Tensions are ramping up as Venezuela and Ecuador seek to move troops to their borders with Colombia in response to a Colombian raid into Ecuador targeting members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has escalated the situation to gain leverage over Colombia along with more influence in the region, but he is walking a very fine line. Chavez cannot afford to confront Colombia militarily and will lose a great deal of credibility if he comes down too far on the side of the FARC.
Ecuadorian troops boarded helicopters and headed to the border with Colombia on March 3 in response to a March 1 Colombian cross-border raid into Ecuador. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has also announced the mobilization of Venezuelan troops to the Colombian border, and both countries have withdrawn their ambassadors from Colombia. Colombia has attempted to defuse the situation by assuring its neighbors that it will not be moving troops to its border. Although it is unlikely that Venezuela or Ecuador could truly threaten Colombia militarily, Chavez is using the issue to escalate tensions with Colombia and is dragging Ecuador with him. Colombian cross-border raids have been a headache for Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa since he came into office. Previous Colombian incursions into Ecuadorian territory to spray herbicides on coca crops sparked protests and criticism from Ecuador, and Correa took a hard-line stance in defense of Ecuadorian sovereignty. As the leader of a country that has seen eight presidents in the past 12 years, Correa cannot afford to be seen allowing Colombian incursions into Ecuador's territory. The March 1 cross-border raid, which killed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) second-in-command Luis Edgar Devia Silva (better known as Raul Reyes), makes the issue much more tense. Ecuador has repeatedly complained about Colombian troops pursuing FARC rebels well into Ecuadorian territory, refused to classify FARC as a terrorist organization and has consistently declined to help Colombia fight the rebels. This time, Colombia claims to have evidence collected from Reyes showing that Ecuadorian Minister of Government Gustavo Larrea was colluding with FARC to remove police officers that were hostile to the group from duty. Correa is much less of an ideologue than his Venezuelan counterpart. He has managed to walk the line of reform in his country without going to the extremes of populism that Chavez has achieved. Since his inauguration, he has been careful to maintain independence from Chavez. However, Chavez has now chosen to grandstand on an issue that Correa has to take a stand on. Chavez has inserted himself into the ongoing negotiations for the release of FARC hostages and is using the issue of Colombia's relations with FARC to reassert his flagging influence in the region. For Chavez, the raid was another opportunity to grandstand on the matter. Chavez is looking for leverage over Colombia, and hopes to find some by making himself the one point of control and contact for FARC. This situation also presents the potential for Venezuela to strengthen its influence over Ecuador and other regional actors. Chavez is also looking for an existential threat to unite the Venezuelan populace behind him. With the December 2007 constitutional referendum failure, it became clear that Chavez is experiencing declining domestic support. On March 2, Chavez announced that he had asked his defense minister to send 10 battalions — including tank battalions and military aviation — to the border with Colombia. The northern border region is the most logistically feasible spot to send these troops, but the terrain in that area is not conducive to a cross-border offensive into Colombia. Furthermore, Colombia's military is well-funded and seasoned from years of counternarcotics operations, significant training with the U.S. military and fighting against FARC. Meanwhile, the Colombian military is just as aware of the most feasible crossing points and is well-disposed to oppose any Venezuelan shenanigans. The likelihood that the Venezuelan — or the even less capable Ecuadorian — military would be able to achieve significant success against Colombia is very low. Chavez has a lot of goals, but he lacks room to maneuver. He cannot afford to miscalculate and risk engaging Colombia militarily, and his open support of FARC runs the risk of turning the tide of public opinion in Venezuela — not to mention the entire region — against him.