Ecuador Officials Linked to Colombia Rebels

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Rodrigo Buendia / AFP / Getty

Members of Ecuador's Army Elite Force inspect a clandestine FARC base camp found while patrolling the border with Colombia in the Amazonian province of Sucumbios on Jan. 31, 2009

Several former officials of the Ecuadorian government had ties with Colombia's Marxist guerrillas, a commission named by President Rafael Correa conceded Tuesday. The announcement is sure to stir up new questions about how deeply South America's political left, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, has aided a rebel force condemned worldwide as drug traffickers and terrorists. And it raises the risk, said the commission's coordinator, Francisco Huerta, that Ecuador is "becoming a narco-democracy."

Correa, a Chávez ally, set up the commission review last spring to independently investigate a controversial raid by Colombian commandos on a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) camp in Angostura, just inside Ecuador, as well as allegations that Ecuador was supporting the rebels. Colombia assaulted the camp on March 1, 2008, killing nearly two dozen people, including one of the guerrillas' top commanders, who is known as Raul Reyes. The attack was criticized throughout Latin America for violating Ecuadorian territory. But the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe argued that laptops found by Colombian troops during the mission contained e-mails showing that the FARC had close ties to several Ecuadorian and Venezuelan officials. (Chávez has since denied that his government ever provided financial or military resources to the guerrillas.)

The 131-page Angostura report provides further evidence that Gustavo Larrea, who has held positions as Interior and Security Minister under Correa, had direct links to the FARC, along with José Ignacio Chauvín, briefly his deputy in the Interior Ministry, and Maria Augusta Calle, a television journalist and currently a legislator for Correa's Alianza PAIS political movement. All deny supporting the guerrillas. At the same time, however, the report is certain to come under scrutiny for the way it insulates Correa from blame. (It also finds no wrongdoing by any of his current officials.) "If we have pedophile priests, it doesn't mean the Pope is a pedophile," Huerta argued to reporters.

Correa, who has veered hard to the left politically since being sworn in for a second term last August, continues to enjoy greater popularity than any of his predecessors who lasted as long in office in the 30 years since Ecuador returned to democracy. He has an approval rating near 60%, according to pollster Santiago Perez. He has weathered scandals including past allegations of involvement of his officials with the FARC and numerous accusations of corruption on the part of members of his government, made since June by his older brother Fabricio, with whom Correa is no longer on speaking terms. (The officials he accused have denied the allegations. Meanwhile, the prosecutor general has launched investigations based on Fabricio's claims.)

The report also says the U.S. may have supported Colombia's attack logistically with information from a mysterious Hercules C-130 flight at the time of the raid from a U.S. base at Manta, Ecuador, which has since been closed. U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges has denied any such involvement. Yesterday, the House of Representatives approved a 12-month extension of trade preferences for Ecuadorian goods linked to the country's cooperation in fighting narcotics smuggling.

Drug seizures inside Ecuador provide evidence that the FARC, having been seriously weakened by Uribe's military drive against them, have increasingly begun to refine cocaine in Ecuador rather than just smuggling it. Ecuadorian police have discovered numerous drug labs near the borders with Colombia and Peru as well as on farms deep inside the South American country, including one just west of the capital, Quito. René Vargas Pazzos, a retired general and former ambassador to Venezuela, rented a farm to a FARC commander, the report says. As a result, Huerta warned that Ecuador faces the same corrosive influence from the drug trade that neighboring Colombia has suffered for decades.

(Vargas has been silent about the rental of the farm. He was replaced as ambassador on Sept. 30. His daughter Alexandra Vargas acknowledged renting the farm but said the alleged FARC commander showed her an Ecuadorian ID card.)

Reyes, the dead FARC leader, suspected that Larrea and Chauvín, prominent leftists, were in fact working with the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel, according to notes of interviews made by an Ecuadorian, Julio César Vizuete, before Reyes' death. Although he dropped his bid to become a legislator earlier this year amid questions regarding his ties to the rebels, Larrea is still active in Alianza PAIS. Both Chauvín and Larrea deny having any ties to the Mexican cartel. Larrea has called the claim "insane."

Huerta, however, said that the commission didn't find evidence of FARC donations to Correa's 2006 election campaign. According to Correa's now-estranged brother Fabricio, who managed the campaign, the rebels' offer of a donation was rejected. It is up to Ecuador's Prosecutor General's Office to investigate any crimes related to the report; however, in the 21 months since the attack, it has dragged its heels, Huerta said.