Publicado: 1ero de abril de 2009
Air & Space Power Journal - Español  Primer  Trimestre 2009

"War Without Borders: The Ecuador-Colombia Crisis of 2008 and Inter-American Security."

Dr. Gabriel Marcella

Westphalia in the Andes.

Climate change, deforestation, pollution, contraband, weapons proliferation, terrorism, money-laundering, illegal immigration, and gangs combine with the diffusion of technology and modern communication to mock international order. Andean states are experiencing a profound crisis of authority, governance, democratic legitimacy, and territorial security.1 The crisis is superimposed upon a tradition of laissez faire on ungoverned space and border control and continuing disagreement about terrorism. Given this background, the institutional capacity, the political will, preventive diplomacy, and the mechanisms for effective security cooperation and conflict resolution between states have not caught up to the demands of the new geopolitical realities of wars without borders. An assortment of international criminals prosper from weak borders and weak states.

Midnight in the Amazon.

At half-past-midnight on March 1, three A37 aircraft and five Brazilian-made Super Tucanos of the Colombian air force fired precision-guided bombs into a camp of the terrorist-narco-trafficking Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) 1.8 kilometers inside the border in a difficult jungle area of Ecuador, an area known as Angostura.2  Target of the attack was long time FARC leader Raúl Reyes, who was killed along with 24 others (including four Mexicans and an Ecuadorean).3  (See Map 1.) Colombian forces recovered the extensive computer files of Reyes, which would become a trove of information.

South America MapThe camp was located in the north-easternmost part of Ecuador, across from an area in Colombia which has been the redoubt of the FARC’s Front 48. Nine hours after the strike, President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia called President Rafael Correa, his Ecuadorean counterpart. Correa was caught totally unaware and led a verbal and diplomatic assault against Uribe and Colombia. It took the Ecuadorean Army 6 hours to reach Angostura, an area so remote that the last Ecuadorean patrol there took place a year before.

By mid-April, Correa’s aggressive tone had moderated to a warning that if the FARC crossed into Ecuador, it would mean war, a statement that was well-received in Colombia. Nonetheless, his accusation seemed on the surface to be one of surprising innocence, since generations of Ecuadoreans have memory of border violations by terrorists, traffickers, and contrabandists along its borders, in addition to high levels of crime, and an intense national debate about the ecological integrity of its Amazon region. Moreover, the Ecuadorean polity was hardly innocent in the strategic use of military power. In 1995, its armed forces performed superbly in a short war against Peru, culminating a border conflict between the two countries that had lasted two centuries.

Indeed, the attack had been prepared. Colombia was able to fix the location of Reyes at the camp via an informant on the night of February 29. Reyes had been moving around various camps in Ecuador. Following March 1, there ensued a torrent of incandescent insults and reactions between Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela that lay bare the contradictions that haunt Latin America when it comes to fighting terrorism and international crime.4 The March 1 attack and its aftermath are a part of a larger tableau that depicts the vulnerabilities of weak democracy to the corruption by narcotics, intimidation by terrorism, the need for effective civil-military relations in confronting, the contradictions that populism generates in foreign policy, as well as understanding the unintended consequences of the application of American power, even when intentions are noble.

The results of the attack added strategic value to Colombia’s war against the FARC. Reyes was a member of the secretariat of the murderous narco-terrorist FARC. The FARC camp had been in existence for at least 3 months, disposing of such amenities as beds, two gasoline powered generators, a satellite dish, television, training area, chicken coop and pig pen, and stored food, in addition to an arsenal of weapons.5 Thus the FARC had established a semi-permanent site in Ecuador.

Clashing Principles.

On March 8 the Summit of the Group of Rio meeting in the Dominican Republic unanimously condemned Colombia’s violation of sovereignty. Later, the OAS agreed on a consensus resolution on March 17 that “rejected” the Colombian incursion, stating the venerable international law principle: “no state or group of states has the right to intervene, either directly or indirectly, for whatever motive, in the internal or external affairs of another.”6 The resolution did not condemn Colombia but reiterated the commitment of states to fight irregular groups.

Thus the eternal dilemma of conflicting values in international relations: which is higher, nonintervention or self-defense? Should Colombia have restrained itself, accepting the risk of having its citizens attacked, and informed Ecuadorean authorities prior to the attack? Colombia could not let this opportunity go by. Nonetheless, a judicious approach would have a timely diplomatic call on the night of the attack from Uribe to Correa would helped build confidence in the bilateral relationship, instead of adding to strains and misunderstandings that had been developing for years between the two countries. Three points support these judgments:

1. All states reserve the right of self-defense. Colombia’s action could be seen as a preemptive, instead of a preventive or precautionary, military strike made necessary by the FARC’s decades-old war against the state and people of Colombia.7 That the FARC would strike again had the highest certitude, therefore justifying the preemptive attack. The FARC habitually used safe havens in Ecuador because of Ecuador’s inability to control its border and territory, and in Venezuela, because of difficult terrain and the apparent laissez faire complicity and demonstrated support of Caracas for the FARC. According to the International Crisis Group of Brussels, the weak link in Colombia’s security policy was its undefended and open borders.8 Brazil and Peru made serious efforts to prevent the FARC from using their territories. Moreover, Uribe’s military has been pursuing an aggressive decapitation strategy against FARC leaders,9 with increasing success. The head of the Colombian National Police stated that this was the fifth time that Colombian forces had attempted to strike Reyes, who had moved around to various locations in Ecuador. Given this information, Colombia’s military strategy and its implications for Ecuador should have been well known to Ecuadorean statesmen.

2. Operational security for the plan to strike the FARC might be compromised “Because we didn’t trust Ecuador,” said Colombia’s Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos.10 According to Bogotá’s El Tiempo, Colombia’s intelligence service, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) had informed Ecuador 16 times and as recently as November 26, 2007, including providing a document with the exact location of 25 FARC “bases” inside Ecuador. Colombia alerted other governments about FARC activities on their soils: Argentina four times, Bolivia twice, Brasil seven, Peru four, and Venezuela ten. The DAS report stated that 80 percent of the alerts received no response or “evasive” answers.11 Given apparent ambivalence (if not support) towards the FARC among members of the Correa government, operational security became paramount in Colombian planning. Allowing the FARC and Reyes to escape would be an embarrassing setback for Colombia and a menace for Ecuador.

3. The rudimentary system for early warning and crisis management between Colombia and Ecuador was ineffective.12 Colombia violated Ecuadorean air space in its campaign against the FARC in 2006. As a consequence, Ecuador activated its air defense, while the two defense ministers made a joint declaration to improve security and avoid border incidents. The Ecuadorean Army maintained 13 frontier detachments.13 In January and February 2006, Ecuador activated the air defense system in an effort to prevent border incursions. At the time, Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrín stated: “The Ecuadorean Army will act in legitimate defense against any element that intends to violate the national sovereignty.”14

It is uncertain what role corruption in high places may have played in Ecuador’s response, but there were recent intimations of an attempt at vote buying involving a military intelligence officer and a civilian opposition political figure Earlier,15 Correa was accused of manipulating promotions among senior admirals of the Ecuadorean Navy. Minister of Defense Wellington Sandoval stated to El Comercio on March 30 that coordination between Ecuador’s military intelligence and the police failed.16 Sandoval also stated that “we knew that Reyes was in Ecuador frequently.”

On the surface these developments in Ecuador’s civil-military relations suggest that military intelligence did not have confidence that civilian officials of the government could be trusted, since those same officials might compromise the information to the FARC. Dysfunctional civil-military relations can be costly for national defense. It appears that at the decision-making level, the Quito government did not have a smoothly functioning working relationship between Correa, his senior advisors, and the military leadership.17 Moreover, by April 2008, slightly more than a year in power, he had appointed four defense ministers (the first was killed in a helicopter accident), all innocent about defense strategy. At the same time, the Correa government reoriented the military to social and economic development missions and away from national defense. The reorientation risked weakening the link between defense strategy and military strategy.

The fluid domestic political context of weak intelligence coordination, poor border control, distempers in civil-military relations, and the audacity and professionalism of the Colombian attack, engendered strategic surprise. It may also have had the psychological impact of humiliating Correa, leading him to act tough abroad in order to be respected at home. A preventive strike could not be expected to be welcome by Ecuador, as the British strategic analyst Colin S. Gray asserts: “A state and society militarily bested in a surprise assault cannot be assumed to be willing to cooperate with the victorious power of the preventor.”18 This was not the first time that Colombia had inserted forces in Ecuador. For example, in January 2006, Colombian planes entered Ecuadorean airspace to pursue a FARC column reputedly containing Raúl Reyes. Uribe declared at the time: “Our Public Force entered Ecuador involuntarily in order to prevent the FARC terrorist group, in violation of Ecuadorean territory, from continuing to launch attacks to kill our soldiers and police . . . in addition to doing damage to our civilian citizens.”19 Ecuador recalled its ambassador to Bogotá for consultations. In recent years there were numerous violations by Colombian aircraft. Thus, the two countries developed a pattern of responses that served to weaken the trust between them, without developing some institutionalized method for dealing with the incursions and the potential for miscalculation, or worse yet ceding the initiative to the FARC.

While Colombia was succeeding in driving the FARC to the uninhabited southeastern portion of the country closing its lines of communication, statesmen in Ecuador saw the impact differently, more displaced people as refugees and more FARC crossings, and growing Colombian power against weak Ecuador. The declining trust between the two capitals was also evident in the dispute over the spraying of diluted glyphosate by Colombian aircraft to eliminate coca plantations adjacent to the Ecuadorean border. The dispute culminated in studies and counterstudies, and rhetorical threats by Correa, even though the spraying aircraft maintained a 10 kilometer distance from the border.20

The attack of March 1 may have humiliated Ecuador because it portrayed its vulnerability to its much stronger neighbor, whose military capabilities had been significantly enhanced by the United States. Therefore, the Colombian attack had a profound psychological impact on the political balance within Ecuador, one that strengthened the popularity of Correa, and led to soul-searching among the political class and intellectual community. The debate over the release of intelligence about FARC related activities shed light on failures of national security decision-making at the highest levels.

Colombia’s Case, Chávez, and Ecuador.

Colombia has been assailed for decades by the FARC, who are on the defensive as the result of a vigorous commitment by the government and armed forces. Since the administration of Andrés Pastrana in 1998, Colombia has invested heavily in eliminating the twin scourges of terrorism and narcotics, achieving great success in reestablishing security. The public security forces (military and police) were expanded significantly in size, operational capability, and professionalism. By 2007 Colombia had greater security over the national territory, thanks to implementing the plan called Democratic Security and Defense Policy. Some 30,000 illegal paramilitary forces accepted demilitarization and demobilization. Approximately 10,800 FARC combatants remained in the organization, down from 16,800 in 2002. Security improvements were impressive: 80 percent reductions in kidnappings, 40 percent in homicides, terrorist attacks declined from 1645 in 2002 to 349 in 2007; the murder rate was the lowest in 20 years, and the area of coca cultivation reduced from 163,289 hectares in 2000 to 77,870 in 2006. Moreover, 2.3 million Colombians rose out of poverty. With this momentum of strategic and operational success, the attack on the Reyes camp was immensely popular in Colombia, and would soon be followed by the elimination of other FARC leaders.

