Pubdate: Thu, 28 Sep 2000
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2000 The Dallas Morning News
Contact:  P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, Texas 75265
Fax: (972) 263-0456
Author: Tod Robberson


BEJUCO, Panama -- The only kind of traffic this town had known until recently was the weekend rush of cars heading to nearby Pacific beach resorts.

So when police uncovered a major Colombian arms-trafficking ring this month in Bejuco, Panamanians were jolted once again by the dangers of living just across the border from Latin America's hottest war.

What police captured in Bejuco - 271 AK-47 assault rifles, land mines, 2,768 pounds of military explosives, 47,400 rounds of ammunition and 318 rocket-grenade launchers - confirmed what authorities are discovering in all five countries bordering Colombia: Weapons of war bound for that nation's insurgent groups are pouring into the region.

"The wider security implications are very serious, and I think there's already growing concern," said Michael Shifter, a Colombia specialist at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "Some people like to exaggerate it and say this region's about to explode like the Balkans. I think that's a bit overstated, but on the other hand, I think it's a mistake to dismiss or ignore it."

Colombian authorities last month reported a 50 percent increase in illicit arms and munitions shipments into the country since 1998, basing their estimates on the amount of weaponry seized by police and the military. The number of assault rifles, machine guns and mortars captured last year alone was enough to provide two weapons to nearly every insurgent currently fighting.

All of Colombia's major leftist and right-wing insurgent groups, totaling more than 25,000 fighters, say they are shopping internationally for weapons ranging from assault rifles to anti-aircraft missiles in anticipation of increased combat in the coming year. Large numbers of captured weapons have been traced to China, Russia and several Middle Eastern countries.

The arms buildup coincides with a general war footing, fueled at least in part by a $1.3 billion U.S. package of mostly military aid to the Colombian armed forces, Colombia analysts say. Many of the arms are being imported by the drug-trafficking groups that support the insurgents financially.

"If I were in the guerrilla command, I would be anticipating a step-up in military activity and I would be stockpiling weapons to prepare for a higher level and more intense level of combat action," said Michael T. Klare, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

Drawn Into Warfare

Each new shipment, using Colombia's neighbors as conduits, brings the threat of increased corruption, instability and the possibility that they, too, could be drawn into the warfare, according to diplomats and regional experts.

The point was driven home a week ago in Peru. Allegations of high-level military and government links to an international arms-trafficking ring are being blamed, at least in part, for President Alberto Fujimori's Sept. 16 decision to resign from power.

The scandal erupted in mid-August when Colombian authorities began tracking huge quantities of new arms shipments to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, that they were able to trace to Peru.

According to Colombian and Peruvian news media accounts, the two governments, assisted by the CIA, uncovered a smuggling ring responsible for the shipment of 10,400 Chinese AK-47 assault rifles to the FARC. Each AK-47 sells in Colombia for about $750, bringing the value of the smuggled arms to $7.8 million.

Peruvian news media said the investigation now focuses on the role of Vladimiro Montesinos, the former chief of national intelligence now seeking asylum in Panama.

Mr. Montesinos was fired on Sept. 16 after he was captured on videotape offering an apparent bribe to a legislator. Mr. Fujimori announced that he would leave office in the wake of the scandal, although he has not set a date for his departure.

"It's not unlike the pattern with drug trafficking in the sense that this plants the seeds of corruption," Mr. Klare said. "The rings of corruption spread outward from Colombia to neighboring countries because they're being used as the funnel to bring the arms in."

All five of Colombia's neighbors - Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador - openly voiced fears at a regional summit last month that the expanding Colombian civil conflict poses a threat to their own security. They expressed particular concern about the potentially destabilizing effects of the U.S. aid package, which the Clinton administration says is designed to help Colombia's armed forces fight the insurgents who protect the nation's drug trade.

