FARC leadership with El Salvador's new president (center)

In a speech to the US House of Representatives, Douglas Farah of the International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC) discusses the FARC's alliances with foreign terrorist groups; the facilitation of the group's activities by government heads in countries including Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua; and explains why the group remains a significant threat.

I have had the privilege of being involved in Colombia since 1989. I was first sent by the Washington Post to cover an airliner blown up by the Medellin Cartel. Over the past quarter of a century, I have lived in Colombia a number of years and visited there regularly, first as a journalist and in recent years as a researcher and a consultant. I have seen the nation teeter on the edge of the abyss in the 1990s, when US officials spoke of the possibility of a FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] victory and Colombia becoming a "narco state" to the present time, when Colombia is a regional model of democracy and economic development.

Yet the FARC, despite engaging in ongoing peace talks with the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, remains at the center of a multitude of criminal enterprises and terrorist activities that stretch from Colombia south to Argentina, and northward to Central America and into direct ties to the Mexican drug cartels, primarily the Sinaloa organization. It is involved in the massive laundering of drug money, and recent cases by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have shown the direct and growing criminal drug ties of the FARC and Hezbollah.

[...]

Under the protection of the governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia -- as well as powerful friends in El Salvador and Panama -- the FARC maintains a robust international infrastructure that is producing and moving thousands of kilos of cocaine and laundering hundreds of millions of dollars. It has emerged as a pioneer hybrid criminal-terrorist insurgency, using drug money to sustain an ideological movement. Over time the ideology has faded and the FARC has become much more of a business enterprise, helping to enrich its leadership and the leadership of the regional governments it supports.

The following are excerpts from Douglas Farah's speech to the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, on February 4, 2014. See whole speech here (pdf).

[...]

What should worry us, as I have documented and written about extensively, is that the glue that binds these groups is a shared vision of creating a new world order, in which the United States, Europe and Israel are the enemies to be destroyed. Their common doctrine is one of asymmetrical warfare that explicitly endorses the use of weapons of mass destruction against the perceived enemies.[1] This doctrine remains a statement of intention, not a statement of capabilities. Yet a review of Iran's growing presence in the region, the FARC's growing relationship with Hezbollah and other terrorist groups and the ability of these groups to deal extensively with Mexican drug cartels, make that statement of intention a dangerous possibility.

[...]

The survival of the FARC has been possible in part because the FARC is not as dependent as many other non-state armed groups on external sources of financing, most of which evaporated with the end of the Cold War. Instead, the group established a strong nexus with criminal activity, including drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion, allowing it to finance itself following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Marxist bloc...[And] the state support of Colombia's neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador over much of the past decade has given the FARC a significant rearguard area for rest, relaxation, resupply and financial activities.

Turning the Tide

[...]

Perhaps no action has played as significant role in changing the tide of the conflict in Colombia as the March 1, 2008 killing of Raul Reyes, the FARC's second most important commander and chief international liaison. Reyes, whose real name was Luis Edgar Devia Silva, and 25 others were killed in an aerial bombardment by the Colombian military on a FARC camp just across the Ecuadorean border. Included in the dead were five Mexican citizens and one Ecuadorean citizen living in the camp.[2]

SEE ALSO: FARC News and Profiles

The camp, with electricity and hard structures, was in Ecuadorean territory and had existed for some time. The Ecuadorean forces had refused to move on it, despite pleas from the Colombian government to shut down the base.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Colombian commandos entered the camp and retrieved documents and computers, including hundreds of gigabytes of data from the personal computer of Reyes, containing communications with other members of the FARC's seven-person general secretariat, Venezuelan president Chavez, senior Ecuadorean officials, and an outline of the political and economic strategy of the FARC. It is the most significant seizure of primary source documents from the FARC in recent decades, and the first time a member of the FARC general secretariat had been killed in combat in more than 40 years of war.

While setting off a diplomatic row, the attack also accomplished two significant things: it captured years' worth of internal FARC communications that greatly enhanced the operational understanding of the group, and it killed a senior FARC commander, the first member of the guerrillas' general secretariat to be killed in combat in 44 years of war. Reyes's death was followed by the killing of other high-value FARC targets, as well as a stream of desertions of many mid-level and upper-level commanders, sending the FARC into a downward military and financial spiral from which [the group] has never recovered.[3]

[...]