The support of the international community in fighting terrorism is mandated by the United Nations and makes superb sense in Latin America. The FARC are terrorists to the United States, the European Union, and Colombia, but neither the OAS nor most Latin American countries have declared them so. The ambivalence is demonstrated strikingly by the posture of Hugo Chávez, who has imperial ambitions fed by petrodollars at 130 dollars per barrel in mid 2008. Chávez had campaigned internationally to have the FARC recognized as “belligerents.” Captured Reyes computer files show that Chávez may have offered to send up to 300 million dollars to the FARC, coordinated diplomatic moves with them, provided guns and ammunition, as well as sanctuary within Venezuela.21 Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos asserted: “What they (the computer files) show is that the level of cooperation was much more than we had earlier estimated, we knew there was a level of cooperation, but not as intense, not as close and not as effective as we’re now seeing.”22 Moreover, administrative shabbiness and corruption last year allowed some 270 tons of cocaine to pass through Venezuela bound for the United States and Europe. In reaction to the Colombian strike, Chávez ordered 10 battalions and tanks to the Colombian border. Few of the units made it because of the deplorable condition of Venezuela’s military. Uribe coolly ordered no military response, instead he threatened to haul Chávez to the International Criminal Court for aiding terrorism.

The western part of the 590 kilometer Ecuador-Colombia border is economically dynamic. The heavily forested eastern end of haS never been controlled, allowing drug traffickers, criminals, and contrabandists to move freely in crossing the San Miguel and Putumayo rivers. It is classical ungoverned space where criminals exploit the lack of state presence and security.23 The narcotics economy across the river in Colombia provided opportunities for Ecuadorean peasants to make money and easy FARC infiltration of the border populations. The International Crisis Group reported in March 2008 that Ecuador is a transit and storage point for Colombian and Peruvian drugs, for the passage of precursor chemicals, and a money-laundering platform because of the dollarized economy.24

In 2005 the Ecuadorean armed forces found some 25 illegal border crossing points. Ecuadoreans claim that the same 25 illegal crossings should have been known to Colombian authorities. The adjacent Colombian departments of Nariño and Putumayo saw a veritable explosion of coca plantings since the 1990s, increasing the competition between the FARC and paramilitary forces.

Given these considerations, Ecuador’s unpreparedness for the incident of March 1 was surprising. The long-term commitment of Colombian governments to eliminate narcotics and terrorists and given the repeated FARC intrusions, incidents of hot pursuit by the Colombian armed forces, the number of FARC camps destroyed within Ecuador, the level of diplomatic interaction with the United States on Ecuador’s regional security, and the intense political-diplomatic-military learning issuing from the 1995 war with Peru, should have prepared Ecuador’s statesmen to manage the eventuality of a serious crisis.

Perspectives from Ecuador.

Ecuador’s dynamic and loquacious president, Rafael Correa, is trying to right the ship of a very weak state, a dysfunctional democracy, and sick economy.25 He came to office with a strong mandate in the throes of a deep national crisis which saw eight presidents in the previous 10 years. Armed with a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois, a career in university teaching, a tour as Minister of Economics, and imbued with the concept of a social market economy (as opposed to the neo-liberal market economy), he claims to be launching a peaceful “citizen’s revolution,” as he promotes constitutional reform, and some nebulous “socialism of the 21st century.” The country faces staggering challenges of social exclusion: 56 percent of the people and 80 percent of the Indians live in poverty.26

Ecuador’s former Defense Minister, retired army General Oswaldo Jarrín, eloquently described Ecuador’s internal difficulties in 2004: “High levels of poverty, marginalization, and social exclusion are factors…feed social pressure to obtain more attention to services, opportunities for work and quality of life, and (create) social frustration which delegitimate already weak institutions and accentuate ungovernability, instability and violence.” 27

Responding angrily to the March 1 attack, Correa accused Uribe of lying, broke diplomatic relations, and fulminated against the United States and the international media for its alleged organized campaign against Ecuador. Uribe upheld Colombia’s right to self-defense. The northern border had become increasingly hot with incursions by criminal elements from Colombia. Oswaldo Jarrín reports than an estimated 70 percent of the population of Sucumbíos province conducts commerce with the FARC. To combat the emerging threat the Ecuadorean government implemented border development programs that would provide alternative economic incentives to the local people.

In March 2000, Ecuador’s COSENA analyzed the emerging situation and Plan Colombia and decided to employ preventive diplomacy, “instead of the neorealist confrontational logic, which focuses on solving the problem with force, a control of the situation based on the strategy of influence and the logic of cooperation, within international law and respect for international agreements of which Ecuador is a part.” This posture would guide Ecuadorean foreign policy and defense strategy. For its part, the United States saw Ecuador as an invaluable ally in the counternarcotics crusade, and a partner with Colombia. As will be seen later, American law prevented Washington from providing essential security assistance at a critical moment in Ecuador’s developing weakness.

Referring to the relationship between the two countries, Colombia’s leading strategic analyst, Alfredo Rangel Suárez, calls it a “dialogue of the deaf,” especially for the last 3 years. Rangel’s criticism does not speak well for the academic communities and decisional elites in each country. Eduardo Posada Carbó, one of Colombia’s leading historians, admonishes: “We need to know Ecuador better, a task that should be better handled by our universities, think tanks, and the press.”

