The abduction in Caracas of a mid-level leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group likely will not cause a downturn in relations between Colombia and Venezuela. The incident, however, appears to confirm that Venezuela's government is protecting Colombian rebel leaders. The ultimate message seems clear: FARC leaders no longer are safe from capture, regardless of where they are hiding.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has accused Colombia's government of "violating Venezuelan sovereignty" in connection with the recent cross-border abduction of a Colombian rebel leader. Chavez also warned that bilateral relations, which recently have shown improvement, could turn sour again. The government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez strongly denies the allegations. Chavez's unhappiness derives from the abduction in Caracas on Dec. 13, 2004, of Rodrigo Granda, a mid-level leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group. Granda is the FARC's second-highest-ranking official, responsible for international political and public affairs campaigns to sell the FARC as a legitimate political insurgency against a repressive, undemocratic Colombian government. Granda was abducted in downtown Caracas when he exited a coffee shop to take a cell-phone call. The call itself may have been part of the plot to capture him unaware and separate him from his personal bodyguards. Granda's abduction was made public in late December 2004, when the FARC — Colombia's largest kidnapper in terms of the number of victims abducted annually — issued a statement criticizing the Chavez government for allowing one of its members to be "kidnapped illegally" in Venezuela. The Uribe government insists that Granda was captured in the Colombian border city of Cucuta. Initially, Venezuelan Interior and Justice Minister Jesse Chacon said there was no evidence that Granda had ever been in Venezuela. However, Chacon has since changed his mind and now backs Chavez's claim that Granda was kidnapped in Caracas. Sources in Caracas have confirmed that Granda was, in fact, seized there and driven to the border, where he was handed over to Colombian authorities in Cucuta. Venezuelan armed forces (FAN) and Caracas civilian law enforcement sources said Jan. 11 that preliminary investigations have confirmed Granda was abducted by Colombian national police operating clandestinely inside Venezuela. The sources also said that Granda was seized by Colombian police, not Colombian military personnel, because apparently the Uribe government did not want to risk the potential political fallout if Colombian military personnel had been captured while on a clandestine operation inside Venezuela. This apparently was a wise decision by the Colombian government, as four of the Colombian police officials involved in the mission were indeed captured in December 2004 by Venezuelan military intelligence while trying to return to Colombia. The police officials have been released and are back in Colombia. The Colombian police unit was helped by Venezuelan law enforcement and military security personnel, who appear to have contracted their services to Colombia as freelance mercenaries. Unconfirmed reports in Caracas claim the Venezuelan freelancers were paid $1.5 million to help seize Granda and transport him in official Venezuelan vehicles to Cucuta. Sources in the FAN also said it appears that there was some involvement by U.S. intelligence officials based in Bogota and Caracas, although they offered no proof to substantiate this allegation. U.S. intelligence officials did help the Colombian government capture senior FARC leader Simon Trinidad in Ecuador in 2004, reportedly by providing the Colombian government with communications intercepts that helped to pinpoint Trinidad's location. It is possible, then, that the United States helped to pinpoint Granda's location as well. According to the FAN sources, Chavez and senior Venezuelan officials are now picking a rhetorical fight with the Uribe government for two reasons. First, Chavez is under pressure from the FARC and from Venezuela-based FARC supporters to demand Granda's immediate release and his repatriation to Venezuelan territory. Senior Venezuelan government officials with ties to the FARC reportedly are concerned that if Chavez does not challenge Granda's abduction, it could result in retaliatory FARC attacks against Venezuelan military and civilian targets. In October 2004, a FARC unit operating inside the Venezuelan state of Apure ambushed and slaughtered five Venezuelan soldiers and a Petroleos de Venezuela engineer. The FAN is operationally incapable of successfully engaging FARC units and other irregular armed groups on the Colombian border because Chavez has slashed defense budgets dramatically since 1999. By demanding Granda's release, Chavez may be seeking to appease the FARC's leaders and avoid retaliatory strikes against Venezuelan military units that could complicate Chavez's relations with the FAN. Second, the incident has confirmed the existence of major links between the FARC and the Venezuelan state. Since Granda's capture, the Colombian government and Granda's Colombian defense attorney have revealed that Granda is a naturalized Venezuelan citizen who possesses a Venezuelan citizenship identity card, and also was registered as a Venezuelan voter less than a week before the Aug. 15, 2004, presidential recall referendum. Moreover, Granda's citizenship was obtained legally since his naturalization was published in the Venezuelan government's Official Gazette. Colombian prosecutors also have revealed that Granda appears as the owner of several homes and properties in Venezuela, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and other Latin American countries. Granda apparently used Venezuela as a base of operations to travel internationally throughout Latin America and Europe, and to transfer funds used in real estate and other commercial transactions in other countries. The FARC earns the bulk of its revenues from kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking. The disclosure of Granda's Venezuelan citizenship will not lead to local political turmoil that could hurt Chavez. For now at least, the Chavez government's political opponents have been forced into exile or have been bought off by the government. However, Granda's legal status as a Venezuelan citizen adds weight to charges by some critics in Bogota and Washington, D.C., that the Chavez government supports armed Colombian groups that the U.S. State Department defines as drug traffickers and international terrorists. In fact, one major reason for Granda's abduction in Caracas may have been to call international attention to the presence in Venezuela of FARC members who are under government protection. This does not imply that U.S. or Colombian foreign policy toward Venezuela is about to change for the worse. Uribe does not want conflict with Chavez while he is stepping up his offensive against the FARC to ensure his re-election in 2006 and the renewal of U.S. congressional authority in 2005 to fund Colombia's war against the FARC. Chavez likely will not turn against Uribe either, since he wants to build an oil pipeline through Colombia to ship oil to China. Nevertheless, Granda's abduction tends to strengthen Colombian allegations that senior FARC leaders are hiding in Venezuela under official government protection. It also sends a message to these FARC leaders — if indeed others are in Venezuela — that their safety no longer is assured.