A single laptop can reveal much, and so it is with the digital treasure chest that Colombian commandos found in the jungle quarters of slain rebel leader Raul Reyes.
Files in the computer seized in the raid into Ecuador that claimed the lives of Reyes and 23 of his comrades offer an intimate portrait of Hugo Chavez's joint project with the rebels to undermine Colombia's U.S.-allied government.
If authentic, the documents show unequivocally that sympathies the Venezuelan president first aired publicly in January grew out of a personal relationship that dates back more than a decade.
They also leave little doubt that Ecuador's leftist president, Rafael Correa, also allowed the rebels refuge on his territory — as well as sought to strengthen ties with them.
Ecuador and Venezuela say the documents are lies and fabrications. If they are that, they are expertly done.
Not only do they offer an unprecedented glimpse into the rebels' mindset, they also discuss diplomatic overtures from governments including the United States — cryptically — and France — explicitly.
They are signed in electrons, not ink, by the most powerful men in the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the hemisphere's oldest and most potent rebel movement.
Those signing the documents include:
— Reyes, the FARC's foreign minister and public face, whose killing struck a chilling blow to the group.
— Manuel Marulanda, the rebels' 77-year-old supreme leader.
— Jorge Briceno, their much-feared field marshal.
— and Ivan Marquez, the insurgents' apparent go-between with Chavez. Marquez is believed to live in Venezuela.
Copies of 13 documents were sent to reporters Tuesday by Colombia's national police chief, Gen. Oscar Naranjo. He revealed their existence Sunday as his government came under a withering diplomatic assault for violating Ecuador's territory with the raid.
They indicate that Chavez, seeking to raise the FARC's stature and relieve it of its international pariah status, shares their goal of isolating and discrediting Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe.
But do they prove that Venezuela was actually financing the FARC's bid to overthrow a democratically elected government? That's not clear.
Naranjo interprets the "300" referred to as the "dossier" in a Dec. 23 message signed by Marquez as a US$300 million gift from Chavez to the rebels.
In a Jan. 14 missive, Briceno discusses what to do with the "dossier."
"Who, where, when and how will we receive the dollars and store them?" he asks fellow members of the FARC's seven-man ruling secretariat.
Uribe has worked as no Colombian president to defeat the FARC. And so it's no surprise that in the Jan. 14 message, Briceno discusses a desire to make Uribe cede a safe haven to the rebels for talks on a prisoner swap.
"Uribe will become more isolated, together with his boss from the North," clearly meaning U.S. President George W. Bush, whose government provides Colombia with some US$600 million a year in military aid.
In a document dated Feb. 9, Marquez passes along Chavez's thanks for a 100 million-peso (US$150,000) gift when was he imprisoned from 1992-94 for leading a failed coup — and indicates Chavez's desire to smear Uribe.
Marquez tells Marulanda and the other secretariat members that Venezuela wants documentation of damage by Colombia's military to "the civilian population, also images of bombardments in the jungle and its devastation — to use as a denunciation before the world."
In a letter the previous day to the same recipients, Marquez discusses Chavez's plan to try to persuade leading Latin American nations to help get the FARC removed from lists of international terror groups.
Marquez also says Chavez is prepared to offer Venezuelan territory for the FARC's desired prisoner swap: some 40 hostages including three U.S. military contractors for 500 rebels currently in Colombia's jails.
"The three gringos would only be included if the other part includes Sonia and Simon," he says, referring to two FARC fighters currently in U.S. prisons.
Chavez was very upset, Marquez says, by the 60-year sentence a U.S. judge gave on Jan. 28 to "Simon," whose real name is Ricardo Palmera, in the kidnapping of the three U.S. military contractors.
The FARC captured the three when their surveillance plane crashed in February 2003.
The rebels have released six hostages — all Colombian politicians — since Uribe tried to end Chavez's mediation role with the FARC in November, accusing the Venezuelan president of overstepping his mandate.
The four freed most recently, on Feb. 27, say hostage Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who holds French citizenship, is extremely ill.
Betancourt has become a cause celebre in France and Reyes complains in a letter to fellow secretariat member dated the next day that she "has a volcanic temperament, is rude and provocative."
French contacts with Reyes are mentioned in several documents, including a request that the French envoy identified only as "Noe" be granted a meeting with Marulanda.
References to U.S. diplomatic overtures are scintillating, if vague.
In a Dec. 11 message to the secretariat, Marquez writes: "If you are in agreement, I can receive Jim and Tucker to hear the proposal of the gringos."
The same message says an Italian referred to only as Consolo has told Marquez "the European Parliament wants to get involved in the prisoner exchange."
Writing two days before his death, Reyes tells his secretariat comrades that "the gringos," working through Ecuador's government, are interested "in talking to us on various issues."
"They say the new president of their country will be (Barack) Obama," noting that Obama rejects both the Bush administration's free trade agreement with Colombia and the current military aid program.
Reyes said the response he relayed is that the United States would have to publicly express that desire.
Another message, to Reyes from a lower-ranking commander and dated Feb. 16, includes mention of a possible purchase of 50 kilos of uranium.
Uribe's government claims that means the FARC was seeking to build a dirty bomb. But the message discusses a different motive: selling the uranium at a profit.