Ecuador has taken the principled position that Colombia’s conflict is to be solved by Colombians, that the FARC are irregular forces rather than terrorists. The international law distinction is, argues Ecuador, that to call them terrorists would be intervention in the internal affairs of Colombia and risk reprisal by the FARC.

Ecuador’s position progressively hardened as its internal troubles became more acute. It seems that the Ecuadorean government has magnified its weakness (it ranked as the eighth most corrupt country in 2007). For example, Quito said even before Correa was elected, that the agreement allowing the United States to use a small section of Eloy Alfaro air base at Manta for counternarcotics reconnaissance flights (which helped intercept nearly 208 tons of cocaine in 2007) would not be renewed in 2009. Ecuador’s foreign policy has held the strategically innocent view that the U.S. supported Plan Colombia threatens the security of Ecuador. Correa made a statement on March 15 that defied comprehension: “. . . Ecuadoreans shouldn’t be surprised that there is a plan to destabilize the government and establish a puppet (titere) government which would lend itself to involve the country in the Colombian war and be an associate and an accomplice of the government of Uribe.”

Plan Colombia is designed to promote security, economic development, and justice--achievements which would benefit Ecuador. These are symmetrical with the goals of Plan Ecuador, which is designed to improve security on the northern border. In sum, Ecuador’s unwillingness to publicly recognize the threat to the Colombian state and society is perceived in Bogotá as sympathy for the FARC. At the same time, Colombia does not recognize, as the influential Alfredo Rangel Suárez admonishes, that Ecuador has made an immense effort to secure its border far beyond what Colombia has done, and this needs recognition on the part of both the United States and Colombia.

Appearing to weaken Ecuador’s pristine defense about the March 1 incident was information found in Reyes’s computer: Ecuador’s Minister Coordinator of Internal and External Security was negotiating with Reyes. Allegedly, the meeting took place in Venezuela to negotiate the release of hostages, such as the notable Colombian-French citizen, former senator, and candidate for president, Ingrid Betancourt, who would be liberated in a daring rescue in early July. Additional information issuing in May from the Reyes computer files indicated that the FARC had sent $100,000 to the presidential campaign of Correa, which the latter vehemently denied.

Ecuador has asked the United States to support Plan Ecuador, and requested and got an extension of trade preferences for its products to enter the United States so that farmers do not plant coca. The United States Agency for International Development has been supporting with funds Ecuador’s job creation and agricultural programs on the northern border. The United States is also working with the Ecuadorean National Police to strengthen drug law enforcement on the northern border, and to control cargo transiting Ecuador’s sea and airports. Similarly, U.S. support goes to the military to provide security on the northern border and to improve communication and cooperation with the police. The logic of the Ecuadorean position seems confounding. A weak country with extensive trade with friendly Colombia cannot have it both ways, seek the support of the United States, appear to loosen its commitment to fight the narcotics traffic by telling the United States to leave Eloy Alfaro, and assume a position of virtual neutrality without strengthening its border security and military capabilities to deter “irregular forces” from using its territory to attack its neighbor. American officials state that access to Eloy Alfaro is a convenience, not a necessity, hard to replace to be sure, but the real issue will be Ecuador’s commitment to fight the narcotics traffic beyond 2009. Ecuadorean officials have reassured that their country will cooperate.

The contradiction of neutrality is articulated by one of Ecuador’s finest scholars, Simón Pachano:

The other task, and the most important, is the country’s definition of its position on the Colombian conflict. The recent episodes indicate a strictly reactive character, which expresses the absence of a long range strategy. For many years we have taken refuge in neutrality, without understanding that it is an absurdity in terms of principles and the source of practical problems. All of us who at some moment have supported (neutrality) must recognize the error, for the simple fact that a State (sic) cannot be impartial in the face of an attack by an irregular group against another State which it recognizes as legitimate.

While not in the same geopolitical league, Switzerland and Sweden combine principle and power by maintaining robust military capabilities to defend their neutrality. To be sure, the Correa government attempted to respond to the vulnerability of the northern border. Its Plan Ecuador is intended to improve border security by promoting social and economic development. .

Ecuador has done much with limited resources. Foreign Minister María Isabel Salvador and Minister of Government Fernando Bustamante declared at Washington’s Inter-American Dialogue on March 18 that Ecuador has an impressive record against narcotics and the FARC, and that, moreover, Ecuador has welcomed some 300,000 Colombian refugees, and in the past asked Colombia to take responsibility for the refugees. Ecuador has dismantled 170 FARC camps, destroyed cocaine labs and coca plantings, and supports the OAS and other international efforts to eliminate narcotics. Foreign Minister Salvador noted that Ecuador places 11 percent of its military and police (11,000) on the border with Colombia, while Colombia a mere 2 percent%. In 2006, Ecuador seized 38 metric tons of cocaine, arrested 3.327for drug trafficking, and destroyed 114,000 coca plants. In addition, cooperation for counternarcotics, smuggling, and illegal immigration is very good among the Coast Guards of Colombia, Ecuador, and the United States.

The Ecuadorean people are well aware of the price of insecure borders, having ceded considerable territory to Peru and Colombia in the last 2 centuries. In 1941 Ecuador’s best troops were kept in Quito while Peruvian troops occupied the southern provinces. Ecuador fought an expensive war in 1995 that led to the final demarcation of the boundary with Peru. Ecuador feels victimized at a time of national weakness by the insensitivity of Colombia’s power and by the United States which supports it.

Good Intentions vs. Principled Pragmatism.

