- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The government of Colombia, stung by scandal over government links to right-wing militias and an imperiled trade deal with Washington, faces charges from leading U.S.-based academics that it is distorting information purportedly seized from Marxist guerrillas during a cross-border raid.

In an open letter to the media, about two dozen specialists from U.S. research institutes and universities, including Harvard and New York University, have warned reporters to be cautious with accounts from Colombia’s government that purport to link Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

On March 1, Colombian forces bombed a FARC rebel camp located inside Ecua-dorean jungle, about one mile from the Colombian border. Troops killed a FARC leader, Raul Reyes, as well as about 20 others, and reportedly seized three laptops and data drives belonging to Mr. Reyes.

Venezuela and Ecuador responded to the raid by deploying troops to their borders with Colombia. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa severed diplomatic ties with Colombia, and he continues to trade barbs over the incident with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in the press.

Colombia’s top police chief, Gen. Oscar Naranjo, has gone public with computer documents that he says prove Mr. Chavez gave or planned to give FARC $300 million — a claim Mr. Chavez denies.

Any day now, the International Criminal Police Organization, better known as Interpol, is slated to wade into the multinational spat by ruling on the authenticity of the laptops.

The letter released Friday warned international media to treat the Interpol announcement carefully.

“In the first round of media coverage of the event, significant problems of inconsistency surfaced precisely as a result of the gap between Colombia’s exaggerations and what the documents actually say,” says the letter.

The signatories include Greg Grandin, a professor at New York University; Larry Birn of the Council of Hemispheric Affairs; Miguel Tinker Salas of Pomona College; and Mark Weisbrot of Washington’s Center for Economic and Policy Research. The signatories are generally considered left-leaning in their analyses of events in Latin America.

The letter states that even if Interpol says that the laptops belonged to FARC, “there is no evidence that the publicly available documents support any of the extreme claims by the Colombian government that Venezuela and Ecuador had any sort of financial relationship with the rebels.”

It says that “independent analysis” of the documents indicate that the Colombian government “has substantially exaggerated their contents, perhaps for political purposes.”

For example, Colombia’s claims regarding Venezuela’s payments or plans to pay FARC $300 million are based solely on a passage from a letter sent to the FARC secretariat from Raul Reyes, according to the letter.

The letter says the passage makes a vague reference to the number “300,” noting that it could mean $300 million or 300 hostages.

At the time of the raid, Mr. Chavez was heavily involved in trying to secure the release of FARC hostages.

The Chavez-FARC link seemed further discredited on April 10 when Jose Miguel Insulza, head of the Organization of American States(OAS), told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere that no evidence had been made available to confirm any Venezuelan links to FARC.

“There is no evidence, and no member country, including [the United States], has offered the OAS such proof,” Mr. Insulza said at the hearing, Agence France-Presse reported.

Camilo Ospina, Colombia’s ambassador to the OAS, said Sunday that he was surprised by the letter.

“Since the government of Colombia found this evidence, we have urged Interpol to revise the information,” he said. “It is hard to understand any doubts about the accuracy of the information, given that it is reviewed by these international authorities.”

Furthermore, Mr. Ospina said that “concrete evidence” shows the information to be true, “providing real links” between the FARC and Latin American governments.

“We are waiting for the final Interpol report,” he said. “And we are convinced that it will grant authenticity.”

The U.S. State Department has been cautious in its comments on the computer, saying it is analyzing material from the hard drive, which it has called “worrisome.”

In interviews with The Washington Times, Ecua-dorean diplomats in Quito, who requested anonymity because they aren’t allowed to speak to the press, complained that Colombia has only offered copies of documents linking the Ecuadorean government of Mr. Correa to FARC.

They said Colombia had failed to offer, for example, a description of the software and techniques used to recover the data, information about server paths traveled by e-mails or other data that links the laptops to the bombed location.

Friday’s letter surfaced as Mr. Uribe struggles to save a pending bilateral trade agreement in Washington.

House Democrats are blocking a vote on the deal, saying economic fixes at home and a global food crisis should take precedence. Trade unions oppose the Colombian trade pact, which is strongly backed by the Bush administration.

Complicating matters, Mr. Uribe seems to be increasingly surrounded by a political scandal known in Colombia as “parapolitics.” On April 22, authorities arrested his cousin, a former senator named Mario Uribe, accusing him of ties to brutal paramilitary death squads.

And an investigation begun two years ago has ended in the arrest of 32 members of Colombia’s Congress, and other leaders are under investigation, for their reputed ties to paramilitary groups accused of widespread killings and cocaine trafficking.

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