Did Colombia Kidnap Guerrilla Leader in Venezuela to Please US?

CARACAS (IPS) – Some analysts say Colombia ordered the kidnapping of guerrilla leader Rodrigo Granda in the Venezuelan capital last month to prove to the United States that it is cooperating in the anti-terrorism “crusade,” although the cost has been a serious rupture in Colombian-Venezuelan relations.

On Friday, leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced a freeze on all cooperation with Colombia and the withdrawal of his country’s ambassador from Bogotá.

He said that he would discuss the case with other governments, and that the measures adopted would only be revoked if Colombia publicly apologizes for the kidnapping.

Carlos Romero, an expert on Venezuelan-Colombian relations, told IPS, “The Colombian government had known for a long time that Granda was in Venezuela, and was aware of the kind of life he was leading. They didn’t just happen to find him as the result of an investigation. They had his location pinpointed, and when they decided the time was right, they had him picked up.”

Granda was second in command in the so-called “foreign ministry” of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s main leftist rebel group. He was kidnapped in downtown Caracas last Dec. 13, with the support of members of the Venezuelan armed forces and police, and spirited across the border into Colombia, where he was turned over to the police.

At the time of the kidnapping, the Colombian government repeatedly claimed that Granda had been captured in Colombian territory.

Now Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos and Defense Minister Jorge Uribe have admitted that their government paid informers and kidnappers to seize Granda in Caracas. The total payoff was around one and a half million dollars, according to Venezuelan investigations.

Eight members of the Venezuelan armed forces, including a number of officers, have been arrested and detained in connection with the case. The suspected participation of active-duty and former Venezuelan police officers is also being investigated, as is the allegation that the operation in Caracas was directed by a Colombian police chief.

Simón Trinidad (whose real name is Ricardo Palmera), the man in charge of the FARC’s financial affairs, was captured in Ecuador last year and extradited to the United States in late December.

Also last year, Colombia’s second largest leftist rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), reported that one of its leaders had been kidnapped in the city of Maracaibo, in western Venezuela.

For two years, Granda had been living with his wife Yamileth Restrepo in a two-story house with a large backyard and swimming pool in a residential neighborhood 1500 meters above sea level in El Consejo, located an hour and a half by car from Caracas.

“Under these circumstances, it is very hard to believe that his presence wasn’t known to the Colombian and Venezuelan authorities,” said Romero.

“It is especially unlikely given what has been reported about Granda, namely that he met with the leaders of different countries of the region and is even said to have taken the director of the New York Stock Exchange to the FARC’s stronghold in Colombia,” he added.

According to Alberto Müller, a retired general from the Venezuelan army, the operation that landed Granda in a Colombian prison “could have been executed by the Colombian army or police in direct compliance with guidelines from the United States.”

Müller told IPS that the United States implements a strategy of “exploiting the internal or external disputes of other countries to pursue its own goals. Washington wants to weaken the Venezuelan government,” he added.

In his annual address to the nation on Friday, Chávez said, “I do not believe that the president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, was aware of this operation, which flagrantly violated Venezuelan sovereignty, and I invite his government to publicly make amends.”

Chávez ordered the withdrawal of the Venezuelan ambassador to Colombia, Carlos Santiago, and announced that full diplomatic relations would not be resumed until the Colombian government had public apologized for this violation of Venezuelan sovereignty and for the payment of bribes to members of the Venezuelan military.

All ongoing cooperation projects, such as the construction of a bi-national gas pipeline, were to be immediately suspended, Chávez announced, adding that he is discussing the matter with other governments, due to the seriousness of Colombia’s actions in using bribery to incite members of the Venezuelan armed forces to commit a crime.

Romero questioned why Colombia had suddenly decided to break with the status quo that allowed someone like Granda to “participate in the kind of ambiguity so typical of the conflict in that country, with armed clashes on the one hand and guerrilla leaders meeting abroad with foreign politicians on the other.”

One possible explanation, said Romero, a graduate school professor at a number of Venezuelan universities, is the entry into force of “Plan Patriot,” a Colombian military offensive aimed at penetrating territory under FARC control, and largely viewed as the military phase of Plan Colombia, a U.S.-financed anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategy.

This frontal attack on the rebel forces is supposedly based on “the premise that all guerrilla groups are terrorist groups, and we are in the midst of a global war on terrorism,” he added.

Upon admitting that the Colombian government had paid a reward for the capture of Granda, Defense Minister Uribe said that “Colombia will do whatever it has to do, without violating international agreements and international law, to ensure that the leaders of these groups are safely put away.”

For his part, Santos said that “bounty hunters will be warmly welcomed in Colombia. We hope they all come to help capture these bandits. There’s plenty of money, and it’s here waiting for them.”

Santos maintained that this is a “legitimate method, used in the United States, for example, which is offering a juicy sum for the capture of Osama bin Laden,” leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Romero noted that Uribe and other Colombian politicians “are toeing the line of the hawks in the U.S. government, like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and acting as if Washington had told them, ‘Hunt down the political leaders of the guerrilla forces and send them here to us.”

According to an editorial in the Colombian Communist Party weekly Voz, “the Colombian government’s doctrine, which is as dangerous as it is unacceptable, is that the guerrillas must be persecuted through all possible methods, even illegal ones.”

“There was a violation of Venezuelan sovereignty. The Colombian defense minister has assumed responsibility for bribery, and therefore has participated in the kidnapping of a citizen in another country, which is akin to applying the law of the jungle in the Andean region,” Venezuelan Vice President José Vicente Rangel.

“With this action, Plan Colombia is being extended to the whole Andean region,” said Rangel, adding that “my objection to the kidnapping of Granda is the same as that made in the Southern Cone to Operation Condor,” a covert military intelligence-sharing strategy followed by South American dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s.

Romero believes that the Venezuelan president’s reaction has been particularly forceful because “Colombia’s actions not only throw a wrench into bilateral relations, but also implicate the armed forces, where Chávez hails from, and could be interpreted as meaning that the president is not in full control of his security and defense forces.”

General Jorge García Carneiro, the minister of defense, read a statement on Friday in which he condemned the behavior of the Venezuelan military forces involved in the operation.

Chávez announced that they would be punished “with the full weight of the law, because they have disgraced the uniform of the army of Simón Bolívar,” the founding father of Venezuelan independence.