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Ecuadors challenge: dislodging Colombian rebels
Ecuador and the Reb 6283756
Colombians travel back along the San Miguel river from Puerto Nuevo in Ecuador, to Teteye in Colombia, after buying cheaper food, natural gas, and gasoline Sunday, Aug. 3, 2008. Puerto Nuevo is a town of transients near the Ecuador-Colombia border with no police, no immigration post and no elected officials, used for two decades by the FARC guerrillas for logistics, staging and recreation, with the tacit approval of Ecuadorian governments. - photo by Associated Press
    PUERTO NUEVO, Ecuador — Puerto Nuevo, population 1,700, has no church, no police, no immigration post and no elected officials. Flanked by dense rainforest on the southern bank of the muddy San Miguel River, it’s a town of transients. And of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
    For two decades, the rebel group has used settlements just across the border in Ecuador for logistics, staging and recreation — with tacit approval from Ecuadorean governments. Now, just as the refuge becomes more vital than ever to the badly battered rebels, Ecuador’s new leftist government says it is determined to send them packing.
    The policy shift became evident after March 1, when Colombian warplanes wiped out a FARC camp just this side of the border. The bombing raid killed FARC’s foreign minister, Raul Reyes, and 24 others, and prompted Ecuador to break diplomatic relations with Colombia.
    It was an embarrassing indication of just how little control Ecuador had over its territory.
    Documents found in Reyes’ laptop detailed close ties between the rebels and several prominent Ecuadorean leftists. They also indicate President Rafael Correa’s 2006 campaign received $100,000 from the FARC.
    Correa calls the documents bogus. But shortly after they were made public, he replaced most of the armed forces high command and stepped up military operations along the 400-mile border with Colombia.
    ‘‘We will not tolerate an armed presence — regular or irregular — on our border,’’ the new defense minister, Javier Ponce, told The Associated Press in an interview.
    The government is now promising to establish police posts in previously neglected border areas by year’s end, and to buy pilotless drones to patrol where officers can’t. So far this year, Ecuador’s security forces have seized at least 34 FARC bases and five drug labs and made 26 arrests. They have found 66 firearms, 150 pounds of dynamite, and a crude mortar factory.
    Yet not a single rebel has been captured in these raids.
    Ecuadorean officials say the rebels are so well entrenched that they are tipped off before soldiers show up. A midlevel FARC commander named Olbany who recently deserted says the Ecuadorean army typically radioed advance word to the rebels.
    The regional Ecuadorean intelligence chief, Col. Javier Perez, told the AP that an Ecuadorean officer was prosecuted and imprisoned in 2001 for passing such information to the rebels. But, he said, ‘‘we have since adopted greater security measures.’’
    Ecuador’s new get-tough anti-FARC stance comes as Colombia’s U.S.-backed military registers its biggest gains in 44 years of war with the rebels, climaxed in July by the rescue of politician Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others who had been held hostage by the rebels for years.
    Still, the FARC’s eyes and ears are still everywhere along the San Miguel and the Putumayo, the other river marking Colombia’s border in the region.
    In Puerto Nuevo, men shoulder sacks of rice, propane canisters and jugs of gasoline down to long canoes, much of it for delivery to rebel encampments along the border. Outsiders are met with menacing looks.
    Thirty miles up the San Miguel is La Bermeja, a cluster of 15 simple dwellings near the mortar factory. It comes alive on weekends, when beer-swilling men cluster around its billiard tables, prostitutes work the crowd and condom sales are brisk. When a pair of AP journalists visited, no man would allow his picture to be taken. All denied knowing anything about FARC camps in the area.
    ‘‘Eighty percent of the people in that town are FARC militiamen or communist party members,’’ said Olbany, a 23-year FARC veteran who defected on May 13. In an interview with AP he asked to be identified only by his nom de guerre because his family still lives in the area.
    Throughout the area, corruption is rampant, and the FARC’s network of informants and suppliers is broad. Out of Colombia comes raw cocaine. Into Colombia go weapons, food, medicine, clothing and whatever else the rebels require.
    ‘‘If you fly over the border and look on the Colombian side all you see is coca crops,’’ Gen. Freddy Padilla, Colombia’s armed forces chief, told the AP, ‘‘while the Ecuadorean side is nothing but thick jungle, with cocaine labs hidden under the canopy.’’
    On any given weekend, more than double the population of Puerto Nuevo passes through the town, heading into and out of Colombia. The nearest Ecuadorean military outpost is 25 miles away. A Colombian army fire base is much closer, about five minutes by boat just past the hamlet of Puerto Teteye.
    On the Ecuadorean side, tens of thousands of Colombians live here in Sucumbios province. Ecuador has the hemisphere’s largest pocket of war refugees — 150,000 by U.N. count — and it’s often impossible to distinguish insurgent from refugee — or even Ecuadorean from Colombian.
    ‘‘It’s no trouble for a Colombian to become an Ecuadorean,’’ said Perez. ‘‘You can buy an Ecuadorean ID card for about $70-$90, depending how fast you need it.’’
    Rebel commanders treat their wounded in Ecuador, set retired fighters up in business, raise cattle and stockpile weapons. They move with relative ease because they’re chummy with local authorities or have paid them off, Olbany said.
    He said hundreds of FARC fighters and many hundreds more auxiliaries live in Ecuador.
    After the March 1 raid, he said, he helped evacuate 18 wounded through Puerto Nuevo, where two local doctors gave them first aid before they were moved to hospitals in major Ecuadorean cities.
    With the complicity of Ecuador’s military and police, he said, ‘‘Puerto Nuevo is ours.’’
    Olbany said he witnessed Ecuadorean military patrols visiting Reyes’ camp and twice saw the country’s security minister, Gustavo Larrea, at the camp. After Colombia released documents indicating such a meeting took place, Larrea acknowledged meeting with Reyes. In an interview with the AP, he said the two men met once, in January. He would not say where, but claimed it wasn’t in Ecuador or Colombia.
    Colombia also released documents detailing close ties between the rebels and the leftist government in Venezuela, where the FARC has also enjoyed refuge and an important conduit for cocaine smuggling.
    The FARC’s presence in Ecuador appears to be much stronger, however, and runs deep into the interior.
    An hour from Puerto Nuevo over good roads — the Ecuadorean side of the border has oil fields — is Lago Agrio, a treeless oil town cut from jungle in the 1960s by Texaco.
    The city of 35,000 has dozens of shiny new taxis and well-stocked stores. Its main street is lined with private medical clinics and cheap hotels. Its backstreets brim with bordellos. Gunshots often ring out at night and, more or less weekly, assassins on motorbikes commit a murder, few of which are prosecuted.
    The provincial police commander, Col. Luis Garcia, acknowledged what everyone knows: ‘‘Lago Agrio has been a center of rendezvous, supply and refuge for the FARC.’’
    Roughly one in three locals is sympathetic to the rebels, Olbany says, and Perez says more than 80 percent are tied to illegal activities — mostly to the FARC but also to cocaine smuggling.
    Jose Reyes, the visible town leader of Puerto Nuevo, denies there is any FARC presence in the town. He says he would welcome Ecuadorean police posts, if only to fend off what he calls kidnappings and murders of civilians by Colombian soldiers who cross the river.
    Reyes, who lives in the town’s biggest house, says he’s a simple Ecuadorean farmer. He also sides squarely with the rebel cause.
    ‘‘The FARC are a symbol of liberty,’’ he said. ‘‘Che Guevara knew no frontiers.’’

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