SIMON TRINIDAD is the nom de guerre of Ricardo Palmera, a high-ranking terrorist of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the deadliest and largest terrorist organization in the world. Thanks to Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, Trinidad was extradited to the United States last month. He now awaits trial for a lengthy list of crimes involving the recent kidnapping and murder of American citizens in Colombia. Trinidad's capture was a victory in the fight against global terror (see Note, below), but it is unlikely that the FARC terrorists will be defeated as long as Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez continues to use his government to harbor, equip, and protect them.
Since assuming the presidency of Venezuela in 1999, Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez has often sympathized with global terrorism. Not only has he proclaimed his "brotherhood" with Saddam Hussein and bestowed kind words on the Taliban, but he also maintains close economic and diplomatic ties with the leaders of Iran and Libya. Moreover, President Chavez is increasingly identified with the FARC terrorists. Although the full extent of Chavez's involvement with FARC is unknown, he has been accused of everything from sympathizing with the group to providing it with weapons and monetary support. The allegations against Chavez are numerous and it is likely that some of them are either exaggerated or untrue. Even so, President Chavez's activities reveal a consistent pattern of sympathy for terrorists.
The FARC terrorist group has been fighting the democratic government of Colombia for almost 40 years. Founded as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist party, this 16,000-strong terrorist force recruits children and funds its activities with billions of dollars collected as taxes on the cocaine trade. The group's explicit objective is to take Colombia by force. In pursuing its mission, FARC terrorists have kidnapped, extorted, and executed thousands of innocent civilians, bombed buildings, assassinated hundreds of political leaders, and, with two other local terrorist organizations, have turned Colombia into one of the most violent and dangerous countries in the world. All in all, FARC has caused the deaths of more than 100,000 people.
The U.S. Department of State has designated FARC a Foreign Terrorist Organization--yet FARC leaders are welcomed in Venezuela and treated as heads of state. The prominent FARC leader Olga Marin, for example, spoke on the floor of Venezuela's National Assembly in the summer of 2000, praising Hugo Chavez as a hero of the rebel movement and thanking the Venezuelan government for its "support." Weeks later, the Colombian government announced that it had confiscated from terrorists more than 400 rifles and machine guns bearing the insignia of the Venezuelan armed forces. Although President Chavez claimed this was a smear campaign against him and that many of those weapons could have come into terrorist hands as a result of border skirmishes with Venezuelan armed forces, his explanation was less than plausible, since some of the guns had sequential serial numbers and were therefore likely part of a unified arms shipment.
In February 2001, months after the Chavez government denied supporting FARC, the capture of a Colombian terrorist revived the debate. Jose Maria Ballestas, a leader of Colombia's other left-wing terrorist organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN), was captured in Venezuela's capital by Interpol operatives working in conjunction with the Colombian police. Although Ballestas was wanted for a 1999 commercial airliner hijacking, he was immediately released from custody by order of the Chavez government. As the Colombian media cried foul, Chavez officials denied that Ballestas had ever been arrested and claimed that "news" of his arrest was actually a story concocted by enemies of the Chavez government. When Colombian officials responded by releasing a video of the arrest, the Chavez government tried to claim that Ballestas was seeking asylum from political persecution in Colombia. As diplomatic tension reached a fever-pitch, Venezuela re-arrested Ballestas and grudgingly extradited him to Colombia.
Seeking to repair relations with Colombia's president, President Chavez paid a state visit to Colombia in May 2001. While there, he allowed a FARC associate, Diego Serna, to serve as his personal bodyguard. Serna was arrested months later and told the magazine Cambio (published by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez) that President Chavez was in constant and secret touch with the FARC leadership. Serna remarked that in Colombian television broadcasts of the presidential summit "you can see not only our closeness, but also the confidence and the comments he made to me on various occasions." Indeed, the footage shows Chavez laughing, jostling, and whispering in Serna's ear.
