Latin American countries are rushing to defuse the region's worst diplomatic crisis in years after Ecuador and Venezuela cut ties with Colombia, deployed troops to the borders, and issued warnings of war in the wake of Colombia's airstrike Saturday on leftist rebels based in neighboring Ecuador.
The Organization of American States (OAS) moved to hold an emergency meeting Tuesday to press for a peaceful solution, but in the current heated atmosphere, some experts expect the issue to move quickly to the United Nations Security Council.
Colombia's President Álvaro Uribe accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on Tuesday of "sponsoring and financing genocide" after Colombian officials said Saturday's raid turned up evidence that Mr. Chávez paid $300 million to support the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group.
While most observers consider full-scale war unlikely, they warn that the bluster and saber rattling could ruin efforts to climb down from the current crisis.
"Rhetoric, when it reaches a certain level, is in and of itself a concern," says Peter DeShazo, the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "To move things in a positive direction [the countries must] stop the verbal confrontations."
Colombia initially apologized for Saturday's incursion that killed a senior FARC leader, Raul Reyes, but then claimed Monday that documents found on computers seized in the raid showed that Chávez had funded the guerrillas and that Ecuador's leftist leader Rafael Correa (a Chávez ally) had sent a minister to meet with the rebels. Colombian police also say they found evidence that the FARC had been trying to get radioactive material for dirty bombs. Ecuador and Venezuela deny the allegations.
Ecuador marshals regional support
Mr. Correa arrived in Peru on Tuesday to start a five-nation tour of the region to lobby for support against what he calls a premeditated violation of his country's sovereignty.
Ecuador will seek a resolution at the OAS condemning Colombia for violating its territory, says Vicente Torrijos, an international relations expert in Bogotá. Colombia, he says, will defend itself on the basis of a UN antiterrorism resolution that prohibits states from "providing any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts."
Mr. Uribe reportedly spent the day Monday on the phone with regional leaders explaining his country's position. Colombia is expected to present further evidence of Venezuela and Ecuador's alleged support of the FARC at the OAS meeting.
Mr. Torrijos sees the conflict eventually being taken up by the UN Security Council and even envisions sanctions on Venezuela and Ecuador under the antiterrorism resolution.
Carlos Luna, a foreign affairs expert at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, says that the nations must work hard not to internationalize the conflict. "Siding of countries along ideological lines could cause lasting effects on the region," he says.
Ideology behind the tensions
But politics has driven much of the current meltdown. Chávez, who on his Sunday radio program said that it would be a cause for war if Colombia attempted a similar raid on Venezuelan territory, has been criticized for meddling. "The reaction by [Chávez] has been irresponsible in the manner in which he took the incident personally even though it is an issue to resolve between Ecuador and Colombia," says Carlos Romero, a professor of political science at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.
Relations between Chávez and Uribe, whom Chávez calls a US pawn, have deteriorated since Chávez attempted to mediate a prisoner swap. Although six hostages have been released to Venezuelan authorities, Chávez was quickly recalled for breaching protocols.
Colombia has been criticized too, for staging the attack without warning Ecuador, and then for the timing of its accusations against Ecuador and Venezuela. "The handling of that evidence has been pretty disastrous," says Gerson Arias, an analyst with the Ideas Para la Paz think tank in Bogotá, adding that Colombia should have held off on presenting the information from the seized computers until the OAS met.
By first apologizing to Ecuador for its incursion into Ecuadorean territory – an apology that Ecuador did not accept – and then revealing the evidence of FARC ties to the media in Bogotá sends "confusing and mixed messages."
Correa said Monday that the strike by Colombia spoiled negotiations his country was pursuing on a hostage swap – putting another dent in bilateral relations. "At the present moment it is very difficult to ease the tension between Colombia and Ecuador," says Adrian Bonilla, a political analyst at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Quito.
Still, many expect ties between Ecuador and Colombia to improve quickly. "With Venezuela the breach is much greater, the ideological gap," says Mr. DeShazo. "The confrontation is deeper between Venezuela and Colombia than with Ecuador."
The standoff is stoking nationalist sentiment in Ecuador and Colombia, says Mr. Bonilla. "Most of the people in Ecuador are rejecting the behavior of [Uribe], in every social condition, and from every different ideological base," says Mr. Bonilla. "In the case of Colombia many are supporting their government."
The region has become polarized so quickly, in part, because of each country's weak institutions, says Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies in Washington.
"The processes that would normally work out these problems don't exist," says Mr. Roett. "What would normally have happened, rather than forcing ambassadors to leave, would be dialogue of foreign ministers and special envoys."
In Bogotá, the mood is somber, following the celebratory atmosphere after Saturday's coup against the FARC. And while most Colombians believe a war with their neighbors is improbable, some have little faith in a diplomatic solution.
Javier Cardenas says things may have gone past the point of diplomacy and fears an armed conflict could break out. "Before, it seemed like something far off and impossible. Now it looks like it's something that's possible and very, very close," he said.
• Daniel Cancel contributed from Caracas.