"It would be very dangerous if the [U.S.] operation fuels an increase of military activity," Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said at the summit in Rio de Janeiro. "This could lead us to a Vietnamization of the entire Amazon region."

Ecuador's foreign minister, Heinz Moeller, warned, "We don't want the radical surgery necessary for the cancer in Colombia to cause a metastasis in Ecuador."

Panama has been particularly fearful of a spillover because its border is not patrolled much and because it is the only one of Colombia's neighbors without a military. Its armed forces were dismantled shortly after the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.

Panama's Problems

Now Panama has nothing more than a large contingent of police to patrol a border jungle area where heavily armed paramilitary militiamen and leftist guerrillas have circulated for years, virtually without challenge. At least twice this year, police have engaged Colombian insurgents deep within Panama's Darien rain forest, with the most recent attack occurring in early August.

Panama's predicament grew more complicated this month with the arms seizure in Bejuco, 40 miles west of Panama City and 150 miles north of the Colombian border.

One of the 15 Colombians and Panamanians arrested in the seizure was a FARC unit commander suspected of escorting the shipment, the Panamanian daily La Prensa reported. Panama's chief investigator in the case, Cristobal Arboleda, declined to comment.

The Bejuco seizure was only one of three major arms caches uncovered this month. Two seizures were made in the Caribbean port of Colon, including one Sept. 21, when police found assault rifles, munitions and other war implements in an abandoned house.

All of the armaments appear to have been smuggled from Nicaragua, Honduras or El Salvador and acquired by insurgents in trade for large quantities of cocaine. Police also found textbooks and pamphlets used by U.S. Special Forces in counterinsurgency training, according to Javier Cherigo, deputy director of Panama's Technical Judicial Police.

A Western diplomat in Colombia said the FARC has revealed plans to increase its forces from the current level of about 17,000 fighters to 30,000 within five years.

Any such increase would probably be matched by the FARC's main enemy, the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the diplomat said, adding that all would need massive amounts of weaponry to equip their new recruits.

The demand for weaponry also could be fueled by the sharp increase in arms seizures by police and the military in the last two years. Colombia's armed forces reported the seizure of nearly 80,000 weapons and 800,000 rounds of ammunition in 1998 and 1999, according to a military report released in August. A separate report by the national police showed that provinces bordering Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela were, by far, showing the sharpest increase in seizures.

Retaliation Fears

With each such seizure, Panama and other border nations run the risk of provoking guerrilla retaliation, said Elliott Abrams, the former assistant secretary of state who helped administer the Reagan administration's intervention in Central America's wars during the 1980s.

"There's no good answer here. If they're lax, they're only going to get more [arms shipments]. But it's certainly plausible that if they're tough, the FARC may well decide to punish them, to teach them a lesson," Mr. Abrams said.

Both the FARC and Colombia's second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army, have warned Colombia's neighbors not to host U.S. troops assisting the Colombian military. The FARC says it has begun targeting American soldiers in Colombia.

Ecuador has allowed the United States to base troops in its territory as part of the Colombia aid effort. Venezuela, which has made friendly overtures to the guerrillas and allowed them to open offices in Caracas, has refused to allow U.S. counternarcotics operations within its territory.

Although Panama has consistently refused to allow U.S. troops since the nearly century-long U.S. military presence along the Panama Canal ended last December, the United States is helping train the 1,000 Panamanian police assigned to patrol the border with Colombia. The idea of allowing U.S. troops to return remains too politically charged for Panama to consider, officials of both governments acknowledged.

"There are a number of problems that it creates for the neighbors. One of them is the political trauma of appearing too much to back Yankee intervention," Mr. Abrams said. He added that Panama is obligated under international law to crack down on arms shipments to Colombia as part of its diplomatic recognition of the Colombian state as the only legitimate armed authority in Colombia.

"There would be no excuse for Panama not to take up sides," he said. "There is only one legitimate side of any government anywhere. So legally, it should not be a problem. But practically, it's a gigantic problem."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager