On January 10 Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made his State of the Union speech before the National Assembly. To the enthusiastic applause of the audience he said: “ The FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] are not terrorists but armies with a legitimate political posture. We respect them …. I ask the European Union that their label of terrorists be erased”. Just hours before, in the Colombian jungle, and as the FARC were handing two hostages over to Venezuelan authorities, the Venezuelan Minister of the Interior, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, said to the guerrilla members: “President Chavez wishes to let you know that we pay great attention to your struggle. Keep up your fighting spirit and your force. You can count on us”.
This explicit endorsement has been shocking, coming from the leader of a nation that has diplomatic relations with neighboring Colombia, where the FARC has been, for over 40 years, the main enemy of society and of all democratic governments. FARC was created in 1964, made up of members of the Colombian Communist Party who established the so-called “Republic of Maquetalia” in the jungles of the country. They defined themselves as “Marxist-Leninist and Bolivarian,” and began funding their campaign of assassinations and bombings by selling raw cocaine. They are the biggest of the narco-terrorist rings in the world and — with a membership variously estimated at 10,000 to 16,000 — one of the largest terrorist groups in the world.
In the 1980’s FARC separated from the Communist Party and became increasingly involved with drug trafficking. Its top hierarchy of seven members is led by septuagenarian Manuel Marulanda. Its main sources of financing are kidnapping, protection money and drug trafficking. Kidnapping, done for ransom, brings in some $200 million per year. Often, however, hostages are not released or are assassinated even after ransom is paid. A U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, Richard Starr, was kidnapped in 1997 and held for three years until his mother raised the $250,000 ransom. German citizen Lothar Hintze was kidnapped and held for five years, although his wife paid ransom three times.
Protection money is extorted from peasants who live in FARC-controlled areas. In later years more income has been coming to the group from drug trafficking, an estimated $400 million per year. Venezuela is the transit country of choice for about 300 tons of cocaine being shipped every year to the U.S. and Europe by FARC operators. The Russian mafia has established close contacts with the group. Frank Cilluffo, from CSIS, testified to the U.S. Congress in 2000 that Russian planes fly into the Colombian jungle carrying arms and ammunitions to the guerrillas in exchange for cocaine. Brazilian drug lords and Venezuelan military commanders have also been reported to work closely with the terrorists.
The FARC have killed an estimated 100,000 people in Colombia, most of them civilians, and caused the displacement of over two million Colombians from their normal places of residence. Some of the killing has been especially gruesome, from the massacre of seven peasants in 2004 (that was the object of a strong U.N. resolution of condemnation) to the cold-blooded execution of eleven provincial deputies in 2007, after five years of captivity. The Red Cross determined they had been shot in the head at close range, after their release had been promised by the FARC.
A 2005 U.N. report stated: “For year 2004 the FARC continued to commit grave breaches of human rights such as murder, torture and hostage-taking affecting civilians, including women, boys and girls and ethnic groups”. Human Rights Watch has denounced their use of gas cylinder mortars against the civilian population. By Executive Order 13224 of President Bush, of October 2001, the U.S. designated the FARC as a terrorist organization, an example followed by the European Union.
This is the organization that Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has openly embraced. A report of the U.S. Homeland Security for 2007 reads: “Venezuela has virtually ceased its cooperation in the global war on terror [and] tolerated terrorists in its territory”. The public request just made by Chavez to withdraw the definition of terrorist to the FARC has already been met with indignation in Colombia and Europe. Former Colombian President Andres Pastrana is calling for a break in diplomatic relations with Venezuela. The Colombian presidency has issued a strong statement rejecting Chavez’s request.
Government spokesmen from Guatemala, Argentina and Ecuador have expressed their disagreement with Chavez’s posture. The European Union has simply “taken note of President Chavez’ request”. The Spanish press has been particularly severe. An editorial in Madrid’s ABC calls Chavez “the FARC’s lawyer” while El Mundo calls for his international isolation. Bogotá’s main daily, El Tiempo, speculates on a possible military alliance between Chavez and the FARC.
Not by coincidence Colombian President Uribe is meeting, as I write this, with the Colombian Military High Command.
Hugo Chavez is starting to look, more and more, like Manuel Noriega.