Published on Sunday, October 1, 2000 in the Washington Post
Colombia's Creeping War
by Anthony Faiola
Guerrillas and drug traffickers from Colombia have long crossed into Ecuador's frontier jungle for time off and to buy guns or drug-processing chemicals. But as the Colombian government, backed by a $1.3 billion U.S. aid package, prepares an offensive against the traffickers and their allies, Colombia's civil war is seeping into neighboring countries, and things here have suddenly taken a violent turn.

This remote area now lives by the law of the gun. Residents say about 15 armed Colombians took over three farmhouses in August. Pushed across the border by escalating clashes among guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary forces and the Colombian army, the newcomers drove Ecuadoran farmers from their land, threatening them with "revenge, Colombian-style" if they refused to get out of the way.

Ecuadoran soldiers have uncovered and destroyed four small cocaine-processing labs on this side of the border in the past six months. Fighters from Colombia's right-wing militia groups have been arrested here for running extortion rings. Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), crosses the porous border with increasing impunity. Another rebel group, the National Liberation Army, has also increased activity on the Ecuadoran side, where one woman was arrested recently after she was found with documents linking her to the group, local police officials said.

"We've always had problems in these parts, but never like this," said Galo Murillo, a soft-spoken 37-year old coffee grower who called a town meeting to discuss the swelling tide of violence in this poor village 150 miles east of Quito, four miles from the border and half an hour by car from the nearest military checkpoint.

On the road that leads here, police say, the FARC ambushed three Ecuadoran merchants in August in a business dispute, then stripped and buried their tractor-trailer truck after killing them. The truck's unearthed skeleton lies in front of the police station in the nearby provincial capital, Lago Agrio, a stark reminder of how Colombia's four-decade guerrilla war is reaching into neighboring countries.

"This is not our war, but it is now here, and we are helpless against it," said Murillo, a father of two. "We've always been a peaceful people in Ecuador. We don't know what to do."

As the United States has pushed the Colombian government's Plan Colombia as essential to the war on drugs, Latin American countries have criticized its potential for making Colombia's conflict regional. In Venezuela, the United Nations estimates that more than 500 Colombians are seeking refuge from violence in their homeland, while Panamanian authorities last month uncovered a smuggling ring channeling arms to the FARC. In Brazil, the armed forces last week launched Operation Cobra, a $10 million campaign to reinforce the border with Colombia.

As the poorest of Colombia's neighbors and the one with the fewest resources to protect its borders, Ecuador is perhaps the most vulnerable to the conflict's spread. And here along the northeastern border, the spillover has become a reality.

In Lago Agrio, local authorities reported an alarming increase in kidnappings and extortion that they blame largely on dissident factions or deserters from Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary units. And officials fear more trouble because Ecuador has agreed to let the United States set up a new drug surveillance operation at a base in the port city of Manta, an act FARC leaders have described as a "declaration of war."

Two new leftist youth groups--including one called the FARE, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Ecuador, an echo of Colombia's FARC--have launched propaganda campaigns in northern Ecuador against Plan Colombia. Meanwhile, five camps for up to 5,000 refugees are being planned near the 600-mile-long border. Officials said refugees could be a serious burden in this economically troubled country of 12 million, while some fear the encampments could be used as rear bases for guerrillas.

The alert in Ecuador has sparked criticism of the way the Clinton administration has handled the logistics of Plan Colombia. "We have target-lock in Washington on Colombia, thinking we can solve the problem simply by throwing money at Bogota," said one U.S. government source familiar with the region. "But we are ignoring the fact that this needs to be solved in a regional context. Countries like Ecuador can't afford to handle this war that is already in their back yards."

As part of Plan Colombia, Ecuador is to receive $20 million, but anxious officials here contend that is not enough. They are calling for assistance for economic development along the border, where many of the largest cities have elected Marxist mayors who support the philosophy, if not the tactics, of the FARC.