The attack on Angostura and the response of the parties directly and indirectly involved has enormous significance for peace, security, and development in Latin America and for the United States. States must do more to secure their borders. There ought to be greater awareness about the insidious threat of terrorism and narcotics and their ability to exploit societal and international vulnerabilities, the seams between international law, sovereignty, official corruption, ungoverned space, and weak state capacity.

At some point, the conspiratorial and bullying Chávez imperio will end because of corruption, administrative incompetence, and the democratic yearnings of the Venezuelan people. Venezuela can then resume its role as constructive member of the international community. Colombia seems to be on its way to peace and security, but needs continued support from its neighbors. In the meantime, a blind anti-American and anti-democratic populist rage, fed by dysfunctional state systems, massive poverty, and social exclusion, is alive across a number of countries, complicating the defense agenda of governments, forcing counterproductive compromises between internal and external domains. Populist governments tend to be idealists on national defense, relying on diplomacy and “development” to solve conflict, often running away from the deterrent potential of the military instrument, while making deals with the devil and distancing themselves from the United States. Such governments tend to focus the military on internal development programs rather than external defense, precisely Correa’s pattern. An astute analyst of contemporary civil-military relations in Latin America adds:

Without an external threat to focus on, civilian politicians in a democracy typically assign defense issues a low priority in favor of economic and political ones that will bring tangible electoral returns. Also, militaries with histories of political autonomy and intervention are reluctant to share defense information with civilian politicians, let alone educate them about these issues, for fear of generating alternative sources of power that could threaten their corporate interests.

Correa’s populist definition of the national defense problem at the border can be gleaned from an interview with Bogotá’s Semana magazine of April 20, 2008:

Colombia does not take care of its southern border, it’s a deliberate strategy to involve us in Plan Colombia. A great part of the population, especially in the Amazon, supports the FARC because the Colombian and the Ecuadorean state is not there and those who provide work to the people (drugs, etc.) are the FARC. How do you stop it? Uribe thinks it’s by bombing. Our strategy is human development in the region.

The statement once again misinterpreted Plan Colombia and overlooked the fact that the FARC forces peasants into the illegal drugs economy. Moreover, a realistic view would have seen that the Colombia-Ecuador distemper of March 2008 has been brewing for years, because Colombia’s neighbors have not secured their borders, and because the FARC would seek refuge in Ecuador and Venezuela if pressure increased in Colombia, and that “human development” is impossible without security. The contrasting views on security underscore that the eloquent declarations of the triumph of peace and diplomacy at the OAS and at the Group of Rio Summit and the handshakes between Uribe, Correa, and Chávez are very much part of Latin American strategic culture, but they leave unfinished the tasks of border security and dealing with the insidious penetration of terrorism, drugs, dirty money, contraband, and international organized crime.
The Latin American states need to find common ground between fundamentally different views on what constitutes terrorism versus legitimate political activity. As Uribe stated at the Group of Rio Summit:

It surprises me that they speak of the violation of the sovereign territory of Ecuador, but not of the violation of the sovereignty of the people of Colombia . . . To speak of territorial sovereignty you have to speak of the other sovereignty, which is more important than the territorial, which is the right of a people not to be attacked.

Uribe was enunciating a new concept of sovereignty, a concept that has not taken root in the ministries and the intelligentsia of Latin America. Terrorism cannot be liberation or irregular warfare to one legitimate democratic government and crime to another. Governments should defend coherent principles in foreign and defense policies, because they all benefit from international order. They must take seriously the combustible combination of drugs, terrorists, at times supported by extreme leftist social protest groups masquerading as nationalists, human rights movements, and legitimate democratic forces while threatening fundamental security and democracy.

Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, and Venezuela should create effective mechanisms for dealing with border security, international crime, and terrorism. A potentially useful initiative is Brazil’s proposal for a South American Defense Council. Defense Minister Nelson Jobim stated in the aftermath of the crisis that its purpose would be to strengthen military cooperation and to prevent situations like the Colombian-Ecuador incident. Brazil, with some 15,000 kilometers of practically undefended borders with 10 countries, has a lot at stake. Though various countries signed up for the Defense Council at the May 2008 meeting of the presidents of South America in Brasilia, a number of knotty issues must be resolved. What are the threats that would agglutinate the Defense Council? Unless a majority of members recognize terrorism and drug trafficking as the main threats, what other threats would cause common action? Furthermore, are the members willing to invest in organizing and integrating forces, managing intelligence, training, equipment, and in establishing a political-military command and control system among governments who, in many cases, do not trust each other, especially for ideological reasons? Unless these matters are effectively dealt with, the South American Defense Council might become what one Latin American senior officer termed an opportunity for “diplomatic tourism.”

The regional community has an effective mechanism retrievable from its historical memory: the Military Observer Mission Ecuador/Peru (MOMEP. MOMEP is one of the most successful peacekeeping efforts ever undertaken. Constituted by Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and the United States, it supervised the separation of forces and demilitarization of the zone of conflict after the 1995 war between Ecuador and Peru, and helped establish the conditions for the Peace of Brasilia of 1998, thereby ending a centuries-old conflict. A Brazilian general commanded MOMEP. A similar arrangement should be possible for the Colombian-Ecuador border, under OAS auspices and perhaps rotating command among Latin American countries, to deal with irregular forces.

The United States: The Price of Noble Intentions.

