The parents of the murdered students pushed their way through the crowded aisles of Benito Juarez International Airport each clutching urns that contained the ashes of their dead children, slaughtered while they slept March 1 in an Ecuadoran guerrilla jungle camp of the long-lived Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) by the Colombian air force along with 18 fighters and an Ecuadoran citizen. The 23 dead were the first known victims in Latin America of the Bush doctrine of preventative war against suspected terrorists.
On hand to receive the grieving parents of Fernando Franco, Juan Gonzalez del Castillo, and Veronica Velazquez with flowers and paper doves of peace were dozens of their fellow students in the Philosophy & Letters Faculty of the National Autonomous University (UNAM) led by the director of that school. A fourth student killed in the bombing, Soren Ulises Aviles attended the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN.) Lucia Morett, also a UNAM student, survived the attack along with two Colombian women but was gravely wounded by shrapnel and remains in a Quito hospital.
Later, their UNAM classmates carried the ashes of the martyred students from faculty to faculty on the huge campus in the south of the city, saluting them with the traditional cry of "Presente!" with which the Latin American left honors its fallen. The Philosophy & Letters faculty is the most left-leaning of all the UNAM schools, boasting such graduates as Subcomandante Marcos.
Lucia, Juan, Veronica, and Fernando were post-graduate candidates in Latin American Studies at Philosophy & Letters and formed the Simon Bolivar Cathedra, a leftish movie club. They flew to Quito in mid-February, according to the faculty director Ambrosio Velazquez, to do field research in the contemporary Latin American social dynamic, meeting with leaders of Ecuador's very active indigenous movement, political analysts, and environmentalists. From February 25 through the 27th, the students, along with Soren Aviles, participated in a Bolivarian conference convened at Quito University and the Ecuadoran capital's House of Culture.
The next day, the five flew into the Amazon to Lago Agrio ("Bitter Lake") to survey the havoc wrought by Big Oil during decades of careless drilling in the jungle. In truth, Ecuador had been bombed by U.S. proxies before the March 1 attack - Texaco so destroyed Secumbios canton that abandoned villages sometimes blow sky high when a farmer's machete strikes a spark and whole Indian tribes have simply vanished from the face of the earth.
But the students had another item on their agenda - a trip to the FARC camp at Angostura, two kilometers inside Ecuador in Secumbios to interview the guerrilla's second-in-command Raul Reyes about the prospects for peace in the 40-year war between the FARC and the Colombian oligarchy. Reyes was the key rebel negotiator in the recent release of seven of the 50 hostages that the guerrilla continues to hold. The humanitarian gesture was stage-managed by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and was an acute embarrassment to both the White House and its Colombian surrogate Alvaro Uribe.
According to Lucia's parents, the five students had arrived in the camp only four hours before the attack. They were sleeping when Colombian planes - possibly Israeli-built Kfirs - dropped ten 500-pound Paveway bombs on the hideout. The Paveway bombs were identical to those deployed by the U.S. during Operation Desert Storm, according to Ecuadoran Air Force experts who retrieved bomb parts from the scene of the massacre.
To compound this egregious violation of Ecuador's sovereignty, Colombian troops then crossed the border to snatch the body of Raul Reyes (not his real name) and his supposed second, the troubadour-guerrillero "Julian Conrado." The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has reportedly offered a $7 million USD reward for the capture of "Reyes" and "Conrado" dead or alive.
The Mexican students were collateral damage in a targeted assassination of the sort so popular with the Israeli Defense Force. The Colombian military has a lengthy history of consorting with the IDF and indeed, according to the Mexican daily La Jornada, a retired Israeli Air Force general, Israel Ziv, was visiting Bogotá at the time of the attack.
In a press bulletin issued March 14, the FARC pointed a finger at the U.S. South Command (SOUTHCOM) operating out of Quarry Heights Panama as having organized thed assassinations. According to published reports, Reyes was pinpointed by U.S. satellite interception of a phone conversation between the guerrilla leader and Venezuelan president Chavez. The logistics of the raid appear to have been coordinated by U.S. military personnel at the Manta Ecuador drug war base that President Rafael Correa has pledged to shut down when the Yanquis' lease runs out in 2009.