The Colombian raid into Ecuadorean territory sparked an international incident that led Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua to break diplomatic relations with Colombia for several days, before the Organization of American States (OAS) helped broker a detente. On national television, Chavez said: "We pay tribute to a true revolutionary, who was Raul Reyes," and called him a "good revolutionary."[4]

The documents show several alarming developments that had gone largely undetected by US and Colombian intelligence services prior to the attack.

The first is that the long-cordial relationship between the FARC and Chavez had grown from one of friendship to one of allies and business partners, a relationship that endures in the [current] government [of President Nicolas Maduro]. It is clear that the FARC received a large sum of money from Chavez in 2007, although it is unclear if the money was a loan or a gift. There are several references to "300" as an amount the FARC received, and Colombian authorities have stated unequivocally that the number refers to $300 million given by Chavez to the FARC. It is also clear that the FARC has Venezuelan government protection for its massive movement of cocaine to Central America and West Africa.

The second insight gleaned was the FARC's extraordinary reach into regional politics, particularly in Ecuador, where President [Rafael] Correa, whose presidential campaign received hundreds of thousands of dollars directly from the FARC, was willing to change senior military commanders along the border (the area where Reyes was killed) in order to curry favor with the insurgents. The role of Bolivia's President Evo Morales in supporting the FARC also stands out.[5]

The third is the FARC's apparent willingness to engage in trafficking of material (uranium) that could be used for a low-grade nuclear bomb. The type and grade of uranium in question indicate the FARC had been the victim of a scam or was planning on perpetrating a scam on an unsuspecting third party.

A fourth major point is the FARC's overt discussion of its involvement in drug trafficking and the need to move cocaine and money associated with the trade they have long claimed to not be involved in.

The fifth is that the FARC has engaged in a deliberate campaign to hide its involvement in some of the worst atrocities, including the assassination of members of congress in 2006.[6]

The Central American Network

The FARC's Central American network, unveiled in the Reyes documents, is among the most important in the current discussion because it is still active.

One of the FARC's staunchest supporters for more than 20 years has been Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. The alliance was first formed in the 1970s, when Ortega led the Sandinista revolution that succeeded in taking power in Nicaragua in 1979. Throughout his first presidency (1979-1990) Ortega was at the center of the revolutionary movements active throughout Latin America, in part because Nicaragua was the one state besides Cuba in the hemisphere where a violent, Marxist revolution triumphed. As a result, Ortega maintained close ties with revolutionary regimes and movements across the globe, including the FARC, when he was re-elected president in 2006.

Of interest in the current discussion are the ties with the FARC, Libya, the Red Brigades, and the FMLN [Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front] in El Salvador. When Ortega suffered an unexpected electoral defeat in 1990, among his last acts in office was to grant citizenship to 990 foreign nationals, including dozens of wanted Spanish ETA [Euskadi Ta Askatasuna] terrorists and Italian Red Brigade terrorists.[7]

There is also compelling evidence that, in addition to the formal, cordial ties the Sandinista government maintained with the revolutionary government of Iran and the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, it also maintained ties with radical non-state Islamist groups. This included issuing passports for a suspect arrested in New York in connection with the February 26, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. When US authorities arrested Ibraham Elgabrowny in Brooklyn in early March 1993, they found five Nicaraguan passports, five Nicaraguan birth certificates and two drivers licenses. The passports contain photographs of El Sayyid Nosair, his wife and children. Nosair is in prison in New York, convicted of a weapons charge after being acquitted of the 1990 murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane.[8]

This is relevant because Ortega has never broken the ties to the various groups, including the FARC. In 1998 Ortega, then the leader of the opposition in Nicaragua awarded the Augusto Sandino medal, his party's highest honor, to Manuel Marulanda (aka Tirofijo or Sure Shot), the FARC's supreme commander. In 2000 Ortega attended an international convention in Libya, organized by Gaddafi for "political parties, revolutionary movements, liberation movements and progressive forces."[9]

ortega

Figure 1: Daniel Ortega pins the Augusto Sandino medal on FARC leader Manuel Marulanda

This meeting was significant because senior leaders of the FARC were also in attendance. The timing is important because it was at a time when the FARC was seriously beginning to look to purchase surface-to-air missiles in order to have more effective defenses against the US-supplied helicopters that were beginning to arrive in Colombia for the police and military as part of Plan Colombia.[10]

A September 4, 2000 email from Reyes' computer, addressed to Gaddafi and signed by Reyes, offered a bold alliance and laid out the strategy:

