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War without Borders: The Colombia-Ecuador Crisis of 2008

Authored by Dr. Gabriel Marcella. | December 2008

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A Summary

On March 1, 2008, the Colombian air force attacked the clandestine camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in a remote region of northeastern Ecuador, killing its leader, Raúl Reyes, and 24 other people. The FARC had been using Ecuadorean territory for years to rest and resupply. The attack was successful, but it detonated the worst crisis in Inter-American diplomacy of the last decade. For Colombia, the attack demonstrated the new professionalism of its armed forces and police and the continuing success of the strategy of democratic security enunciated by President Alvaro Uribe. Moreover, it signaled the remarkable advances being made by Bogotú in pursuing the FARC, in reducing the high level of insecurity that has dominated the country for a generation, and the increasing reach and presence of the government to areas outside of its control. The attack was immensely popular within Colombia, which now began to see the light at the end of tunnel in defeating the FARC. Moreover, the death of Reyes was one of a series of losses of high level commanders.

Within Ecuador, the story was markedly different. Within hours after the attack, the government of President Rafael Correa fulminated against Uribe, thus beginning a ferocious diplomatic assault that would last for months, lead to the recall of ambassadors, and bring in the Organization of American States. For a number of reasons, Ecuador felt victimized. First, it was undergoing a particularly difficult political process of trying to bolster a failing state riven by political polarization and the threat of violence. Second, a high level of corruption had weakened the institutions of the state. Third, Ecuador did not have the capacity to secure its border with Colombia. Though its military was extensively deployed on the border, it lacked the logistics to deal with the threat. Fourth, in 2000 Ecuador had assumed an unrealistic stance of neutrality with respect to Colombia's internal conflict. Fifth, to compound these contradictions, Ecuador had taken an anti-Plan Colombia (the centerpiece of U.S. support) stance, even though its cooperation with the United States on countering the movement of narcotics has been very helpful.

The lessons of the March 1 crisis are fundamental for security cooperation in the Hemisphere. The crisis is superimposed upon a Latin American tradition of laissez faire on ungoverned space and border control and continuing disagreement on what to do about terrorism. Moreover, the institutional capacity, political will, preventive diplomacy, and the mechanisms for security cooperation and conflict resolution between states have not caught up to the demands of wars without borders. An assortment of terrorists, contrabandists, and drug traffickers depend on weak borders and weak states. Though Clausewitz may have been right that war is the continuation of politics (or policy) by other means, the politics of wars without borders have changed that equation. Yet the analytical and institutional capacities of governments have not caught up to that change.

The United States can and must be a catalyst for confidence-building between Ecuador and Colombia in order to restore the full gamut of security cooperation between the two countries. At the same time, the United States needs to be more sensitive about the immense power it wields in its dealings with small states, such as Ecuador. The United States has been less than forthcoming in addressing Ecuador's security needs in the last 10 years, at times for the noblest of intentions. Noble intentions can have profound negative impact if policy is not pursued pragmatically.