Since the U.S. declared its war on terror, the Bushites have insisted that there are no borders in their global crusade. Recent U.S. targeted assassinations in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, sometimes using unmanned drones, have written the Bush doctrine in blood. The New York Times (March 9) noted the "remarkable similarity" between the U.S. killing of a top al-Qaeda operator in Pakistan and the massacre in Ecuador.
The bombing of the Angostura camp fits into the strategic framework of Plan Colombia, the $6 billion anti-narco, anti-FARC boondoggle perpetuated since 1999 by the Clinton and Bush administrations. Now Washington is cloning the franchise with Plan Mexico AKA the Merida Initiative, a $1.4 billion buck investment in repressive Mexican security forces, soon to kick in.
Unlike Correa or Chavez and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega who broke diplomatic relations with Colombia for a day, Mexico's dubiously elected president Felipe Calderon, an Uribe-Bush ally, is silent about the attack that resulted in the death of four of his young citizens and the maiming of another. Indeed, the Mexican federal prosecutor's office has sought to interview the hospitalized Morett to determine whether her group of revolutionary tourists had received arms and explosives training during their four houses with the guerrilla.
The Calderon administration's spin on Colombia's bombing of Ecuador was encapsulated in the initial Foreign Relations Secretariat's press bulletin following the identification of the Mexican victims: "(the Mexican government) is preoccupied by the involvement of Mexican citizens with terrorists."
The FARC has long been listed on the White House terrorist roster although Venezuela's Chavez prefers to deal with them as belligerents in a civil war.
The Bush terror war attack appears to have cancelled further hostage releases and prisoner exchanges with the Uribe government, which holds hundreds of FARC militants, and may have doomed once-upon-a-time presidential candidate Isabel Betancourt, a French citizen, who is said to be seriously ill with hepatitis.
The Colombian incursion blew up big in Venezuela where Comandante Chavez saw Uribe's unilateral aggression as an "act of war", broke off diplomatic relations, sealed the border with Colombia, and sent ten tank brigades to enforce the closure. The border was reopened ten days later and a peace concert headlined by the Colombian pop idol Juanes drew tens of thousands to the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in Cucuta.
As the crisis boiled over, the Group of Rio, an all-Latin American aggregation that excludes the U.S., met in Santo Domingo March 7. During an acrimonious interchange between presidents, Uribe sought to justify the raid as an act of self-defense against terrorists and drug gangs after Correa accused Colombia of criminal aggression. An uneasy deal was finally brokered by Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim who convinced the battling presidents that the summit presented a rare opportunity for Latin America to settle its own affairs without Washington's intervention. Although Chavez, Uribe, and Correa exchanged tepid handshakes, the matter was by no means settled when they left Santo Domingo.
The U.S. got its chance to intervene ten days later at an emergency session of the Organization of American States in Washington. The OAS is popularly known as the "Ministry of Colonies" throughout Latin America.
The OAS was installed by the United States in 1948 as a bulwark against Communism. Its founding meeting took place in Bogotá, Colombia during widespread rioting following the assassination of the leftist Jorge Eliezar Gaitan, a conflagration that sparked a half century of "La Violencia" between conservatives and liberals of which the FARC is a lineal descendent.
The U.S. argued the appropriateness of the Bush Doctrine at the March 17 conclave. Washington's position was defended by John Negroponte, Bush's former intelligence czar and now number two at the State Department who has a dark history in Latin America. Negroponte, known as the "Pro-Consul" for his funding of the Contras during the counter-insurgency in Nicaragua, sought to persuade the Latinos that Colombia had a right to self defense (a la Israel) and that the March 1 bombing had been a perfectly legal preventative strike against a "criminal drug gang and terrorists." But outside of Salvador's stooge president Tony Saca, no one seemed to buy Tio Sam's line. Mexican foreign secretary Patricia Espinosa remained studiously close-mouthed during the debate.
