South America's Most Troubled Border

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Carlos Patiņo / La Opinion / AFP / Getty

Colombian soldiers carry the bodies of five Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

Wisps of evaporating water rise from the dark green Amazon rainforest as an Ecuadorian military helicopter swerves along the San Miguel River. Each day, slim boats with outboard motors ferry dozens of people between the hamlets of Puerto Nuevo, Ecuador, and Teteye, Colombia, across the brown and winding border waterway. Most are doing business or visiting relatives. But this year boatmen are increasingly carrying Ecuadorian mourners to retrieve the bodies of loved ones. Most, they say, were killed by Colombian troops because they were suspected of aiding the Marxist guerrillas known as the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC. One was Antonio Jimenez, shot a month ago. Insists one Puerto Nuevo woman who knew him well, "He just went over to buy banana seedlings."

Border life inside the dark green Amazon rainforest is murky and dangerous enough without guerrilla politics mingled in. But along the San Miguel River, communities are feeling squeezed as never before by the FARC, which makes a habit of encamping inside Ecuador, and the Colombian military, which for the first time ever has the FARC on the run. Now, in its pursuit, the Colombians feel emboldened enough to ignore the frontier. Last month Colombian special forces made a raid into Ecuador and killed the FARC's No. 2 comandante, Raul Reyes.

That incursion spurred an Andean diplomatic crisis: an angry Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa severed relations with Colombia, and the Organization of American States called the attack a violation of sovereignty. But conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe accused Ecuador and its left-wing government of harboring the FARC, which has fought the Colombian government in a bloody civil war for 44 years. Uribe claims that data on Reyes' laptop computer reveals ties between the FARC and Ecuadorian Security Minister Gustavo Larrea. Correa vehemently denies it, insisting his military has removed FARC camps inside Ecuador and that Colombia — whose own military is often accused by human rights groups of killing innocent civilians in its hunt for FARC rebels — is being too lax about policing its own side of the border and preventing the rebels from seeping into his country.

But the imbroglio has exposed enough weaknesses inside Ecuador's military establishment to prod Correa into a shakeup this month. He sacked his defense minister — his third in 14 months as President — along with other top brass. The new defense chief, Javier Ponce, has a long history as a critic of Ecuador's military and has promised to strengthen civilian control and transparency. Ecuador has also pledged to implement a long-delayed plan to beef up the state's border presence, which is almost non-existent beyond the army, and improve public services. On Thursday Correa announced that foreign lenders have agreed to forgive $30 million of Ecuador's debt if it invests that money in its border regions. Economic development, he told foreign reporters, "is the best strategy to fight the infiltration of these irregular groups" like the FARC. But he added that Ecuador will increasingly use electronic surveillance to detect both guerrillas and Colombian troops that might violate the border.

The FARC's presence in Ecuador may be shadowy, but it's no secret. Ecuador spends more than $100 million each year to patrol the area. But for about 20 years FARC units like the 48th Front have regularly slipped across the porous border into Ecuador — there are only two points along the 250-mile (400 km) frontier where passports are even checked — under cover of the rainforest's lush vegetation to retreat, rest or replenish supplies. Half a million Colombians are estimated to have moved into Ecuador with them. (Ecuador has recognized about 60,000 as war refugees.) Muddy Ecuadorian border villages like Puerto Nuevo are growing and are now overwhelmingly Colombian, says Fabian Narvaez, head of the Ecuadorian Army's 4th Division, which defends that turf. Most, he says, are poor and hard-working; but "some of these settlers are probably tied to illegal activities," he says, adding that informants often give the FARC early warning of Ecuadorian military patrols.

More than a dozen Ecuadorian policemen and soldiers have died in clashes with the FARC since 1993; in the 1980s the FARC even attacked Ecuadorian military bases. And whereas elsewhere in Ecuador there is little if any cultivation of coca, the raw material of cocaine, "we estimate that there are more than 10 clandestine [cocaine] laboratories operating in Ecuadorian territory along the border with Colombia," says Ecuador's drug czar, Domingo Paredes. That's hardly a surprise given that at least half of the FARC's more than $500 million annual revenues is made via cocaine trafficking.

In his Thursday meeting with foreign journalists, Correa reiterated that the lucrative coca trade is attractive among the remote and economically threadbare border communities. "A large part of the population, above all in Amazonia, on [both] the Ecuadorian and Colombian sides support the FARC," he said, "because the Colombian and Ecuadorian [governments] don't reach them, and the ones who provide jobs, in drug cultivation, etcetera, are the FARC."

Ecuador, meanwhile, says it's determined to stay neutral in the Colombian conflict, treading carefully lest it provoke terrorist attacks by the FARC on civilian targets or sensitive infrastructure like its oil pipelines. It refuses to list the FARC as a terrorist organization, as the U.S. and the European Union do; but it also won't recognize the rebels as legitimate belligerents, as left-wing Venezuelan President Chavez, a Correa ally, urges the region to do. Correa knows that Uribe, a key U.S. ally, is likely to keep his military's border pressure strong while George W. Bush is still the U.S. President, says Freddy Rivera, a security researcher at FLACSO University in Quito, Ecuador's capital. Ecuador isn't just neighbors with Colombia, Rivera adds. In reality it also shares a border with the FARC, as well as with drug mafias, right-wing Colombian paramilitary armies and all the other dark denizens of a border that is buckling under the strain of South America's most serious security crisis.