Published May 16, 2008
BOGOTA, Colombia – The onus is now on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to explain evidence of his apparently intimate ties to Colombia's main guerrilla army.
Interpol on Thursday endorsed the authenticity of computer files seized in a rebel camp, announcing that Colombia did not tamper with documents indicating Chavez sought to finance and arm the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Venezuelan officials set up contacts with Australian arms dealers and arranged for missile training in the Middle East, according to the documents, which were on computer hard drives seized by Colombia and obtained by the Washington Post.
Yet Chavez responded sarcastically to Interpol's conclusions.
"Do you think we should waste time here on something so ridiculous?" he told reporters in Caracas.
Chavez has denied providing the FARC material support, but did not address the issue directly on Thursday. Instead, he called Interpol's secretary general, Ronald Noble, "a tremendous actor," "Mr. Ignoble" and an "immoral police officer who applauds killers."
Noble was unequivocal when asked about the authenticity of the computer files, though he made pains to explain that the 186-nation international police agency did not and would not evaluate their content.
More revelations are bound to emerge, as Interpol also turned over to Colombia 983 files it decrypted in a process Noble said took 10 computers two full weeks.
Colombian commandos recovered the three Toshiba Satellite laptop computers, two external hard drives and three USB memory sticks in a March 1 cross-border raid into Ecuador that killed FARC foreign minister Raul Reyes and 24 others.
Chavez says no computer could have survived the bombardment, but Interpol showed photographs in the report and video on its Web site of metal cases that protected the computers from Colombian bombs.
The 39-page Interpol study was done at the request of Colombia, and Noble said Colombia alone must decide whether to make the contents of the computers public. Colombian officials have balked at revealing the entire contents, citing legal reasons and saying some documents could embarrass friendly nations.
Noble said he tried to get Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, whom the documents also link to the FARC, to work with Interpol in its investigation, but neither responded.
"I've done everything in my power to invite Venezuela and Ecuador to participate," said Noble, a former U.S. Treasury enforcement chief.
Colombia has been leaking details from the documents since the day after the raid. The most damning evidence against Chavez was revealed to The Associated Press last week.
More than a dozen rebel messages detail close cooperation with Venezuela, including rebel training facilities on Venezuelan soil and a meeting inside Venezuela's equivalent of the Pentagon.
They suggest Venezuela wanted to loan the rebels $250 million and help them get Russian weapons and possibly even surface-to-air missiles.
Chavez says his only purpose is to ward off a U.S. invasion — not to supply the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
"We aren't going to attack anybody. But I always say it: Nobody should make a mistake with us," Chavez told soldiers celebrating the anniversary of his return to power after a brief 2002 coup. "Our fatherland is permanently threatened by imperialism."
But military analysts say it is Colombia that should fear the 100,000 Russian-made assault rifles, 5,000 Dragunov sniper rifles and surface-to-air missiles Venezuela is amassing.
"These are just the sorts of weapons that the FARC would find interesting since these are the standard tools of guerrilla warfare," said John Pike, a military analyst at GlobalSecurity.org.
U.S. military officials say the weapons proliferation far outweighs any threat Chavez faces in the region.
"We are seriously worried about this great quantity of acquisitions," U.S. Lt. Gen. Glenn Spears said recently.
Chavez's military spending spree isn't on the agenda Friday at a summit of Latin American and European leaders in Lima, Peru, which is supposed to focus on food prices, climate change and poverty. But with Chavez and Colombia President Alvaro Uribe both attending, it is likely to come up.
Uribe only said he is satisfied with the Interpol report.
"Terrorism doesn't have borders or ethics," he said upon arriving in Lima Thursday for the summit.
Chavez, who has denied funding or arming the rebels, called Interpol's report "ridiculous." The documents suggest Venezuela was preparing to loan the rebels $250 million and help them get Russian weapons and possibly even missiles for use against Colombian military aircraft.
The nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday urged the U.S. not to act unilaterally on the Interpol findings. But it also noted that Chavez's international arms purchases — which have increased from $71 million between 2002 and 2004 to $4 billion between 2005 and 2007 — "should be watched."
Many South American countries are modernizing armed forces that languished under the civilian rule that followed the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s. Of these, Brazil is the biggest spender.
But per-capita comparisons by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies show Venezuela's defense budget of $2.6 billion is second only to Chile, which built up a large defense industry during the 1973-90 military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Russia and China have quickly become Venezuela's main suppliers of military hardware.
Chavez said this week he plans to talk with Russia's president during an upcoming visit to Moscow about buying "long-range, anti-aircraft missile systems" and "tank battalions."
Venezuela plans to install a radar system with help from China and has begun negotiating the purchase of Chinese-made, K-8 military planes, which are mainly for training. But they can be used for combat and surveillance, Venezuelan Defense Minister Gen. Gustavo Rangel Briceno said Thursday as he handed out new Russian-made, AK-103 Kalashnikov assault rifles to National Guard troops.
"The best formula against the war is being well prepared for it," Chavez told soldiers this week, prompting rousing applause. "We will continue equipping the armed forces and now more quickly than before."
Chavez has bragged about proposals to build a Venezuelan rocket.
Many documents retrieved from the rebel computers discuss Venezuelan efforts to help the FARC obtain weapons, including rockets.
In March 2007, a rebel commander known as Timochenko wrote that "intelligence officials from our neighboring navy" say it's very difficult to obtain "rockets," but that "they're disposed to help us get all the parts to build them."
In a January 2007 note, Ivan Marquez, the rebel's main go-between with the Chavez government, mentions "the possibility of taking advantage of Venezuela's purchase of arms from Russia to include some containers destined for the FARC."
Another message from Marquez, dated Aug. 20, 2006, describes a visit to an anti-aircraft missile factory in China by a Venezuelan official who is said to have returned with a catalog for the FARC.
The FARC, which finances its military operations with drug-trafficking and kidnapping ransoms, is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.
Some U.S. politicians want Venezuela to be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, along with Iran, Syria and North Korea. But that could prompt economic sanctions — a politically risky move against America's fifth-largest oil supplier.