A Deadly Dust-Up in South America

The enmity and suspicion that erupted last week in South America are likely to endure for some time.


An Ecuadoran soldier surveys the aftermath of the Colombian raid.

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Some may find it hard to take Venezuela's Hugo Chávez seriously with his anti-U.S. and anticapitalist bombast. But don't tell that to the neighbors of his oil-rich South American country, especially U.S.-backed Colombia. Vexed by rebels who take refuge outside their borders, Colombian government forces struck deep into the jungle in the dark of night with airstrikes and flashes of gunfire. When they were finished, 21 people had died, among them Paul Reyes, the No. 2 leader of the infamous Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Known by the acronym FARC, the leftist guerrilla group allegedly receives support from Venezuela and is knotted up with narcotrafficking and kidnapping.

But what distinguished this raid more than its high-profile target was the fact that it crossed a recognized international border into Ecuador. As such, it touched off last week a dangerous and complex diplomatic crisis, as both Ecuador and Venezuela rushed troops to their borders with Colombia. Suddenly, the risk of a wider war had been ramped up, even if it were still unlikely to actually happen. Chávez warned that if Colombia crossed the line with his country in its counterinsurgency campaign, "it would be cause for war." Venezuela also partially halted trade with Colombia, as condemnations of the Colombian incursion were sounded across Latin America. In Washington, by contrast, President Bush lent support to the Colombians and their embattled president, Alvaro Uribe.

Chávez and the Ecuadoran president, Rafael Correa, called Uribe a liar for his description of the deadly raid. But there are plenty of allegations to go around: The Colombians contend that their soldiers had recovered laptops from the dead rebels that show ties to Ecuadoran officials and contain evidence that Venezuela has given FARC $300 million in secret support—an extension, perhaps, of a mutually supportive relationship that included an alleged early payment to Chávez before he was elected president in the 1990s. The enmity and suspicion that erupted last week in South America's northern reaches are likely to endure for some time.