Roughly two months after Colombian forces crossed into Ecuador to kill a FARC guerilla leader, INTERPOL certified the authenticity of eight FARC laptops seized by the Colombian government. The finding strengthened Bogota's claims of a link between Venezuela and the FARC guerilla group. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez rebuffed the forensic analysis and, with characteristic flourish, called the head of INTERPOL a "gringo policeman." Yet leaked emails (Miami Herald) from the laptops indicate evidence of Venezuelan financial and arms support for the FARC. If substantiated, these reports could deal a serious blow to regional security and further undermine U.S. relations with oil-rich Venezuela.
Despite the troubling signs, experts warn against hasty conclusions. The leaked emails rely solely on correspondence among FARC rebels, they note, not messages between Venezuelan officials and the FARC. Adam Isacson, director of the Center for International Policy's Colombia program, suggests more solid evidence is necessary before considering international action. He adds, however, that if the allegations are proven true, Venezuela will almost certainly be added to the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terror, and that Colombia could seek sanctions against it through the UN Security Council. The U.S. intelligence community is also examining the documents, though one senior U.S. official tells the Wall Street Journal, "There is complete agreement in the intelligence community that these documents are what they purport to be."
The Colombia-Venezuela dispute is the latest permutation of a regional power struggle between the United States and its allies and a group of nations more sympathetic to Chavez's left-wing populism. Colombia is the closest U.S. partner in Latin America and has received billions of dollars in counternarcotics aid since 2001. Chavez has seized on these connections. "The U.S. empire has taken over Colombia," he said in March 2008 (AP). Simultaneously, experts say Chavez stokes nationalist sentiment at home by accusing the United States of plotting to invade Venezuela.
A vocal group of Republican lawmakers has requested Venezuela's addition to the U.S. state sponsors of terror list. A Washington Post editorial suggests the United States impose targeted sanctions against those implicated by the laptop evidence. Yet many experts and policymakers urge a more cautious approach. An April report prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advises against unilateral sanctions, suggesting instead that Washington speak "with gentle persuasion, and wise counsel." Some analysts believe that Washington will hold off on sanctions or terror list pronouncements because of worries over how such moves might affect the global oil market (TIME).
Other experts worry a deterioration of U.S.-Venezuela relations could undermine regional counternarcotics policy. Washington has built its policy around the multibillion Plan Colombia package, but without cooperation from Colombia's neighbors, experts say the drug trade will continue to flourish. "The regional collaboration needed to make headway in the drug fight has largely disappeared," writes Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation. Meanwhile, transnational drug gangs have grown more sophisticated. Markus Schultze-Kraft of the International Crisis Group tells CFR.org that links between gangs and state institutions such as the police and judiciary pose a tremendous challenge to Latin America governments. A new CFR Independent Task Force report says drug trafficking contributes to an alarming spread of violence in Latin America. It calls for a multipronged effort including beefed-up U.S. and European policies to target demand for drugs in their countries as well as regional cooperation to limit the spread of guns.