For its part, the United States needs to demonstrate greater sensitivity and respond effectively to the legitimate security needs of regional partners who face a complex blend of threats at the lower end of the conflict spectrum. The United States is the anchor of international order and of regional security architecture that includes Colombia and Ecuador, but American law and competing global priorities prevented Ecuador from receiving military assistance, except for counternarcotics purposes. Accordingly, Ecuador’s current defense vulnerabilities can be partly attributed to the U.S. failure to provide much needed assistance in the form of logistics. In 2006 Ecuador offered to purchase two C130 transport aircraft, boats, troop transports, and equipment for telephone interception from the United States, but was turned down. An editorial in Diario Expreso on July 26, 2006, astutely stated that Ecuador “should not ask for but demand” such support because it would benefit Ecuador, Colombia, and the United States. The equipment would have helped Ecuador respond more quickly to FARC incursions. Later in January 2007, Ecuador would lose two of its functioning helicopters when they collided, killing Defense Minister Guadalupe Larriva, her daughter, and five crew members. On April 17, 2008, Correa, saying that previous governments had “satanized” purchasing equipment for the military, announced the purchase of 24 Super Tucanos and radar to help secure the northern border. On May 28, the Commander of the army announced that the government would allocate 57 million dollars over 3 years to improve capabilities to patrol the border.

The American contribution to Ecuador’s weakness originates from having to make tough choices about how to apportion its support in the face of competing regional and global priorities. There were also legal impediments from two directions: (1) The American Service Members Protection Act (ASPA) of 2002, followed by the Nethercutt amendment of 2004 ; and (2) The Rome Treaty giving the International Criminal Court, which came into being after the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals after World War II and received new life after the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, jurisdiction over persons committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

ASPA excluded foreign military personnel from receiving U.S. military assistance unless the affected country signed a bilateral agreement with the United States, permitted under Article 98 of the Rome Treaty, which would exempt American military personnel from the jurisdiction of the foreign country’s court system. Nethercutt went further, prohibiting countries that ratified the Rome Treaty and had not signed an Article 98 agreement from receiving Economic Support Funds, money that went to counterterrorism, peace programs, and anti-drug trafficking. The weak government in Ecuador, feeling pressure from the left and having second thoughts on the rent-free U.S. access agreement to Eloy Alfaro, refused to sign the bilateral agreement, thereby triggering U.S. sanctions. In October 2006, President George W. Bush signed a waiver that excluded 14 countries, 11 in Latin America, including Brazil and Ecuador, from the provisions of Article 98. The Defense Authorization Bill of 2007 rescinded the provisions of ASPA. But damage favorable to international disorder had been done. Washington’s tied hands not only weakened American influence, it weakened the perilous condition of the Ecuadorean state and its ability to deal with the complex security problems of the 21st century.

The unintended consequences of virtuous intentions were a blow against American interests in Latin America at a notably sensitive period when populist governments of the left needed a foreign antagonist to solidify their domestic political base, for example: the emerging chaotic politics that Correa inherited. The perception that American military personnel have immunity from prosecution for crimes against human rights is difficult to rebut in such circumstances (especially at a time that violations by military personnel at Abu Ghraib and the symbolism of Guantanamo damaged America’s moral standing), even if a state has a status of forces agreement with the United States. Colombia, which had such agreement with the United States dating back to the 1960s, saw the advantage of a new Article 98 based bilateral arrangement and signed one, despite significant political opposition within Colombia.

Such legal impediments hardly make sense when the United States needs Ecuador as a front line state in the battle against narcotics and terrorism. There is a contradiction: the United States needs the FOL at Eloy Alfaro for counternarcotics reconnaissance flights to complement a contribution from Ecuador across the spectrum of counternarcotics and counterterrorism, but is constrained to meet Ecuador’s legitimate defense needs. Therefore, to some degree, American reticence in providing military assistance contributed to the FARC’s ease in establishing camps in Ecuador. At that critical juncture, the Ecuadorean army lacked logistical and communications capabilities, having only one helicopter to transport troops to the border. Yet, the United States, for good reasons that matured into a close alliance, had to support Colombia in combating terrorism and narcotics. The asymmetry in power that ensued over time between Colombia and Ecuador did not help American credibility in Quito, given that government’s stated opposition to Plan Colombia, and especially as the coalition of support for Colombia and the United States weakened under the onslaught of populism, an uninformed and idealistic antimilitarism within Ecuadorean academic and intellectual circles, chavismo, self-inflicted wounds by U.S. foreign policy, and the insensitivity in Bogotá to Ecuador’s internal dysfunctions. Washington is often unaware of the immense power the United States wields, even if our intentions are noble, especially when such power affects small countries such as Ecuador, where programs of security assistance matter greatly. A good dose of principled pragmatism and smart power is in order.

In the short term, the United States can be an indirect catalyst for confidence-building between Colombia and Ecuador. Given the asymmetries in power and Ecuador’s sense of victimization, Colombia will have to take the initiative with Ecuador. Both the United States and Colombia can do more to address Ecuador’s concerns. The countries of the region must develop a clearer understanding that intrastate conflict, provoked by illegal actors, can escalate to interstate conflict. Countries must be alert with preventive diplomacy and render more effective the existing international agreements, so that international tensions do not become a platform which benefits illegal transnational groups.

A final reflection takes us beyond the Amazon. The events of March 1, 2008, signify that wars without borders are different from the wars of the past. The wars fought by terrorists and irregular forces avoid battles. They target civilians and control territory by fear, hate, corruption, and by population displacement. They are wars without geographic, legal, and moral constraints. The new wars pit the state against criminals, but the state must be the authoritative defender of standards of legality and human decency. Clausewitz was right that war is the continuation of politics (or policy) by other means. However, the politics have changed while the means, particularly the analytical and institutional capacities of governments, have not caught up to that change. Unfortunately, ungoverned space is matched by ungoverned space in the human intellect and in the ministries of government.


