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Ecuador urges Colombia to boost troops at border

With ties still strained from a military raid on rebels, officials press for more efforts to stem illicit crossings.

August 29, 2008|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

SAN LORENZO, ECUADOR — With no sign of a thaw in their frozen diplomatic relations, Ecuador this week called on Colombia to increase its military presence along their shared border to check the spillover of rebel groups, drug trafficking and war refugees.

The demand was one of several laid out by officials as they argued that their nation had paid too high a price for its neighbor's decades-long civil conflict and that Colombia must take more responsibility for the encroaching violence.

The two nations seem far from repairing the rift triggered six months ago, when Colombian troops crossed the border to kill a rebel leader holed up in Ecuador. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa deployed troops along the border and two days later cut diplomatic ties.

Despite the intercession of the Organization of American States and the Carter Center and a meeting this month between the two nations' foreign ministers, relations remain icy.

In an interview this week, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador said her country wanted Colombia to send an unspecified number of additional troops to the 450-mile border accompanied by international observers.

Ecuador has 11,000 soldiers stationed along the border -- twice as many as Colombia, Salvador said -- and maintains three times as many bases.

Even so, the Ecuadorean border zone is largely unpoliced and continues to serve as a haven for Colombia's "irregular" fighters. Ecuadorean patrols have destroyed more than 100 clandestine bases on their territory this year, compared with the 47 camps destroyed in all of 2007, Defense Minister Javier Ponce said.

Partly to put to rest its suspicion that Colombia acted with direct U.S. assistance in the March 1 raid, Ecuador also has asked to see videos from aircraft that flew in the operation, which killed Raul Reyes, the second-ranking leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Ecuador also is demanding millions of dollars in reparations for 3,600 families whose farms in the border zone allegedly have been damaged by Colombia's spraying of defoliants to kill coca shrubs, from which cocaine is made. In May 2007, Colombia suspended such anti-coca spraying within six miles of the border.

Colombia has offered little help in financing refugee camps for 18,000 Colombians who fled as a result of the violence, Ecuador said.

"We want Colombia to take concrete steps to meet its obligations," Salvador said during a visit to this coastal town 30 miles south of the border. "Ecuador is doing its part to impede the entry of narcos and armed irregulars and Colombia should do more to impede their departure."

In response to Ecuador's demands, Colombia's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that "the communication channels remain open. . . . The Colombian government is disposed to advance in the mechanisms that would permit a prompt normalization of relations with Ecuador."

As for the request for the flight videos, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said in an e-mailed statement that "pertinent information" regarding the raid had been handed over to Ecuadorean military officials

The killing of Reyes at his camp two miles inside Ecuadorean territory resulted in a crisis in which Ecuador and Venezuela briefly mobilized for war. Tensions have eased but bitterness lingers over what Ecuadorean Interior Minister Gustavo Larrea terms Colombia's "smear campaign."

Colombia alleged after the raid that Ecuadorean leaders were too cozy with FARC leaders, citing e-mails it said were recovered from Reyes' laptop that indicated Larrea had met with Reyes without Colombia's knowledge.

Bruce Bagley, a political science professor at the University of Miami, said the government of President Correa "clearly held conversations with Reyes and the FARC to guarantee the FARC would not operate in his country. This tactic has given the impression his government is pro-FARC. It is not."

In an interview, Larrea said he met with Reyes "in a third country" in early January strictly on humanitarian grounds to effect the release of hostages held by the FARC.

At a Latin American summit in March to deal with the crisis, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe scolded Correa, saying he offered little help in fighting drugs and terrorism, a charge Correa bitterly denied.

Uribe's charge surprised others besides Correa. In the weeks leading up to the raid, Colombian and U.S. officials heaped praise on Correa for the high level of Ecuadorean cooperation in counter-narcotics operations.

Ecuador insists that its anti-drugs efforts are continuing. Adm. Fernando Zurita, who commands Ecuador's northernmost naval base here, said his forces had destroyed four major cocaine laboratories this year; none were destroyed last year.

The government this week unveiled Plan Ecuador, a three-year, $200-million economic program to stimulate development in five northern border states and to offer residents there alternatives to drug trafficking.

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