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Friday, 5 April, 2002, 17:27 GMT 18:27 UK
Analysis: Colombia's conflict spills over
Venezuelan soldiers use helicopters to patrol the border with Colombia
Neighbourhood watch: Venezuelan soldiers on patrol
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By Jeremy McDermott
BBC correspondent in Bogota

Colombia's 37-year civil war has affected millions of its own citizens but the conflict is now spreading across its borders.


Relations between Colombia and Venezuela have plunged to a new low over accusations that guerrillas are taking refuge across the border in Venezuela.

Late last month, a Colombian infantry unit was engaged by guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Eighteen soldiers were killed, and though the military claimed that FARC took 50 casualties, the bodies were never recovered.

An irate General Martin Carreno insisted his troops had been attacked from the Venezuelan side of the border.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
President Chavez said the border region was a "mini Kosovo"
Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez, put the general's outburst down to a desire to cover up what he called "a tactical error" on the part of the Colombian military.

That Colombian guerrillas are reported to be operating in Venezuela is nothing new.

Venezuelan ranchers in the frontier region have long complained of guerrilla extortion and kidnapping.

Last year - as yet another wave of refugees arrived from the war-torn border province of Norte de Santander - Mr Chavez described the situation as a "mini Kosovo".


Ecuadorean children
Colombian guerrillas are stirring up bitter memories among indigenous people in Ecuador
Yet Venezuela has not been the country worst affected by Colombia's escalating civil conflict.

Ecuador has enough problems of its own without taking on those of Colombia.

In January 2000, there was a coup against the then President, Jamil Mahuad, by army officers allying themselves with protesting indigenous Indians.

After the coup, the army was persuaded to hand power over to the then vice-president, now head of state, Gustavo Noboa, after intense US pressure.

But the indigenous community and coup leaders were not consulted and felt betrayed.

Bitter undercurrents and protests are still evident, perhaps being stirred up by guerrillas in Colombia.

Ecuador has long been a route for arms to enter and drugs to leave Colombia. But with the launch of the US-financed and inspired offensive against drug crops in the southern Colombian province of Putumayo in 2001, it has had to deal with more than 10,000 refugees.

On top of that, Colombia's warring factions are settling their scores on Ecuadorean soil.

Kidnapping, Colombia's second-most lucrative industry after drugs, has also migrated to Ecuador.

Foreign oil workers have been snatched twice - once in 1999 and once in 2000 - leading to the payment of million-dollar ransoms.

Such operations had all the hallmarks of Colombian guerrillas.

And last year, Colombian police caught four women with more than $250,000 in cash strapped to their bodies.

The notes were traced back to the ransoms paid in Ecuador.


Elderly Peruvian woman
The Peruvian Shining Path guerrillas may be taking lessons from FARC
Peru is no stranger to guerrilla violence - the Shining Path were threatening to overthrow the Peruvian state when FARC were still scrabbling around in the distant jungle reaches of Colombia.

While only about 400-strong, the Shining Path is active once again, and is remnants have discovered the secret of success that their Colombian comrades have long known: income from drugs.

Officials in Peru admit that coca crops are on the increase again, and that Colombian drugs traffickers have been offering farmers money to sow opium poppies to supply the booming heroin market.

Peru is at a vulnerable stage, trying to break out of the authoritarian and corrupt chains with which disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori bound the country, aided by his shadowy spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos.

FARC admitted in March that they had crossed into Peru, but denied having a permanent presence there.

But should some unholy alliance between the Shining Path and FARC be developing and should the Peruvian guerrillas be adopting Colombian techniques, the Shining Path's slow decline might be arrested and reversed.


Manuel Noriega
Guerrillas have benefited from the disbanding of Panama's army after the capture of Manuel Noriega
To the north, Colombia's border with Panama is perhaps the most lawless of them all.

Straddled by the impassable Darien Gap, this area has long been the preserve of smugglers and guerrillas.

And when it became clear that FARC were using the zone as a rest and recreation area to escape pressure from the Colombian security forces, the right-wing paramilitaries did what the Colombian army could not: went in after them.

Last year they attacked the Panamanian village of Nazaret, where guerrillas had been buying supplies, killing one young girl.

Panama has no standing army. It was disbanded after the US invaded in 1989 with "Operation Just Cause" which overthrew the strongman Manuel Noriega.

So now it is left to heavily armed police to nervously patrol the Darien.


Brazilian mounted police
Brazil has launched "Operation CoBra" to deal with problems in its border regions
Latin America's superpower is not immune to the Colombian factor.

According to US State Department estimates, Brazil is the world's second largest cocaine market.

The scale of Brazil's involvement with Colombian drugs, and through them with their guerrillas, was revealed by last year's success stories for the Colombian military.

During "Operation Black Cat", thousands of troops swept into the Vichada province on the Brazilian border.

Here they found fields of coca, the raw material for cocaine, drug labs and FARC camps.

In the operation, they arrested Brazil's top drug lord, Luis da Costa, who was working with a FARC front commander, Tomas Molina Caracas, better known by his alias "El Negro Acacio".

According to reports compiled by the Colombian security forces and the US, the Brazilian was shifting more than 20 tons of cocaine via FARC every year.

Brazil has taken the Colombian threat seriously enough to set up a military task force as part of "Operation CoBra" - the title devised by using the beginning of each country's name - a dedicated army group with helicopter support.

To co-ordinate this force, a network of radar surveillance stations have been set up at a cost of more than $1.4bn.

After the collapse of peace talks in February, Colombia has entered the most brutal phase of its civil conflict.

The war is spreading into the cities, and increasingly, across the borders.

Colombia's neighbours, some of them fighting their own problems of instability, are looking into the abyss of violence and chaos that is Colombia, and praying they are not dragged into it.

See also:

02 Mar 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
Colombia's war without end
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