Danger of a New Vietnam
by Andres Cala
The Gazette Montreal, Canada, February 9, 2001
World Press Review, April 2001
If I were Colombia's neighbor, I would be very worried about
the likely transit of its problems to my country." If this
is what U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld foreshadowed
last month for Venezuela, Panama, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador, it
is not hard to imagine why these governments raised the roof when
guerrilla and paramilitary activity started spreading through
The countries that share a boundary with the biggest drug
supplier in the world fear Plan Colombia, which analysts expect
will intensify the bloody war in which more than 3,000 people
die every year. Plan Colombia is a $7.5-billion strategy designed
by Colombia's President Andres Pastrana to eradicate drug trafficking,
sign a peace accord with the main guerrilla groups, and relaunch
the economy. Although it has only recently been put into effect,
the shock waves are already being felt.
Neighboring countries are worried that the war will expand
beyond Colombia's borders and that thousands of displaced people
will seek refuge in their territories. Ecuador, which shares a
border of 348 miles with Colombia, and Venezuela, with more than
1,300 miles of frontier, had been the hardest hit until now-receiving
an estimated 3,()00 people in the past year alone. What worries
them most are the increasing signs of guerrilla and paramilitary
presence in their countries. Last year, the president of Ecuador's
National Congress, Juan Jose Pons, said: "Our country cannot
become a new Cambodia or a new Laos, in case Colombia's war escalates
into a Vietnam."
In the latest surge of violence blamed on Colombia's war,
one U.S. citizen died after a group of oil workers was kidnapped
by an unknown group in Ecuador last October. Although Ecuadoran
authorities blame common delinquents, many have ventured to accuse
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a well-armed
and positioned guerrilla group of more than 17,000 fighters, of
capturing the oil workers.
Also, on Jan. 11, the Ecuadoran army reported two guerrillas
were killed on their soil when FARC encountered its main enemy,
paramilitary forces of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
A few days later, the army of this politically unstable country
reported having dismantled a military camp presumably used by
the FARC. Ecuador's fear of being dragged into Colombia's war
increased when the guerrilla group threatened its government:
"Ecuador must maintain a strict neutrality toward the Colombian
conflict and we encourage it not to participate in Plan Colombia."
Nonetheless, Ecuador has been the only Colombian neighbor to fully
support the anti-narco strategy, backed by $ 1.3 billion in U.S.
The main concern of Ecuadorans who do not want to see their
country become a target of FARC is the military base at Manta,
Ecuador, used by American forces to coordinate coca eradication
in Colombia. The guerrilla group says the base is used for undercover
military operations against them, and have threatened to declare
it a military objective.
Although Colombian insurgents have assured neighboring countries
they will not attack outside Colombia's borders, Ecuadoran authorities
fear infiltration has begun already. The appearance of a new guerrilla
group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Ecuador (FARE), is believed
to be another symptom. FARE is believed to have 400 fighters-armed,
trained, and logistically supported by FARC. It is blamed for
recent attacks on oil pipelines, a common terrorist objective
of Colombian guerrillas.
Guerrilla and paramilitary warfare has also been intense in
Venezuela. Kidnappings, murders, attacks, and even massacres have
occurred with regularity in the past couple of years. Although
the Venezuelan government has promised to crack down on guerrillas
in its territory, at least 40 cattle farmers have been kidnapped
in the past year, and many more have to pay to avoid being targeted.
Cattle growers have reacted by creating their own paramilitary
group. Otto Ramirez, their spokesman, confirmed this month: "We
are arming ourselves because we cannot permit guerrillas to finish
us, while the Venezuelan state does nothing about it."
Once again, FARC "asked" Venezuelans not to create
the so-called self-defense militias. Through a letter to the cattle
growers sent by the commander of a FARC subgroup, the guerrillas
said: "We have been singled out to be violence generators
on the border, when in fact we are contributing to the generation
of a peaceful atmosphere in the region."