Jungle Batallion 29 Napo into Pueblo Nuevo in Sucumbíos to seize arms and provisions allegedly belonging to the FARC’s Block 48. Block 48 operates in Teteyé, a Colombian town located next to Pueblo Nuevo and separated only by a river 10 meters wide.

Analysts agreed that with these operations Ecuador’s traditional neutrality towards the internal Colombian conflict was broken and that the second phase of Plan Colombia — corresponding to the regionalization of this country’s internal conflict — appeared to have begun. This phase is seen to involve coordination in operations between the intelligence services and military and police forces of countries that, due to pressure from the United States, would be willing to get involved in Colombia’s conflict.


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