Venezuela Still Aids Colombia Rebels, New Material Shows
By SIMON ROMERO
Published: August 2, 2009
CARACAS, Venezuela — Despite repeated denials by President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan officials have continued to assist commanders of Colombia’s largest rebel group, helping them arrange weapons deals in Venezuela and even obtain identity cards to move with ease on Venezuelan soil, according to computer material captured from the rebels in recent months and under review by Western intelligence agencies.
The materials point to detailed collaborations between the guerrillas and high-ranking military and intelligence officials in Mr. Chávez’s government as recently as several weeks ago, countering the president’s frequent statements that his administration does not assist the rebels. “We do not protect them,” he said in late July.
The new evidence — drawn from computer material captured from the rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — comes at a low point for ties between Venezuela and Colombia. Mr. Chávez froze diplomatic relations in late July, chafing at assertions by Colombia’s government that Swedish rocket launchers sold to Venezuela ended up in the hands of the FARC. Venezuela’s reaction was also fueled by Colombia’s plans to increase American troop levels there.
“Colombia’s government is trying to build a case in the media against our country that serves its own political agenda,” said Bernardo Álvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador in Washington, describing the latest intelligence information as “noncorroborated.”
Mr. Chávez has disputed claims of his government’s collaboration with the rebels since Colombian forces raided a FARC encampment in Ecuador last year. During the raid, Colombian commandos obtained the computers of a FARC commander with encrypted e-mail messages that described a history of close ties between Mr. Chávez’s government and the rebel group, which has long crossed over into Venezuelan territory for refuge.
The newest communications, circulated among the seven members of the FARC’s secretariat, suggest that little has changed with Venezuela’s assistance since the raid. The New York Times obtained a copy of the computer material from an intelligence agency that is analyzing it.
One message from Iván Márquez, a rebel commander thought to operate largely from Venezuelan territory, describes FARC’s plan to buy surface-to-air missiles, sniper rifles and radios in Venezuela last year.
It is not clear whether the arms Mr. Márquez refers to ended up in FARC hands. But he wrote that the effort was facilitated by Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, the director of Venezuela’s police intelligence agency until his removal last month, and by Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, a former Venezuelan interior minister who served as Mr. Chávez’s official emissary to the FARC in negotiations to free hostages last year.
In the message, Mr. Márquez discusses a plan by Mr. Rodríguez Chacín to carry out the deal near the Negro River in Amazonas State in Venezuela. Mr. Márquez goes further, explaining that General Rangel Silva, the former Venezuelan intelligence chief, gave the arms dealers documents they could use to move around freely while in Venezuela.
Intelligence of this kind has been a source of tension between Colombia and Venezuela, with the government here claiming the information is false and used to further political ends. Colombian officials, by contrast, argue that the intelligence proves that the FARC survives in part on its ability to operate from Venezuela’s frontier regions.
The latest evidence, suggesting that FARC operates easily in Venezuela, may put the Obama administration in a tough spot. President Obama has recently tried to repair Washington’s relations with Venezuela, adopting a nonconfrontational approach to Mr. Chávez that stands in contrast to the Bush administration’s often aggressive response to Mr. Chávez’s taunts and insults.
But the United States and the European Union still classify the FARC as a terrorist organization. The Treasury Department last year accused Mr. Rangel Silva and Mr. Rodríguez Chacín of assisting the FARC’s drug trafficking activities, opening the officials to freezes on their assets, fines and prison terms of up to 30 years in the United States. Venezuela has said the men are not guilty of those charges.
“We do not comment on intelligence matters,” said Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman, in relation to the latest captured communications.
Computer records obtained in the Colombian raid in Ecuador last year appeared to corroborate the claim that Venezuela helped the FARC acquire the Swedish-made rocket launchers at the heart of the latest diplomatic dispute between the two countries. The launchers were purchased by the Venezuelan Army in the late 1980s but captured in Colombia in combat operations against the FARC last year.
FARC’s use of Swedish arms has an added dimension: the rebels kidnapped a Swedish engineer in Colombia in 2007, holding him hostage for nearly two years — during which he was reported to have suffered from brain damage and paralysis from a stroke — before releasing him in March.
“The issue of these weapons is extremely serious for us,” said Tommy Stromberg, the political officer at the Swedish Embassy in Bogotá, the Colombian capital, which also oversees Sweden’s affairs in Venezuela. Mr. Stromberg said Venezuela had purchased Swedish arms as recently as 2006. “We have asked Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry for clarification on how this happened, but have not had a response.”
The computer records from the raid in Ecuador last year also seem to match some of the information in the new communications under review by Western intelligence officials.
For example, a message from the Ecuador raid written in September 2007 contained an earlier reference to the arms deal discussed recently by the FARC. In the earlier message, Mr. Márquez, the rebel commander, referred to dealers he described as Australian, and went into detail about the arms they were selling, including Dragunov rifles, SA-7 missiles and HF-90M radios, the same items he discusses in the more recent communications.
Another file from the Ecuador raid mentioning an offer from the FARC to instruct Venezuelan officers in guerrilla warfare matches recently obtained material from a rebel commander, Timoleón Jiménez, that says the course took place. Other communications refer to FARC efforts to secure Venezuelan identity cards in a plan overseen by Mr. Rangel Silva, the former intelligence chief here.
In other material captured as recently as May, Mr. Márquez, the rebel commander, said that Mr. Chávez had spoken personally with Mr. Jiménez, expressing solidarity for the FARC’s struggle. Then Mr. Márquez gets into more mundane matters, referring to unspecified problems the FARC had recently encountered in La Fría, an area in Venezuela near the border with Colombia.