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Terrorism in the Region: “FARC Files” Released

May 12, 2011

In what has come to be known as the 2008 Andean diplomatic crisis, the Colombian military conducted a mission about two miles across the border with Ecuador in order to take out Raúl Reyes, the FARC’s #2 man. It goes without saying that Ecuador and Venezuela were displeased with the ‘assassination’. Within hours, both Ecuador and Venezuela deployed troops to their borders with Colombia as they decried the mission, which had been conducted without the knowledge of Ecuador.

In addition to killing Reyes, the mission yielded a significant amount of intelligence with the seizure of roughly 30 years’ worth of strategic documents from laptops, flash drives, and email archives found in the FARC camp. The analysis process began with an in-depth forensic review by INTERPOL, assessing the integrity and potential for actionable intel. Here’s the description provided by INTERPOL in a press release:

In non-technical terms, this volume of data would correspond to 39.5 million filled pages in Microsoft Word and, if all of the seized data were in Word format, it would take more than 1,000 years to read at a rate of 100 pages per day. To break the 983 encrypted files, INTERPOL’s experts linked and ran 10 computers simultaneously 24 hours a day / 7 days a week for two weeks.

It is important to note that INTERPOL also indicated that the “first responders” failed to adhere to international standards for handling such documents; nevertheless, they found that the documents had not been tampered with, and the Colombian government took great care to uphold international principles once it retrieved the files. After the INTERPOL screening, the Colombian government then handed the documents over to London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

The IISS’ Nigel Inkster and James Smith Lockhart oversaw an extensive two-year project, analyzing everything. On Tuesday, the results were released: a 240-page book called The FARC Files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the Secret Archive of “Raúl Reyes”. It was accompanied by a summary and opening remarks by Mr. Inkster.

First, the dossier revealed that the overall strategic objectives of the FARC:

  1. To secure military and financial support;
  2. To secure international political support and legitimisation;
  3. To undermine efforts by the Colombian government to develop foreign security and cross-border cooperation; and
  4. To establish and maintain safe havens in neighbouring states.

While methods and strategies might have evolved, the FARC Files explains that the strategic objectives of the FARC remained constant throughout the period studied.

Here’s a summary of some of the other major findings regarding FARC relations with states and other political actors:

• The FARC, initially organized in the 1960’s, long sought refuge in Venezuela. The election of Hugo Chávez was a turning point. Chávez has allowed the FARC to use Venezuelan territory for refuge, cross-border operations, and political activity.

• The Venezuelan government also funded the FARC’s office in Caracas while the DISIP (recently renamed the Bolivarian Intelligence Service), Venezuela’s equivalent to the CIA, supported FARC efforts by providing intel.

• In return, the FARC helped the DISIP by providing training in urban terrorism, to include targeted killings and use of explosive devices.

• Chávez played his cards with the FARC carefully and strategically based on the fact that the FARC needed his support more than he needed the FARC. Chávez is a fair-weather friend to the FARC. (Note: In light of the IISS’ April 21st announcement of the May 10th target date for publishing the FARC Files, this would explain Chávez’s recent efforts to divert attention from himself by pinning blame on his political allies for collaborating with the FARC, as well as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ recent statement that Chávez has actually been helpful in the fight against the FARC.)

• In 2004, two major incidents involving the FARC embarrassed and infuriated Chávez, so he cut off all support for approximately 18 months. By 2006, Chávez had come to see that FARC as a strategic ally against U.S. interests within the region, so he offered the FARC $300 million in financial support. However, the documents provided no proof that this payment was ever delivered.

• The documents also suggested a proposed three-way agreement between the FARC, Venezuela, and Belarus for procurement of weapons, but again, there is no proof that this three-way agreement ever materialized.

• Hugo Chávez requested that the FARC assassinate at least two of his political opponents. The archives provide only fragmentary evidence that the FARC ever seriously considered following through.

• As for Ecuador, the FARC provided approximately US$400,000 in contributions to Rafael Correa’s presidential campaign. $100,000 came from the FARC directly, while they secured $300,000 from FARC allies.

• There is also substantial documentation to prove working relations between the FARC and the ETA, a terrorist group working with the Basque Separatist Movement in Spain. However, there is nothing to indicate that the Venezuelan government encouraged this partnership.