Three months after diplomatic tension over the Serna incident died down, the Chavez-FARC connection surfaced again when Venezuela's intelligence chief, Jesus Urdaneta, publicly denounced Chavez for supporting FARC. A lifelong friend and military colleague of President Chavez, Urdaneta publicized documents showing that the Chavez government offered fuel, money, and other support to the terrorists. The documents included signed letters from a Chavez aide detailing an agreement to provide support for FARC. That aide later became Chavez's minister of justice, a position which gave him oversight of the entire Venezuelan security apparatus.
Less than a week after Urdaneta went public, a group of female journalists released a video showing meetings between Venezuelan military leaders and FARC guerilla commanders. The next day, hundreds of miles away, the Colombian Air Force captured a Venezuelan plane loaded with ammunition. Colombian intelligence established that the supplies were meant for the FARC terrorists.
THE COLOMBIAN GOVERNMENT is currently embroiled in the most momentous FARC-related matter since Simon Trinidad's extradition. On December 14, 2004, Ricardo Granda, widely known as FARC's "foreign secretary," was arrested on the Colombian border. One of the most senior, well connected, and highly skilled political strategists in FARC's history, Granda had been living in Venezuela's capital.
In Caracas Granda enjoyed Venezuelan citizenship (granted by government decree), took advantage of state-supplied protection, and even, on December 8, participated in a government-sponsored networking conference attended by Chavez, Daniel Ortega, and other revolutionary socialists. Today, Chavez expresses fury that Granda was captured, lamenting that Granda was apprehended in Caracas, stuffed in the trunk of a car, and driven to Colombia where he was then given to Colombian authorities by junior Venezuelan military and police officers working for cash rewards. The Venezuelan government has announced it will issue arrest warrants for the Colombian Defense secretary and for the Colombian attorney general, who are to be charged with "kidnapping."
THE COLOMBIAN GOVERNMENT has understandably become exasperated by the impunity with which Chavez has permitted terrorists to use Venezuela as a safe haven and justifies its actions by claiming that the United Nations forbids members to harbor terrorists in either an "active or passive" manner. Last week the Colombian foreign secretary went public with a list of senior FARC terrorists living in Venezuela.
Thus far, the U.S. State Department has been exceedingly tame with the Venezuelan government. Perhaps the Granda case will spur the new secretary of state to focus more on terrorist threats plaguing our own hemisphere. Should she do so, she will effect a necessary and long overdue shift in U.S.-Venezuela relations.
Thor Halvorssen, a human rights and civil liberties advocate, is First Amendment Scholar at the Commonwealth Foundation. He lives in New York.
NOTE: FARC terrorist Simon Trinidad's indictment last month includes information about the murder and kidnapping of American citizens in Colombia last year. Trinidad's actions were not exceptional; killing Americans is routine for FARC. For example, in 1999 FARC terrorists killed three American activists who were in Colombia on a humanitarian mission. They were Terence Freitas, 24; Ingrid Washinowatok, 41; and Lahe'ena'e Gay, 39.
Apprehended after attending a religious ceremony on an Indian reservation, Freitas, Washinowatok, and Gay were initially held for ransom but were later taken into Venezuela and executed in cold blood. Washinowatok, a New Yorker, was the head of the Fund for Four Directions, a Rockefeller-supported charity which helps indigenous peoples. Lahe'ena'e Gay was an award-winning Hawaiian photographer. Terry Freitas was an environmental activist from California. All three progressive activists had colorful life stories. Washinowatok, for example, was a Menominee Indian from Minnesota, daughter of a tribal chieftain, and personal friend of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu. She studied in Havana and is described by her friends as a champion of the oppressed. Her lifeless body, found just inside the Venezuelan border, was impossible to identify since her face had been destroyed by gunshot. The autopsy revealed that she had been forced to march barefoot through the jungle for several days despite having been bitten by a poisonous spider. She was only identified when her foundation's American Express card was found hidden in her clothing. Washinowatok and her friends were executed for one chilling reason: They were Americans.