Comrade Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Great Leader of the World Mathaba, receive our revolutionary and Bolivarian greeting... As a member of the (FARC) high command I have been asked by the commander in chief to request from you a loan of 100 million dollars, repayable in five years. Our strategic objectives and circumstances of our war oblige us to seek weapons with greater range to resist our enemy's advances. One of our primary needs is the purchase of surface-to-air missiles to repel and shoot down the combat aircraft.[11]

Apparently Gaddafi was not immediately responsive to the request, and so the FARC tried to follow up on the request, this time through Daniel Ortega. In a February 22, 2003 note "From the Mountains of Colombia," that was hand-delivered to Ortega, Reyes requested help:

Dear compañero Daniel...We also are writing to see if you have any information on the request we made to our Libyan comrades...The primary priority of the FARC, in order to achieve greater success in its military operations against enemy troops, in order to take political power in Colombia, is acquiring anti-aircraft capabilities, in order to counteract the efficiency of the Colombian and U.S. aircraft against our troops.[12]

It is not clear what the results of the discussions were, but relations between the FARC remained cordial.

[...]

The Reyes documents also show that the FARC maintained significant contacts with members of another former ally in El Salvador. A key player in supplying weapons to the FARC appears to be Jose Luis Merino, a senior figure in the Communist Party, one of the five parties that made up the FMLN in El Salvador during that nation's 11-year civil war. During that time, the FMLN was also closely aligned with the Sandinistas, led by Ortega, in Nicaragua. Merino used the alias "Ramiro Vasquez" during the conflicts, and is still known by his nom de guerre, as are many former rebels who adopted other identities during the war.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

The FMLN formally demobilized in 1991 and became a legal political party, and its candidate, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, another long-time friend of the FARC and former senior rebel commander, is the favorite to win this year's presidential election. [Editor's Note: Sanchez Ceren has since won the elections and will take office as president of El Salvador on June 1.]

sanchezcerenfarc

Figure 2: FMLN presidential candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren (center) with the FARC leadership. To the left is Raul Reyes and on the right is Manuel Marulanda.

The Communist Party is a small but influential group within the FMLN coalition because it controls the international resources, including those funds provided by Chavez for the current electoral campaign, now underway. Communist Party members, including Merino (who is currently serving as a Salvadoran delegate to the Central American Parliament), are widely suspected of retaining a clandestine, armed wing after the rest of the FMLN had officially demobilized. This armed wing is suspected of carrying out several high-profile kidnappings in El Salvador and elsewhere in Latin America.[13]

Merino, using his old alias "Ramiro Vasquez," had been an important logistics officer for the Communist Party during the Salvadoran war, and seems to have maintained significant contacts abroad in the weapons-buying world.

A September 6, 2007 email from Ivan Rios, a member of the FARC secretariat, to other secretariat members lays out the multiple negotiations under way for new FARC weapons, including the highly coveted surface-to-air missiles:

[...]

Yesterday I met two Australians who were brought here by Tino, thanks to the contact made by Ramiro (Salvador)... They offer very favorable prices for everything we need: rifles, PKM machine guns, Russian Dragunovs with scopes for snipers, multiple grenade launchers, different munitions... RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), .50 machine guns, and the missiles. All are made in Russia and China.

On November 12, 2007, Ivan sent another missive outlining developments on several fronts. He noted that Rodriguez Chacin, at the time minister of interior and one of Chavez's closest advisers, was involved in the transaction,and added, "He has already suggested a mechanism for receiving the Australians in Orinoco."[14]

That mechanism was apparently put to use, because a subsequent email from November 23, the day of the agreed upon follow-up meeting, Ivan wrote that: "We are waiting for the Australians, in order to reach an agreement on the items mentioned before. El Cojo (the Cripple) is responsible for the first quota and the logistics."[15]

Operation Titan, Ayman Jouuma and Ties to Hezbollah

There is now a significant body of evidence showing the FARC's operational alliance with Hezbollah and Hezbollah allies based in Venezuela under the protection of the Maduro government, to which relatively little attention has been paid. A clear example of the breadth of the emerging alliances among criminal and terrorist groups was Operation Titan, executed by Colombian and US officials in 2008. Colombian and US officials, after a two-year investigation, dismantled a drug trafficking organization that stretched from Colombia to Panama, Mexico, West Africa, the United States, Europe and the Middle East.

Colombian and US officials say that one of the key money launderers in the structure, Chekry Harb, alias "Taliban," acted as the central go-between among Latin American DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] and Middle Eastern radical groups, primarily Hezbollah. Among the groups participating together in Harb's operation in Colombia were members of the Norte del Valle Cartel (NDVC), right-wing paramilitary groups and the FARC.