It’s pretty uncommon for files like these to enter the public domain while an insurgent group is still active. This report has the potential to significantly influence diplomatic relations within the Andean Region. Initial responses to the FARC Files have varied greatly between nations.

Predictably, the Venezuelan government was quick to criticize the report. The Venezuelan Embassy in London issued a statement that the report is “part of an aggressive propaganda tool”, noting that the Colombian Supreme Court has already ruled that the electronic evidence is inadmissible in court for the prosecution of Colombian politicians.

The Embassy likely received some of its information from the same IPS News report cited in an article by Greg Grandin and Miguel Tinker Salas for the Guardian, which states that members of the Colombian “first responder” anti-terrorism team modified 9,440 files and deleted 2,905 others, referencing INTERPOL’s forensic unit. The official INTERPOL press release (referenced previously) does make some concessions:

Other key findings confirm that the Colombian Judicial Police computer forensic experts followed internationally recognized principles in the handling of electronic evidence from the time they received the exhibits on 3 March 2008. However, between 1 and 3 March, direct access to the seized computer exhibits by Colombia’s first responder anti-terrorist unit in order to view and download their contents did not follow internationally recognized principles in the handling of electronic evidence under ordinary circumstances.

However, it seems to contradict the IPS report by not even alluding to modified or deleted files. In fact, INTERPOL went on to say that:

INTERPOL’s experts verified that this direct access and downloading had no effect on the content of any of the user files on the eight seized computer exhibits.

I was unable to verify the statistics provided by IPS and then quoted by Grandin. It’s possible that they were included in another press release that I simply could not find. However, given the sheer volume of information contained in multiple laptops, hard drives, and flash drives, it seems unlikely to me that the first responders would have had time to plant the equivalent of 30 years of its own propaganda in only three days (March 1st-March 3rd) before handing it over to the Colombian Judicial Police.

Meanwhile, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa denies having received funding from the FARC for the political campaign that led to his election in 2006. It’s been a rough couple of days for Correa, given that the results of a key referendum of 10 issues he proposed might not go entirely in his favor. After initial reports of a landslide on all ten issues, it now looks as though two proposals that were seen by many as an attempt to consolidate power in the executive might not pass after all. Correa is also facing recent allegations by a senior DEA official that under the Correa administration, Ecuador has become a key international hub for the cocaine industry.

Surprisingly, Colombian President Santos’ response was to downplay the report, calling for Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador to “turn the page” on diplomatic history. One of the tenets of Santos’ foreign policy within the Andean Region is to improve relations with Venezuela and Ecuador. In pursuit of this goal, Santos–who, as defense minister in 2008, was the one who actually ordered the mission into Ecuador–seems to be ignoring recent history. Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguín stated that she hopes the FARC Files will not damage the progress they’ve been making on strengthening regional relations. According to James Lockhart Smith, this intel suggests that “cautious optimism” would be an appropriate response to recent diplomatic strides in Colombia-Venezuela relations. Chávez is a “leopard who can change his spots”, so there is no guarantee that the situation will not change.

In sharp contrast, InterAmerican Security Watch reports that HR 247 was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on May 4th, calling for Venezuela to be designated a state sponsor of terrorism. While the resolution, introduced almost a week before the release of the FARC Files, was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Relations, it is likely to quickly gain bipartisan support given the findings detailed in the FARC Files.

Mr. Inkster will be speaking in DC on May 12th, and Mr. Smith will be answering questions via Twitter on May 16th. You can also watch the (59:32 minute) official launch, and Mr. Inkster’s interview (en español) with CNN’s Patricia Janiot. The New York Times also provides a useful and timely overview of the book.

In essence, the FARC Files has confirmed what we’ve known all along: Venezuela has a longstanding, well-established relationship with the FARC. Moreover, the relationship between Ecuador and the FARC is blossoming. But we now have a better understanding of the dynamics of these strategic partnerships–and what the FARC can do (and has done) for Venezuela, in particular. And, perhaps most important, we finally have proof of these things from the FARC itself.

It’s always possible that future peace talks will be successful; however, the FARC Files showed no evidence that the guerillas had taken any of the previous peace talks (at least up to the March 2008 capture of the documents) seriously. In the words of Mr. Inkster, despite the death of Reyes, the FARC “has done the one thing all insurgent groups must do: it has lived to fight another day.”

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