The mayors of the four largest cities in the region are demanding a neutral zone to prevent a military buildup. The reasons are not only ideological, but also financial. In some border cities, as much as 80 percent of the commerce is based on dealings with the FARC, Colombian paramilitary groups and drug traffickers, business leaders say.

"There is not only an economic and political, but an ideological infiltration of the border," Foreign Minister Heinz Moeller said. "We simply don't have the means to cover it completely. We are doing the best with what we have, but we know it is not enough."

In the past three months, Ecuador's military has deployed more troops to the border, but it is still easy to cross. The back-and-forth has turned Lago Agrio, a seedy frontier town of 25,000, into the Casablanca of the Colombian conflict--a watering hole for the FARC, whose members walk freely in civilian clothing alongside their paramilitary enemies, Colombian drug runners, government informants and Ecuadoran police and soldiers.

On the city's steamy streets, the facades of two brothels sport large painted faces of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine-born icon of Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution, as welcome signs for their guerrilla clients from Colombia.

Inside the Panther, a grimy house of prostitution, beefy Colombian men with the trademark flattop haircuts of the FARC and crew cuts of the paramilitaries sit on opposite sides of the room, drinking beer and paying $2 to have sex with Ecuadoran women.

"You can tell the Colombian jungle fighters from their boots," said one police official in the club. "They are thick, black and more expensive than any Ecuadoran in these parts could afford. . . . And they can also afford a lot more beer."

Late at night, when gunshots can be heard around town, the other hot sound is Colombian corridos prohibidos--or "forbidden rhythms"--a sort of Latin American country music about narco-guerrilla life. In one bar on Colombia Avenue, a deejay plays a tribute to fallen Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. As the song plays, a burly Colombian man struts in wearing a large bandanna embroidered with the words "I am a cocaine producer and Colombia is my fatherland" in Spanish.

The FARC and members of the paramilitary groups also come here for medical treatment, as do workers from Colombian coca plantations. "They come in with hands as big as boxers' gloves from working with the cocaine-processing chemicals," said Medardo Sanchez, a local surgeon who said exposure to the chemicals causes workers' hands to swell. "I just fix them up. They haven't usually come to make trouble. They don't show their guns in public. This is their supermarket; they like to keep things clean here."

There has been an uneasy truce between the Colombians--the paramilitaries and the rebels--and Ecuadoran authorities, largely because of border commerce, but also because the FARC does not appear to be looking for a two-front war. Also, the Ecuadoran military is not interested in, nor equipped for, a fight with the better-armed guerrillas. Ecuador's main oil pipeline--its largest source of foreign revenue--is an easy target, being just a 20-minute drive from the border.

In any case, serious action against the FARC would be highly unpopular among local left-leaning people. "I don't condone violence, but I must understand fighting for justice and freedom," said Maximo Abad, Lago Agrio's popular mayor, adding that the FARC's "message is universal, and it resonates here and elsewhere."

In the past, guerrillas crossed the border to "help out"--lynching Colombian bandits they had driven into Ecuador and sometimes even dropping off suspects at police stations. But recently, local police say, Colombians--including common thugs as well as men and women with direct links to the guerrillas and paramilitary militias--are infecting this area with their quarrels.

In one failed extortion attempt in August, Jorge Washington Cox Carvajal, owner of a surveying company, was held briefly at gunpoint in his Lago Agrio home by Colombian militia members. Two of the suspects later caught by police had expired Colombian military IDs, and police records show they admitted to being members of a paramilitary group. They said they had come into Ecuador to shake down Cox because they believed he was helping the FARC. Police said two of their accomplices who escaped were killed by the FARC in Lago Agrio soon afterward.

"We are living in the middle of the everybody else's war--the U.S., the Colombian military, the guerrillas, the paramilitaries," said Lt. Col. Geraldo Zapata, chief of the Lago Agrio police. "All we're doing is trying to keep out of it."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company