This mixture of enemies and competitors working through a shared facilitator, or in a loose alliance for mutual benefit, is a pattern that is becoming more common, and one that significantly complicates the ability of law enforcement and intelligence operatives to combat these groups.[16]

While there has been little public acknowledgement of the Hezbollah ties to Latin American TOC [transnational organized crime] groups, recent indictments based on DEA cases point to the growing overlap of the groups. In December 2011, US officials charged Ayman Joumaa, an accused Lebanese drug kingpin and Hezbollah financier, of smuggling tons of US-bound cocaine and laundering hundreds of millions of dollars with the Zetas cartel of Mexico, while operating in Panama, Colombia, the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] and elsewhere.

"Ayman Joumaa is one of top guys in the world at what he does: international drug trafficking and money laundering," a US anti-drug official said. "He has interaction with Hezbollah. There's no indication that it's ideological. It's business."[17] Joumaa was tied to a broader case of massive money laundering that led to the collapse of the Lebanese Canadian Bank, one of the primary financial institutions used by Hezbollah to finance its worldwide activities.

Other cases include the July 6, 2009 indictment of Jamal Yousef in the US Southern District of New York, which alleges that the defendant, a former Syrian military officer arrested in Honduras, sought to sell weapons to the FARC -- weapons he claimed came from Hezbollah and were to be provided by a relative in Mexico.[18]

Such a relationship between non-state and state actors provides numerous benefits to both. In Latin America, for example, the FARC gains access to Venezuelan territory without fear of reprisals; it gains access to Venezuelan identification documents; and, perhaps most importantly, access to routes for exporting cocaine to Europe and the United States -- while using the same routes to import quantities of sophisticated weapons and communications equipment. In return, the Chavez government offers state protection, and reaps rewards in the form of financial benefits for individuals as well as institutions, derived from the cocaine trade.

Lessons Going Forward

In observing the Colombian conflict for almost 25 years, it seems to me that there are several key lessons one can draw that would be applicable in other theaters.

The first is that there has to be a significant level of trust between the partner nations.

[...]

A second lesson is that intelligence dominance matters. In a time of the massive intelligence thefts by Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and others, the necessity and usefulness of intelligence dominance is being questioned. While it is imperative that privacy concerns and civil liberties be protected, there are few cases where the innovative, creative and pro-active use of human intelligence and signal intelligence can be traced so directly to an overwhelming change in a conflict.

A third lesson is that intelligence reform matters. The Colombians were able to undertake massive intelligence reforms across institutions to improve their performance. Because of its massive civil liberties abuses and illegal spying on its own citizens -- a cautionary tale in intelligence dominance -- the equivalent of our FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation], the DAS [Department of Administrative Security], was abolished even as other reforms brought an unprecedented cooperation between the police and military. This willingness to make very difficult decisions for the good of the country in the face of significant institutional resistance is both rare and crucial.

A fourth lesson is that hybrid groups like the FARC, the Taliban in Afghanistan and many others, thrive in the seams of the world's illicit trade pipelines. With money from cocaine, the FARC has built a significant political infrastructure that has allowed it to flourish and endure far beyond what a less criminalized group would have. The FARC is a prototype of the coming hybrid terrorist-criminal insurgencies, some being fought under an ideological banner and some in the banners of theology. All are dangerous and far more difficult to attack than terrorist groups of past generations, given their access to enormous financial resources.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the lesson that none of these groups operate in a vacuum. Governments like those of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador create the operational environment in which the FARC, Hezbollah, Iranian officials, ETA, Brazilian drug trafficking organizations and others can meet in safety, exchange lessons learned and build networks of convenience.

This is not to say there is one giant conspiracy or alliance of all these groups. Rather, it is a deliberately created environment where these groups can mingle, socialize, trade expertise and make temporary alliances of mutual convenience. This is the danger of the FARC, and that danger is unlikely to diminish with a successful peace process in Colombia. The FARC will, I am certain, retain a financial and military infrastructure to continue to aid the Bolivarian project long after any agreement might be signed.

*Douglas Farah is a US journalist, author and security consultant. He is a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC) and a senior associate of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). See his whole speech to the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade here in pdf.

Resources

[1] For a more complete view of the aims, goals and strategy of the Bolivarian Revolution and its project to create 21st Century Socialism, see: Douglas Farah, Transnational Organized Crime, Terrorism, and Criminalized States in Latin America: An Emerging Tier-One National Security Priority (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, August 2012), http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=1117. The doctrine of asymmetrical warfare and the use of WMD is outlined in many writings used by the Bolivarian Revolution, and has been adopted as official military doctrine in Venezuela.

