At first, you get the impression that the Colombians overplayed their hand. You don't send armed troops across a border with a neighboring country — not even if you are chasing wanted criminals — unless you have permission from your neighbor.
But what should you do if you suspect the leftist terrorists/guerrillas who have bloodied your country for 50 years are able to elude justice because they constantly are taking refuge on the other side of the border? And what if you suspect they are given safe haven by two of your neighboring governments? Does there come a time when you say, "No más," and you attack the guerrilla camps on the other side of your national borders?
Well, that is what Colombia finally did last week. In a cross-border raid into Ecuador, the Colombian army bombed a rebel camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and killed 17 FARC rebels, including Raul Reyes, one of the terrorist group's most prominent leaders. It happened about a mile from the Ecuadorian border, where Colombian commandos later retrieved the bodies of Reyes and one other rebel.
Of course, the raid played right into the hands of Venezuelan dictator-elect Hugo Chavez, who has been itching for a fight with Colombia and has enlisted Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, in his leftist movement to take over Latin America.
Although Colombia immediately apologized for the incursion into Ecuador, both Chavez and Correa ordered thousands of troops to their borders with Colombia. Chavez ordered the closing of the Venezuelan embassy in Bogota. Correa expelled Colombia's top diplomat and withdrew Ecuador's ambassador from Colombia.
The Colombian government explained that its troops chased the rebels across the border and overran the guerrilla camp. But Correa said Colombia carried out a deliberate attack beyond its borders and that the guerrillas were "bombed and massacred as they slept, using precision technology."
Of course, Chavez, who openly has come out in support of the FARC and already was engaged in a war of insults against the Colombian government, took his rhetoric a lot further. Chavez said Colombia is a "terrorist state." Mind you, Colombia has a democratically elected government that has, in fact, made great progress (with U.S. support) against the real terrorists. And Chavez had the gall to call the raid "cowardly murder, all of it coldly calculated," when he knows that's exactly how the FARC has murdered not only soldiers but also thousands of innocent civilians.
He even sent condolences to other rebels and to the families of those who were killed. One can only imagine how that was received by the families of FARC victims.
During his weekly TV and radio program, acting like a parody character from a Mel Brooks movie, Chavez sat before an audience of his followers — all dressed in red — and warned, "This could be the start of a war in South America."
In a surreal scene, as he spoke on the radio and before TV cameras, Chavez issued his orders like a caricature dictator: "Mr. Defense Minister, move 10 battalions to the border with Colombia for me immediately — tank battalions. Deploy the air force," Chavez said. "We don't want war, but we aren't going to permit the U.S. empire, which is the master (of Colombia) … to come divide us."
After going through his usual long list of personal attacks against Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Chavez issued a warning: "If it occurs to you to do this in Venezuela, President Uribe, I'll send some Sukhois," referring to the Russian warplanes recently acquired by Venezuela.
He sounds like a playground bully daring other children to take the chip off his shoulder. But nevertheless, he is driving South America to the brink of war. If he gets his way, Colombia would have to fight not only the rebel army within its borders but also Venezuela on its northern front and Ecuador on its southern border.
Unfortunately, that is a scenario we have seen coming and have chosen to ignore in the United States. Our government is so obsessed with fighting terrorists in the Middle East that we forget about the terrorists — and sponsors of terrorism — in our own hemisphere.
Perhaps now the Bush administration and the U.S. presidential candidates will have to take Latin America much more seriously.
For a while, it was hard for many Americans to understand why Chavez kept suggesting that Colombia intended to invade Venezuela with the support of the United States. In fact, now we see that Chavez was anticipating a raid into Venezuela just like the one that went into Ecuador. Why? Because both Venezuela and Ecuador are giving refuge to the rebels, and as the Colombian army drives the rebels out of its borders, it becomes a border war.
This is the dilemma faced by Colombia and the United States from now on. How do we totally extinguish the drug-trafficking Colombian terrorists if they can find safe haven — and take time to rest and train — in Venezuela and Ecuador?
In an official statement, the Colombian government said FARC terrorists "have had the custom of killing in Colombia and taking refuge in the territory of neighboring countries."
Now it turns out that Colombian commandos not only retrieved the bodies of two rebels after the raid in Ecuador but also a computer with documents that reportedly incriminate both Chavez and Correa as clear supporters of the FARC. One document reportedly shows that the Correa government is willing to transfer its own police and army commanders from its border with Colombia if they are strongly opposed to the FARC. Another document reportedly shows that Chavez recently made a $300 million donation to the FARC.
War is on the horizon in our hemisphere. It's practically knocking on our back door. Let's not be taken by surprise!
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.