The Trouble Brewing in South America

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As tension builds between Venezuela and Columbia over battling terrorism, Chris Kraul of the L.A. Times looks at conflicts across South America.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So, if you've lifted a newspaper over the past few days, you've seen South America in the headlines a lot. That's because there's a - South America's really facing its worst diplomatic crisis in years. Three countries are preparing for armed conflict, closing borders, cutting diplomatic ties, and even deploying troops.

At the center of mounting tensions, Colombia. That country took its battle against the rebel group known as FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, outside of its own territory over the weekend, and launched an air strike on the group's hideouts in the hills of Ecuador. Ecuador took that as a sign of aggression and said that the attack on its soil violated its sovereignty. Then Colombia's neighbor to the north, Venezuela, got into the fray, denouncing the cross-border operation as well. Now, all three countries are locked in a volley of accusations, threats, and aggression that keeps mounting.

Joining us now to give us a breakdown of the situation in South America is Chris Kraul, the Bogota Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. Hi, Chris.

Mr. CHRIS KRAUL (Bogota Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Hi, how are you doing?

MARTIN: Doing well. Thanks for being with us. So, this is a developing story. Things are changing, Venezuela and Ecuador, trying right now to rally international condemnation of Colombia's aggression. Where do things stand right now?

Mr. KRAUL: Well, on the ground, we're seeing the effects on the border areas -the Colombian and Venezuelan border - after Chavez essentially sealed it off. In the northern part of the border there are scarcities of fuel and other basic foods that typically go to Venezuela from Colombia. But the real fight has moved to the diplomatic arena, and Ecuador won the first round yesterday. But this isn't over yet. Colombia is going to try to portray Venezuela and Ecuador as harboring terrorists, and so that fight is just beginning to play out.

MARTIN: Let's talk about how these countries are related to each other. We understand Ecuador's issue with Colombia is obvious - an act of aggression, they're saying. Colombia came across its border and killed dozens of people there. But explain Venezuela's connection. Why has Venezuela massed its own troops on its border with Colombia?

Mr. KRAUL: Well, that's what a lot of Venezuelans are asking - why Venezuela stuck its nose into this fight. Chavez's critics - President Hugo Chavez's critics - say it's to distract people attention from melding domestic issues such as food scarcities and high inflation. And he's also using it as a political wedge to try to drive between Colombia and the rest of Latin America.

MARTIN: Colombia has apologized for the attack against the FARC in Ecuador, but at the same time, it's accusing Venezuela and Ecuador of supporting FARC, correct? According to this - there is apparently this evidence found in a computer during the weekend raid. Can you tell us about that and what does it prove?

Mr. KRAUL: Sure. Well, Colombia doesn't dispute the fact that they invaded Ecuadorian territory, but they've justified it by saying they were in hot pursuit. Ecuador disputes that, saying that many of the 17 guerillas killed were in their pajamas and probably weren't fleeing at the time. But yes, the big bonus for the Colombians was the recovery of three laptops at this jungle camp a mile inside Ecuador, which have files that show that dead commander met with Ecuador's interior minister. And furthermore showed that apparently, the FARC received $300,000 and that the FARC were going to receive administrative assistance from…

MARTIN: They received that money from whom?

Mr. KRAUL: From Hugo Chavez, sorry.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. KRAUL: Alleged.

MARTIN: Alleged, of course.

Mr. KRAUL: Again, these are charges that we shouldn't take at face value just yet. These are charges that have been leveled by the Colombia National Police, who've described what was in these laptops, so - and Colombia has offered to make this - the laptops and other electronic files available to third parties for analysis, so it'll be interesting to see, as this unfolds, just what was in those files.

MARTIN: Now, this whole thing has - everyone's chiming in on this, clearly a tense situation. President Bush even yesterday gave comments expressing his support for Colombia. Let's listen to what he had to say.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: America will continue to stand with Colombia as it confronts violence and terror and fights drug traffickers.

MARTIN: And Democratic presidential candidates here as well say they support Colombia, likening it to finding an al-Qaida leader in a third country and then going after him. Now, can you give us a quick reminder - for people who follow South America and who have lived in the area - they know that FARC has a long presence there. But for those of us who don't know, can you give us a quick reminder - who are the FARC and who was the man targeted in the raid?

Mr. KRAUL: The man targeted was Raul Reyes - that's his alias - and he was the number two commander in this leftist rebel group known by its initials or FARC. He was killed in Ecuador and that's - Colombia doesn't dispute that they violated the sovereignty of Ecuador. But as we heard yesterday at the Organization of American States special session, there's a second issue that needs to be considered here and that is the apparent willingness of both Venezuela and Ecuador to harbor. And in the case of Venezuela, according to Colombians, accommodate and aid these rebel groups. So, that's what Colombia will be trying to do in the coming days, just to separate this second issue from a sovereign issue - sovereignty issue, which they admit they violated and apologize for.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. So, what are the stakes here? I mean, Colombia has acknowledged, yes, we violated their sovereignty, but we say it was for a good reason. But what's done is done. What do Venezuela and Ecuador want? How could this possibly be resolved?

Mr. KRAUL: That's a good question. I think that they're trying - Ecuador, especially in the coming days, President Rafael Correa is on a five-nation trip. I think he's going to try to make the case and sort of divert attention away from the issue - what in the heck Colombian rebels were doing in Ecuadorian territory - by beating the drum on this sovereign issue. And that's an issue that Latin American countries care a lot about and which is why most countries condemned Colombia yesterday at the OAS. Many countries in South America are dealing with border issues currently, and so sovereignty is an important issue and one that nearly all countries have rallied around so far.

MARTIN: Now, as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe makes this tour, trying to gin up this support in what's been…

Mr. KRAUL: That's Correa - Correa…

MARTIN: Correa, I'm sorry.

Mr. KRAUL: Ecuador's President Correa is on a tour.

MARTIN: What has been the response to that? Is he getting any?

Mr. KRAUL: Positive, which is to be expected. And again, Colombia never denied that it violated Ecuador's sovereignty, and as was to be expected, Peru which was Correa's first stop on the - on his tour, sided with Ecuador. Although in the past, Garcia - President Garcia has supported Uribe and his fight against the FARC. So, this is a complicated issue and…

MARTIN: Indeed. And, well, it sounds like it's not going away anytime soon, so we'll keep following this. Chris Kraul, the Bogota bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Hey, Chris, thanks for walking us through this story. We appreciate it.

Mr. KRAUL: Sure thing. See you.

(Soundbite of music)

ALISON STEWART, host:

Next up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, a man has covered everything from famine in Somalia to wars in the Middle East and Kosovo - seen quite a bit. Veteran NBC foreign correspondent Martin Fletcher is here to talk about his new book, "Breaking News." This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR news.

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