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/americas/7272832.stm

[3] For a more complete look at the role of Ecuador and the FARC, see Douglas Farah and Glenn Simpson, Ecuador at Risk: Drugs, Thugs, Guerrillas and the Citizens Revolution (Alexandria, VA: International Assessment and Strategy Center, January 2010), http://www.strategycenter.net/docLib/20101214_EcuadorFINAL.pdf. For a study of Venezuela's role with the FARC, see Douglas Farah, Transnational Organized Crime, Terrorism, and Criminalized States in Latin America: An Emerging Tier-One National Security Priority (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, August 2012), http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=1117.

[4] http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/03/02/america/bogota.php

[5] For the details and documentation of these relationships see: Douglas Farah, "Into the Abyss: Bolivia Under Evo Morales and the MAS," International Assessment and Strategy Center, 2009; and Farah and Simpson, op cit.

[6] The author worked with US and Colombian officials to analyze the captured Reyes documents, which have now been made public. For more details on the issues raised here see Farah and Farah and Simpson, op cit. The main cache of Reyes documents were compiled into a single document, "The FARC Files: Venezuela, Ecuador and Secret Archives of 'Raul Reyes,'" A Strategic Dossier, International Institute for Strategic Studies, May 2011.

[7] Among the more comprehensive articles on Ortega's ties to foreign terrorist groups see: Tracy Wilkinson, "Nicaragua Pulls Up Red Carpet: Leftists, Idealists and Fugitives Flocked to Sandinista-led Nation in the 1980s," Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1994, p. A01; Douglas Farah, "Managua Blast Rips Lid Off Secret Salvadoran Rebel Cache," The Washington Post, July 14, 1993, p. A01. Among the terrorists granted citizenship was Alessio Casimirri, who ran a popular Italian restaurant, Magica Roma, in Managua, despite being tied to the 1978 murder of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. Several members of the Spanish ETA organization were deported, but most of those granted citizenship remain there.

[8] Farah, op cit. The documents were discovered after an explosion ripped apart an underground bunker holding not only thousands of weapons, but also hundreds of Nicaraguan passport and identification cards for Marxist groups around the hemisphere, from the MIR in Chile to the Tupac Amaro group in Peru. The garage belonged to a wanted Basque terrorist, who disappeared after the explosion.

[9] Jose de Cordoba, "Ortega's Old Friendships are Liabilities as Election Nears," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 19, 2001.

[10] Plan Colombia is a multi-billion dollar program through which the United States has funded the expansion, retraining and arming of the Colombian national police and military. Begun in 1999,, at the end of the Clinton administration, it has continued with bipartisan Congressional support, through the Bush years.

[11] Letter to Gaddafi, in possession of Author. It can also be seen here: Octavio Enriquez, "Ortega, Puente Entre Gaddafi y las FARC," La Prensa, June 27, 2008.

[12] Letter to Daniel Ortega, in possession of the Author. It can also be seen here: Octavio Enriquez, "Ortega, Puente Entre Gaddafi y las FARC," La Prensa, June 27, 2008.

[13] For a more complete look at Merino and the role of the Communist party, both with the FARC and with criminal activities, see: Jose de Cordoba, "Chavez Ally May Have Aided Colombian Guerrillas: Emails Seem to Tie El Salvador Figure to a Weapons Deal," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 28, 2008, p. A9.

[14] Email provided by Colombian authorities, in the possession of the Author.

[15] Email provided by Colombian authorities, in the possession of the Author.

[16] While much of Operation Titan remains classified, there has been significant open source reporting, in part because the Colombian government announced the most important arrests. For the most complete look at the case see: Jo Becker, "Investigation into bank reveals links to major South American cartels," International Herald Tribune, December 15, 2011. See also: Chris Kraul and Sebastian Rotella, "Colombian Cocaine Ring Linked to Hezbollah," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 22, 2008; and "Por Lavar Activos de Narcos y Paramilitares, Capturados Integrantes de Organización Internatcional," Fiscalía General de la Republica (Colombia), Oct. 21, 2008.

[17] Sebastian Rotella, "Government says Hezbollah Profits From U.S. Cocaine Market via Link to Mexican Cartel," ProPublica, December 11, 2011.

[18] United States District Court, Southern District of New York, The United States of America v Jamal Yousef, Indictment, July 6, 2009.

Investigations

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