On Ecuador's border, FARC rebels visit often

The Ecuadorean Army says it destroyed 47 FARC camps in its territory last year. On Friday, Latin American leaders backed away from a war.

By , Correspondent

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    Crisis over: Colombians in Medellín watched news of Friday's summit when the leaders of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador shook hands.
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Residents of dozens of tiny villages that dot the Ecuadorean side of the Putumayo and San Miguel Rivers can usually tune into a FARC rebel radio station that plays revolutionary ranchera music and calls civilians to take up their fight.

But the station has been eerily silent since Colombia bombed a guerrilla camp near here in a cross-border raid last week.

It doesn't mean, residents say, that rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are gone. Locals here say that Colombian rebels constantly slip over the border and set up camp in the thick jungle that covers the area.

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Luz Amparo Campos runs a small restaurant out of a neat, brightly painted shack in this town of a few hundred homes. From her kitchen window, she can see her native Colombia across the muddy water of the San Miguel River that marks the border.

Ms. Campos was driven from Colombia six years ago, slipped over the border, and settled here. She shakes her head at the irony. "I try to get away from the war there and I come to find them [the rebels] here!" says Campos.

A tense diplomatic standoff last week between Ecuador and Colombia had threatened to escalate into a full-fledged regional conflict. It originated in one of those rebel camps deep in the Ecuadorean jungle, where the FARC's No. 2 leader had been sleeping and was killed along with 23 others in Colombia's March 1 raid.

The strike angered Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to the point where he severed relations with Colombia and sent thousands of troops to the border.

Tensions subsided Friday after a round of well-intentioned – if somewhat forced – handshakes and backslaps at a regional presidential summit. But a lasting peace means Ecuador and Colombia will have to move beyond a handshake to resolve the disputes along the 447-mile border, analysts say.

Even after breaking the ice at the presidential summit, Mr. Correa said Saturday that it would "take some time" to renew full diplomatic relations with Colombia.

This diplomatic row was the latest and – by far – the most serious spat between the two neighbors, but Ecuador has complained for years of previous Colombian Army incursions, as well as Colombia's US-funded aerial fumigation of drug crops along the border it says affects legal crops on this side. In January, Ecuador said it was preparing to take the fumigation case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In addition, Ecuador has taken in as many as 250,000 Colombian refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, putting a strain on its health and social services.

Normally, these disputes have been resolved through meetings of foreign ministers or even the presidents that end with Colombian commitments that are not honored, says Freddy Rivera, a military and border issues analyst in Quito, Ecuador. "Colombia has never accepted responsibility for the damage its conflict is causing on Ecuador's borders," he says.

Deputy Foreign Minister Eduardo Vega said in an interview at the Foreign Ministry in Quito that was one of the reasons the most recent incident sparked such a broad diplomatic crisis. "We're sick of these things happening, getting apologies then seeing it happen again," he said.

Colombia has long complained that Ecuador does not do enough to fight the FARC presence in its territory. Successive Ecuadorean governments have criticized Colombia for not doing enough to contain its internal conflict.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe accused Correa of receiving financial support from the FARC, and revealed documents that indicated one of Correa's ministers had sought to talk about border policies with the FARC leadership.

Mr. Uribe backed down from the accusations Friday and apologized to Ecuador, saying Colombia would not conduct such cross-border operations in future, but also asked for more cooperation from his neighbors in fighting the guerrillas. Uribe said the incursion into Ecuador occurred because "we have not received cooperation from his government in the fight against terrorism."

Ecuador denied this, pointing to the 47 rebel camps Ecuadorean troops destroyed last year along the border. Lt. Col. Jose Nunez, a commander of a Special Forces battalion who has patrolled the border for years, says he personally participated in destroying 18 camps.

"By the time we get there the rebels are gone," he said. "They have always tried to avoid contact with us because they know it would complicate things."

The FARC, on the Ecuadorean side, also do not promote the planting of coca crops as they do in Colombia nor do they blow up the oil pipelines that crisscross the region. They also do not try to recruit locals, residents say.

"Over here those guys don't bother anyone," says Raul Alberto Vera, a farmer, as he cut through weeds with a machete on a plot along near the border where he has lived for 22 years.

The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, was due in Quito Monday to follow up on the commitments made at the summit. Recognizing that the handshake was just the beginning of restoring relations, he told CNN in Spanish: "There are still many things that need to be resolved."

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