Colombia says ammunition delivery to FARC thwarted

Times Staff Writer

A Venezuelan national guard sergeant will face “the full weight of national law” after being arrested in a remote border area, allegedly on his way to deliver 40,000 rounds of ammunition to Colombia’s largest rebel group, this country’s foreign minister said Saturday.

Sgt. Manuel Agudo Escalona, was arrested Friday with another Venezuelan and two Colombians in the eastern jungle state of Vichada with ammunition for AK-47 rifles destined for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the government said.

Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo said at a news conference Saturday that he had made contact with counterparts in Venezuela to “verify the identity of the group and who could be implicated. . . . There will be an investigation coordinated by both ministries.”


As of Saturday evening, Venezuela had made no official comment on the arrests.

The arms case is a potential source of additional tension between the two countries, led by ideologically opposed presidents. Colombia, whose president is a conservative strongly backed by the United States, has charged that leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has given “systematic and intentional help” to the FARC as it carried out attacks on Colombia from Venezuelan territory, calling that support a “crime against humanity.”

In March, electronic files found in the laptops of a slain FARC commander included messages that the Colombian government says indicated that Venezuela promised to supply the rebels with arms and a haven as well as political and logistical support.

Colombia recovered the FARC laptops after its aircraft and soldiers entered Ecuadorean territory March 1 in a raid that killed the rebels’ No. 2 rebel commander, known as Raul Reyes. The action sparked a regional crisis, and Chavez briefly sent tank battalions to the border with Colombia.

The content of the messages has not been corroborated, and Chavez later told Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at a meeting in Brazil that he has not given “the tiniest bullet” to the rebels.

Citing unidentified sources, Colombian news reports said the munitions recovered Friday had been stolen from a military barracks in the Venezuelan city of Valencia, but a spokesman for the Colombian special prosecutor, Mario Iguaron, said Saturday that he could not verify the reports.

The four suspects were brought to Bogota on Saturday for questioning. Araujo said the four would suffer “the full weight of Colombian law.”

Iguaron’s office said the capture was made possible by the arrest Thursday of a FARC operative, Hernando Gamboa Sanchez, believed to be the chief of security for a top-ranking rebel commander.

Racked by civil conflict for more than four decades, Colombia is a hub for arms trafficking. Leftist rebels, right-wing militias and drug traffickers acquire weapons here, often in exchange for the cocaine that they process and traffic.

In one raid last month, the Colombian National Police seized 293 AK-47s near the Venezuelan border that were allegedly destined for the Black Eagles, an emerging Colombian paramilitary gang.

In another seizure three days later, the Colombian army in Cali found 607 Chinese rifles that allegedly were intended to be delivered to a drug gang called the Rastrojos.

In April, Colombian forces uncovered a FARC arsenal near the Ecuadorean border that included 8,000 land mines and 2 tons of bomb-making materials.

The FARC is known to cast lines far afield in its efforts to buy arms. In March, U.S. undercover agents arrested a Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, in Thailand, accusing him of trying to sell missiles and other weaponry to police officers posing as FARC rebels.

Last June, reputed arms dealer Monzer Kassar was arrested in Spain as he allegedly prepared to complete a multimillion-dollar transaction to sell guns, ammunition, missiles and grenades to agents also posing as FARC operatives.