1. Paul W. Drake and Eric Hershberg, eds., State and Society in Conflict: Comparative Perspectives on Andean Crises, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.

2. The Super Tucanos later became a matter of dispute between Ecuador and Colombia. The Ecuadorean government would sustain that the Super Tucanos could not fire precision guided bombs because they were not configured to do so, that thus a third country (implying the United States) was involved. American officials denied involvement. The maker, EMBRAER, says that the aircraft can be armed with air to ground bombs. The bombs were American made.

3. Details on the aircraft are found in Richard Lugar, “Playing With Fire: Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela,” Report to the Members of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, April 28, 2008, p. 26.

4. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega also blasted away at Colombia. Potential reasons: to support oil bearing Chávez and to gain leverage against Colombia over jurisdiction to Caribbean islands and maritime space.

5. Sibylla Brodzinsky, “Rebel camp remains reflect fierce attack,”, March 11, 2008,

6. Sergio Gómez Maseri, “OEA logró un consenso para superar la crisis diplomática entre Colombia y Ecuador”), El Tiempo, March 18, 2008,

7. Preemptive vs. preventive military measures are often subjective judgments about the immanence of the threat, while precautionary measures are long term. Both require excellent intelligence. A preemptive attack is offensive in nature and designed to neutralize an immanent threat, while the preventive is defensive, allowing more time to take measures. These distinctions are developed by Colin S. Gray, “The Implications of Preemptive and Preventive War Doctrines: A Reconsideration,” Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, July 2007.

8. International Crisis Group, “Colombia’s Borders: The Weak Link in Uribe’s Security Policy,” Latin America Report No. 9, September 23, 2004.

9. Juan Forero, “Colombia’s Rebels Face Possibility of Implosion,” Washington Post, March 22, 2008, p. A22,

10. “Tirofijo está muerto”),Semana, May 24, 2008,

11. Unidad Investigativa, El Tiempo.Com, March 29, 2008,

12. There exists a mechanism for military cooperation on border security between Ecuador and Colombia: COMBIFRON. However, the two militaries do not conduct coordinated or combined military operations, though the two ministers of defense Camilo Ospina Bernal (Colombia) and General (ret) Oswaldo Jarrín (Ecuador),agreed in January 2006 “on the importance and necessity to cooperate with all the security organs to implement new and better controls on the entry of chemical precursors, arms, munitions and explosives into the respective countries.” See: “Declaración Conjunta de los Ministros de Defensa de Colombia y Ecuador”, Bogotá, January 12, 2006,

13. “Relación Ecuador-Colombia: Esmeraldas: pueblos fronterizos, tierra de nadie”, Hoy, April 5, 2008,

14. “FFAA activan sistema de defensa antiaéreo: El gabinete de Palacio se reunio para analizar la incursión de Colombia . . . .,” Hoy, February 1, 2006.

15. “Acosta pide información veraz de las FF. AA.,”, March 21, 2008,

16. Arturo Torres, “Sabíamos que Reyes pasaba a Ecuador,”, March 31, 2008,

17. Simón Pachano, “Pluma y Pistola,” El Universo, April 14, 2008,

18. Colin S. Gray, “The Implications of Preemptive and Preventive War Doctrines,” p. 18.

19. Alfredo Rangel Suárez, “Colombia y Ecuador: dos visiones de seguridad, una frontera,” Fundación Seguridad y Democracia, www.seguridadydemocracia.or, p. 16.

20. For the great glysophate debate of 2007, see Gabriel Marcella, “American Grand Strategy for Latin America in the Age of Resentment,” Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, September 2007, pp. 29-34. The Ecuadorean charge contradicts the results of research conducted by a team of Canadian, Spanish, English, and Brazilian scientists. See Keith R. Solomon, Arturo Anadón, Antonio Luiz Cerdeira, John Marshall, and Luz-Helena Sanín, Environmental and Human Health Assessment of the Aerial Spray Program for Coca and Poppy Control in Colombia, report prepared for the Inter-American Drug Control Commission (CICAD) section of the Organization of American States, Washington, DC, March 25, 2003, pp.11-12. It states:

The risk assessment concluded that glyphosate . . . as used in the eradication program in Colombia did not represent a significant risk to human health . . . Considering the effects of the entire cycle of coca and poppy production and eradication, clear-cutting and burning, and displacement of the natural flora and fauna were identified as the greatest environmental risks and are considerably more important than those from the use of glyphosate.

xxxxxxx. Ecuador rejected the CICAD report and produced its own, which rendered a contrary judgment. Glyphosate is used in both Colombia and Ecuador, and worldwide, as an herbicide. CICAD reported that 10-14 percent of the total amount of glyphosate used in Colombia is employed in the eradication of coca plants.

21. Juan Forero, “Venezuela Offered Aid to Colombian Rebels,”, May 15, 200,; “Los E-mails secretos,”, May 18, 2008,

22. Forero, “Venezuela Offered Aid,” p. 2.

23. For an analysis of the strategic relevance of ungoverned space, see Angel Rabassa et al., Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2007.

24. International Crisis Group, “Latin American Drugs 1: Losing the Fight,” Crisis Group Latin American Report No. 25, March 14, 2008, p. 17.

