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ECUADOR-COLOMBIA: From Diplomatic Crisis to Plan Victoria

Kintto Lucas

QUITO, Dec 27 2006 (IPS) - The announcement of a new counterinsurgency strategy by the Colombian government, dubbed “Plan Victoria”, and the deterioration of diplomatic relations with Ecuador point to a new phase in the internal armed conflict afflicting Colombia for over four decades.

It was reported in Quito on Dec. 26 that a week earlier, Colombia’s rightwing President Álvaro Uribe approved Plan Victoria, described as a strategy to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and force them to engage in peace talks.

“These people must be captured,” was the order given by Uribe to the soldiers at the Larandia military base in the southern Colombian province of Caquetá when he provided details on Plan Victoria, aimed at capturing the leaders of the FARC.

The rebel group has been waging a guerrilla war since the 1960s and controls up to 35 percent of the national territory, mainly in scarcely populated rural areas.

According to Felipe Guillén, the correspondent in Bogotá for the Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo, the president implied that unless the FARC leadership was captured, it would continue to be impossible to defeat the insurgents.

Plan Victoria will be led by General Alejandro Navas, with 14,300 troops under his command in southern Colombia, and back-up from the air force and navy equipped with nine Supertucano aircraft purchased from Brazil.

The new military strategy is seen as the prolongation of “Plan Patriota”, a counterinsurgency offensive quietly launched against the FARC during Uribe’s first term (2002-2006). The military casualties racked up by Plan Patriota have totalled 137, with 1,300 wounded, according to official sources.

Plan Patriota was seen as the military face of the Washington-financed anti-drug and counterinsurgency Plan Colombia.

In September, the Tintají magazine in Quito carried an exclusive report indicating that a new phase of Plan Colombia would begin in January 2007, which would directly affect Ecuador.

The new “consolidation phase” was mentioned for the first time in Ecuador by the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, Luis Macas, who cited anonymous sources in the Ecuadorian armed sources.

“This new phase of Plan Colombia seeks to consolidate the presence of the Colombian army in areas controlled by the guerrillas, through a military and paramilitary offensive that will have the direct support of the (Ecuadorian) Manta air base and will use the territory of neighbouring countries, particularly Ecuador, towards that end,” Macas said on that occasion.

Both the Defence Ministry and the armed forces of Ecuador were aware of the new phase of Plan Colombia and feared that it would draw this country further into the armed conflict in Colombia, reported the magazine article, quoting military sources.

The idea is to pressure Ecuador “to consolidate the Ecuadorian military presence along the border with Colombia,” not to protect its own national sovereignty, “but to further involve the country in the Colombian conflict,” said the Tintají report.

Shortly afterwards, when former Colombian president Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) quit his job as ambassador to the United States, he said Plan Colombia would enter a five-year “consolidation phase” within a few months.

Pastrana said Plan Colombia, which was launched with heavy U.S. military assistance in 2000, had achieved its primary objective of strengthening the Colombian state in its war against drug traffickers and leftist guerrillas.

But he added that the new stage was necessary to consolidate the purported successes and reinforce ties between Bogotá and Washington.

“We are on the threshold of a new relationship with the United States, in which the second phase of Plan Colombia, the consolidation phase, will play a key role,” said Pastrana.

The Tintají report stated that the “consolidation phase” would entail a strengthening of the U.S. armed forces presence at the Manta air base in western Ecuador, leased to Washington as a logistics centre for air operations backing up Plan Colombia.

Ecuadorian President-elect Rafael Correa announced that he will not renew the Manta base agreement when it expires in December 2009. U.S. government spokespersons had made it clear that Washington had hoped to extend it until 2012.

Manta is Ecuador’s main Pacific Ocean port, located 260 km southwest of Quito.

Former Colombian foreign minister Carolina Barco, Pastrana’s successor as ambassador in Washington, said in September that “it is not the time to ease up on Plan Colombia efforts.”

“This is a time to continue moving forward, introducing the necessary adjustments, but with the same determination and the same strength,” said Barco.

Thus, the start of Plan Victoria, the “consolidation phase” of Plan Colombia, and the resumption this month of aerial spraying of coca crops in Colombia near the Ecuadorian border would not appear to be isolated developments.

Quito protested the spraying, which triggered a diplomatic row between the two countries, with no solution in sight.

Nearly two weeks ago, the Ecuadorian government recalled its ambassador for consultations and announced that he would not return until the Uribe administration suspended the fumigation, which studies have shown affect the food crops and health of people living in the areas sprayed.

Despite the tension, last week Correa accepted an invitation from the Colombian president to meet in Bogotá. In such a touchy situation, “the last thing that should be done is to cut off communication,” said the president-elect, who takes office on Jan. 15.

Minister-designate of foreign relations María Fernanda Espinosa said Correa would visit Colombia Dec. 21-22, after meeting with President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

The focus of the visit with Uribe was “to stop the sprayingàa hostile act by Colombia against Ecuador,” Correa had said, adding that he hoped for a “frank” conversation in which the Colombian administration would understand “how upset the Ecuadorian people are” over the unilateral decision to resume fumigation in border areas.

The remarks by Correa and Espinosa upset people in diplomatic and military circles in Ecuador, who said they were a serious error on the part of the future president and foreign minister.

A source with the army told IPS that a visit by Correa to meet with Uribe would have demonstrated ignorance of the norms that guide international politics, because it would have ignored the stance taken by the Ecuadorian state on “an issue as sensitive as fumigation on the border.”

“The president-elect and the future foreign minister have to inform themselves well before adopting a state policy, and not base their positions on personal impulses that could hurt the credibility of their government,” said the source.

“A strategy has been adopted, with which the president-elect cannot interfere, or believe that the solution to this kind of problem can be found in spontaneous decisions,” he argued.

According to the Quito newspaper El Comercio, there was concern in the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry that the meeting between Correa and Uribe would undermine the stance taken by Ecuador, which has demanded that Bogotá suspend the spraying until an independent study led by the United Nations has been carried out into the effects of the herbicide glyphosate on crops, livestock and human health.

But in the end, Correa decided not to visit Colombia after his trip to Venezuela after all.

“I cannot visit our sister country of Colombia while they are bombarding us with glyphosate on the border,” Correa said in the Venezuelan capital, adding that Bogotá should at least halt the spraying while he visited Colombia – a stipulation that was refused by the Uribe administration.

Colombian Minister of the Interior and Justice Carlos Holguín added fuel to the fire when he told the Colombian radio station Caracol that Correa had changed his mind about meeting with Uribe after talking with Venezuelan President Chávez.

The tension was heightened when Colombia’s police chief, General Jorge Castro, said on Monday that on an inspection flight of the spraying, he spotted some 15 hectares of coca crops across the border in Ecuador, which he said underscored “the need to continue the aerial fumigation.”

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Francisco Carrión told IPS that Castro’s declarations on supposed coca crops in Ecuador were “a new step arising from the intention to draw Ecuador into Plan Colombia.”

“The Colombian police have made an unfounded allegation based on a photo that they could have taken in the past and that, according to information in my possession, is neither valid nor credible,” said the minister.

For logical reasons, “the only sources I am listening to are the Ecuadorian police and armed forces, who have said the allegation is groundless,” Carrión added.

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