Ecuador Breaks Off Diplomatic Ties with Colombia

A three-nation crisis in Latin America threatens the region's stability after Venezuela and Ecuador cut diplomatic ties with Colombia and ordered troops to their borders with Colombia. The dispute erupted over the weekend after Colombian troops crossed Ecuador's border to kill a rebel inside Ecuador. John Otis of the Houston Chronicle talks with NPR's Renee Montagne.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The confrontation involving Colombia and two of its neighbors shows no signs of abating. Ecuador and Venezuela have cut diplomatic relations with Colombia and have moved troops to their borders.

The crisis began after Colombian troops went into Ecuador chasing anti-Colombian rebels, known by their acronym, the FARC, and killed one of the leaders of the group. But Ecuador and Venezuela reacted angrily to the violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty.

Joining us now from Bogota is John Otis of the Houston Chronicle. Good morning.

Mr. JOHN OTIS (Houston Chronicle): Hey, good morning.

MONTAGNE: Is this crisis spinning out of control, as it seems to be?

Mr. OTIS: Well, there's a lot of heated rhetoric from all sides. Hugo Chavez, of Venezuela, is sort of a master at that. And so is President Correa of Ecuador. And so there's a lot of accusations flying back and forth. But for now, you know, there hasn't been any shooting. The borders seem to be calm, even though there's been some troop movements toward the borders. But people are sort of waiting and watching, and hoping that shooting doesn't break out.

MONTAGNE: And how does it escalate to this level?

Mr. OTIS: Colombia went into Ecuador to kill a very prominent FARC leader, and Ecuador was really angry about that because they only found out after the fact. They see it as a violation of their sovereignty. The Colombians, on the other hand, argue that the Ecuadorians weren't really doing much to keep the guerrillas out of their territory. They accuse the Ecuadorians of sort of coddling and providing political support to the guerrillas. The Colombians said, hey, this guerrilla leader's right there, just across the border, let's go in and get them - and that's what they did.

MONTAGNE: Now, for its part, Colombia says - and the Colombian investigators say - they found significant information on three laptops during the raid on the rebel camp in Ecuador, and it's sort of startling stuff they're claiming to have found.

Mr. OTIS: Yeah, and it's still fairly early in all this. We haven't seen the actual documents. The El Tiempo newspaper - the main Bogota newspaper - printed some excerpts from one of them that has to deal with one of the most explosive charges. The Colombian police say that the FARC guerrillas have tried to buy uranium. They mention the FARC trying to buy about 50 kilos of uranium. It looks like the FARC might've been interested in buying the uranium - not to use it to produce dirty bombs, themselves - but perhaps to sell it to somebody. Nobody really sees the FARC as some kind of a global terrorist group on the lines of al-Qaida. They're mainly interested in taking power here in Colombia. But that is very disturbing news, that they'd be looking for uranium, if that actually turns out to be the case.

MONTAGNE: If it turns out to be the case.

Mr. OTIS: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: Probably a key caveat there. Well just briefly, the Colombian foreign minister has offered an explanation and an apology. It doesn't seem to be enough for Ecuador and Venezuela. What will it take to end this crisis?

Mr. OTIS: Well, it could linger on for a while. I think one of the key things, here, though, is to follow the money. For now, commercial relations continue between these two countries. They're very dependent on each other for trade. Venezuela is Colombia's second largest trading partner and a huge amount of Colombian goods go down to Ecuador. So as long as commercial relations seem to be on track, the crisis probably won't degenerate too farther along than it already has. That said, Latin America does have a history of border disputes, you know, going back to 1969, the famous soccer war between El Salvador and Honduras that broke out during qualifying matches for the World Cup. While nobody really thinks that war is going to break out, it's always sort of sitting there in the background.

MONTAGNE: John, thanks very much. John Otis is chief of the Houston Chronicle's South American bureau.

This is NPR News.

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