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Interpol data analysis bolsters Colombia claim

Electronic files that Bogota says prove Venezuela offered aid to FARC rebels are found to be unaltered.

May 16, 2008|Chris Kraul and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Interpol on Thursday vouched for the integrity of electronic files downloaded from a dead rebel leader's computer equipment, data that Colombia says strongly indicate that Venezuela offered to aid this nation's largest insurgent group.

Interpol's verdict came after a two-month analysis of thousands of electronic files recovered from computers and accessories that Colombia says were found at a camp in Ecuador. A rebel commander known by the alias Raul Reyes was killed there in a March 1 raid.

"We discovered no evidence of modification, alteration, addition or deletion," Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble said of data on three laptop computers and five memory storage devices apparently owned by Reyes, the No. 2 commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Colombian aircraft and commandos crossed two miles into Ecuador in the raid on the FARC camp.

Colombia said it launched the surprise attack because it could not trust Ecuador to capture or expel Reyes.

The raid set off the region's worst crisis in years. Ecuador and Venezuela both rushed troops to their borders with Colombia. A March summit of Latin American leaders reduced the tensions, but Colombia and Ecuador have yet to resume diplomatic relations

Interpol did not offer any assessments of the contents, an enormous cache of information that, if authentic, could prove to be a huge addition to what is known about the rebel group. The data include 37,000 word documents, nearly 8,000 e-mail addresses, 2,000 photos and 200 videos.

Colombia did not make any official statements Thursday, but over the last several weeks has leaked contents of e-mails allegedly sent to Reyes by several FARC commanders in an effort to build its case that the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has offered to help the rebels.

According to transcripts shown to The Times this week, those offers included financial support, use of Venezuelan territory for rest and recuperation, arms such as missiles and bazookas, and the use of the port of Maracaibo to "disembark cargo."

A high-ranking Colombian Defense Ministry official charged that taken together, the e-mails show a willingness by Venezuela to "give support to the FARC on all relevant fronts -- arms, finances, sanctuary and political support."

Interpol did not vouch for the accuracy of those transcripts. It is also possible that Reyes' FARC interlocutors misstated or exaggerated any offers made by Venezuela. Although Chavez has on several occasions expressed his admiration for the FARC, there is no indication in any of the e-mail transcripts seen by The Times that Venezuela actually delivered weapons or money to the FARC or even discussed doing so.

At a news conference Thursday in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, Chavez described the Interpol assessment as a "clown show."

In Washington, the Venezuelan Embassy issued a statement alleging that the computer data had been "manipulated . . . and turned into propaganda by the Colombian government."

A spokesman for the State Department said the computer files raised serious questions about whether Venezuela aided the FARC, which the U.S. designates a terrorist organization. The Bush administration is evaluating whether to take action -- including adding Venezuela to the United States' list of state sponsors of terrorism.

"That's constantly being reviewed," State Department chief spokesman Sean McCormack said when asked about a potential designation, which has been requested by several members of Congress.

The Colombian government opposes blacklisting its neighbor as a state sponsor of terrorism, saying it would play into Chavez's hands, according to the high-level Defense Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The tag also could jeopardize Colombia's booming trade with Venezuela, which reached $5.6 billion for the 12 months ended in February, double the export volume over the previous one-year period.

Ecuador, which Colombia says was also implicated in e-mails as offering support to the FARC, reacted angrily Thursday. Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador said in Paris that the files "have no judicial validity for a very clear reason: The chain of custody of these computers has not been safeguarded."

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

josh.meyer@latimes.com

Kraul reported from Bogota and Meyer from Washington. Special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas contributed to this report.

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