Caught in the Crossfire

AUC Colombia
An AUC paramilitary fighter in Colombia, July 8, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

As Colombia’s civil war heated up in advance of the presidential succession in August, commentators in Ecuador expressed alarm that recurring forays of combatants across the two nations’ 400-mile jungle border signal growing risk that Ecuadorean forces will be dragged deeper into the conflict.

In the aftermath of a brief skirmish in early July between Colombian fighters and Ecuadorean security police some 150 miles northeast of Quito, the national daily El Comercio observed (July 2) that the repulsion of the incursion “proves in practice the principle and goal of maintaining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ecuador, as well as our express exclusion from the conflict.”

Yet the editorial also stressed that Ecuador cannot remain indifferent to the threat that guerrilla and paramilitary organizations active in the border region pose to the survival of the Colombian government and state. “We must seek new regional horizons for negotiation and achieve strategies as a community [among Andean nations] with the final objective of a historic peace for the Colombian nation,” El Comercio affirmed.

The reality of the border security threat was confirmed in a recent interview (July 2) conducted by Bogotá-based El Tiempo correspondents Martha Elvira Soto and Orlando Restrepo with Carlos Castaño, the leader of the rightist Colombian paramilitary organization AUC. Castaño revealed that “we occasionally enter Ecuadorean territory” in the Orito region in pursuit of units from the leftist guerrilla army FARC, which he claimed have secured refuge across the border thanks to “corruption among some authorities” in the area.

El País (July 5) reported that the Ecuadorean army has deployed three battalions with a combined troop level of some 5,000 along the border with Colombia to interdict and repel incursions, and bilateral security cooperation was expected to be discussed when Colombian President-elect Álvaro Uribe met with Ecuadorean President Gustavo Noboa in July.

Jaime Damerval of Guayaquil’s El Universo (July 7) cautioned that the escalation of military operations along the border does not warrant broadening of the Ecuadorean armed forces’ mandate beyond the limited objective of defending the nation’s territory. “Colombia’s responsibility is to deploy its regular army between Ecuador and the guerrilla forces, and to assume in full its own war,” Damerval wrote. Nor does he foresee any role for Ecuador’s military in the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia campaign to eradicate drug trafficking: “The United States must accept that the Ecuadorean armed forces are not nursemaids for its drug addicts.”

At the same time, FARC’s threat to step up assassinations of Colombian mayors in the run-up to Uribe’s inauguration evoked concern from Guayaquil’s Expreso (July 2) that “anarchy could take hold...unless effective measures are taken” to quell the fears aroused by the death threats and to open the path for U.N. mediation. Solidarity with the Uribe ultimately in Quito’s best interests as well,” El Comercio’s Franklin Barriga López noted (July 5).