25. Correa once declared President Bush “dumb” and “calling him the devil offends the devil.” Ecuador’s political crisis is well described by Simón Pachano, “Ecuador: The Provincialization of Representation,” in Scott Mainwaring, Ana María Bejarano, Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez, eds., The Crisis of Democratic Representation in the Andes, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006, pp. 100-131. See also Thomas C. Bruneau, “Ecuador: The Continuing Challenge of Democratic Consolidation and Civil-Military Relations,” Strategic Insights, February 2006; Allen Gerlach, Indians, Oil, And Politics: A Recent History of Ecuador, Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2003. The most complete analysis of Ecuador’s crisis and the Correa political program is International Crisis Group, “Ecuador: Overcoming Instability?” Latin America Report Number 22, Brussels, August 7, 2007.

26. Correa’s economic thinking can be found in his book, La vulnerabilidad de la economía ecuatoriana: hacia una major política económica para la generación de empleo, reducción de pobreza y desigualdad, Quito, Programa de la Naciones Unidas Para el Desarrollo, 2004.

27. Oswaldo Jarrín, “La Junta de Seguridad Ciudadana: El Caso Sucumbíos,” Nueva Sociedad, No. 191, May-June 2004, p. 147.

28. Ibid., p. 152. In 2000, in a series of penetrating articles, Quito’s Hoy newspaper diagnosed the Colombian border problem very well: “For Ecuador the situation is highly conflictive: its border with Colombia is a powder keg which for whatever reasons can ignite.” Hoy, March 4, 2000, The articles had dramatic impact within COSENA. Senior military officers and academics with a defense portfolio, such as Adrián Bonilla, Fernando Bustamante, and César Montúfar, were also consulted. Author interview with General (Ret.) Oswaldo Jarrín, Washington, D.C., March 31, 2008.

29. Rangel Suárez, “Colombia y Ecuador . . . .”, p. 3.

30. Eduardo Posada Carbó, “Conocer más a los vecinos,”, March 28, 2008,

31. Gobierno Nacional de la República del Ecuador, “El Ecuador no se vinculará con el Plan Colombia,” March 15, 2008,

32. Simon Romero, “Files From Colombians Point to Venezuela Bid to Arm Rebels,” New York Times, March 30, 2008,

33. In addition, USAID supports alternative development (coffee), democracy and governance, combating trafficking in persons, economic growth, environmental protection (Amazon and Galapagos), inclusive development, and teacher training.

34. Simón Pachano, “Tareas”“Tasks),El Universo, April 21, 2008,

35. Associated Press, “Ecuador pide a Colombia coresponsbilidad con los refugiados,” El Universo, February 28, 2007,

36. Richard Downes and Gabriel Marcella, Security Cooperation in the Western Hemisphere: Resolving the Ecuador-Peru Conflict, Miami: North-South Center Press, 1999.

37. Marcella, “American Grand Strategy for Latin America in the Age of Resentment.”

38. Harold A. Trinkunas, Crafting Civilian Control of the Military in Venezuela: A Comparative Perspective, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005, p. 16.

39. “Que Uribe baje el tono,” Semana, April 20, 2008,

40. Ana María Salazar, “Un conflicto anunciado,” March 7, 2008,

41. Cited in “El debate es entre la soberanía y la llamada seguridad humana,”, March 29, 2008,

42. Glenn Weidner, “Peacekeeping in the Upper Cenepa Valley: A Regional Response to Crisis,” in Marcella and Downes, Security Cooperation in the Western Hemisphere, pp. 45-66.

43. Juan Carlos Calderón, “Ecuador pide apoyo logístico a EE.UU.,” Expreso, June 26, 2006.

44. Named for is sponsor, Congressman George Nethercutt of Washington.

45. The contradictions of ASPA became more apparent because of the Bush administration’s recent Mérida Initiative with Mexico. That country came under ASPA sanctions, but the United States could not assist Mexico in dealing with the extensive crime problem via the Merida Initiative unless the sanctions were lifted.

46. Because the United States applied these sanctions, China and Russia, which use no conditionality in their military diplomacy, were able to sell more weapons in Latin America. Venezuela also has an active military assistance program. China has undertaken a low key diplomacy in engaging a number of Latin American militaries.

47. These include the Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism, the Inter-American Drug Control Commission, and the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials.

48. I am indebted to Dr. William J. Olson, of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University, for this insight on ungoverned space.


El Dr. Gabriel Marcella El Dr. Gabriel Marcella, es profesor de Estrategia en el Departamento de Seguridad Nacional y Estrategia de la Escuela Superior de Guerra del Ejército de los EE.UU.. Con anterioridad sirvió como Asesor de Asuntos Internacionales para el Comandante en Jefe del Comando Sur de los Estados Unidos (US SOUTHCOM). Es autor de varios libros y artículos entre los que se encuentran: Warriors in Peacetime: The Military and Democracy in Latin America; Security Cooperation in the Western Hemisphere: Resolving the Ecuador-Peru Conflict (coautor); “Colombia’s Three Wars: U.S. Strategy at the Crossroads”; “War and Peace in Colombia,” “The Presidential Advisory System and the Making of Latin American Policy”; y “The Interagency Process and National Security: Forward Into the 21st Century.” Su interés actual reside en la toma de decisiones de seguridad nacional y las dimensiones estratégicas de las relaciones cívico-militar en tiempos de crisis y guerra. Con frecuencia sirve de comentarista en los medios impresos y televisivos sobre asuntos de seguridad en América Latina y la Política Estadounidense. Además, con frecuencia es consultor delante el Departamento de Estado y el Departamento de Defensa. Varios artículos escritos por el Dr. Marcella han aparecido anteriormente en las páginas del Air & Space Power Journal.

Disclaimer : The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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