In the end, the argument before the OAS was reduced to whether the organization should "condemn" or "reject" the Colombian bombing of Ecuador. The rejectionists won out. Despite the toning down of the final document, the fact that Washington did not get its way with its "Ministry of Colonies" was hailed as a victory in Latin America.
But the conflict was not dead yet and blew up all over again with the revelation that an Ecuadoran citizen had been killed in the cross-border invasion. "It is unacceptable that an Ecuadoran citizen can be killed by foreign soldiers on Ecuadoran soil," an enraged Correa told the press. The fact that the Colombian government covered up the death of Franklin Aizcalla, a Quito mechanic whom Uribe's police described as the lover of the guerrillera "Esperanza", rubbed salt into the wound. In an apparent scam to reap the DEA reward, Aizcalla's body had been spirited out of Ecuador by Colombian troops and passed off as that of "Julian Conrado", the Vallenato virtuoso and guerrillero who performed for former president Andres Pastrana during the 1999 peace talks in Caguan.
The "Conrado" deception was not the only dirty trick that Uribe played on Correa. In classic CIA m.o., a fuzzy photograph was planted on the front page of El Tiempo, Colombia's top daily, purportedly depicting a meeting between "Raul Reyes" and "Gustavo Larrea", Ecuador's Security minister - "Larrea" as it turned out was really Patricio Etchegaray, secretary of the Argentinean Communist Party who had interviewed the FARC Comandante some months earlier.
The photograph was allegedly lifted from Reyes' laptop, which had magically survived a bombing attack that shattered and pulverized human beings. El Tiempo is owned and operated by the Santos family, three members of which hold high level posts in Uribe's government. Juan Manuel Santos is the nation's defense chief.
Other information supposedly located on the magical hard drive was said to implicate Chavez in financing the FARC to the tune of $300 million USD and U.S. experts were soon in Bogotá reviewing the "evidence" in anticipation of listing Chavez as a sponsor of terrorism - Bush has pushed to add Venezuela to his new shopworn Axis of Evil (Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria.)
The lame duck U.S. president is banking on the Colombian crisis to force congressional approbation of a bi-lateral free trade pact with Bogotá but the Democrats are reluctant to vote up the project in an electoral year.
Here in Mexico, despite a moment of silence to honor the dead students during a meeting of tens of thousands in the Zocalo plaza March 25 and similar minutes of silence in both houses of the Congress, Calderon's own silence remains deafening. Colombian police efforts to extradite Morret from Ecuador for questioning are stymied by the hostilities between Correa and Uribe. But should Morret return to Mexico, she runs the risk of being shipped to Colombia by her own government and Lucia's parents indicate she will apply for political asylum in Ecuador.
Colombia has refused to pay compensation to the families of the dead and wounded students insisting the bombing was "a legitimate action." The parents, for their part, insist they are not interested in compensation and only want the Calderon government to condemn the illegal attack.
The killing of the students has unleashed a savage media campaign against the UNAM, which right-wingers have always blasted as "a cradle for radicals." The putsch has been fueled by former leftist Jorge Castaneda's allegations that a FARC sleeper cell led by a Cuban-born engineer, Dagoberto Diaz, operates out of the university.
The FARC in fact had offices in Mexico City for years before former president Vicente Fox, in one of his first diplomatic blunders, shut it down in 2000 - Castaneda was then his foreign minister. The clampdown was lamented by Pastrana who approved of the office as a point of contact between the Colombian government and the guerrilla. FARC-bashing is a popular pastime for Mexico's yellow press. Rumors buzzed back in 2001 that the Colombian rebels were out to snatch Rudolph Giuliani when he came to Mexico City on a crime-busting swindle.
But UNAM rector Jose Narro and Philosophy & Letters director Velazquez see an ulterior motive in the media barrage against the UNAM - the privatization of public education, a pet project for Mexico's rightists.
Defending the UNAM, the oldest and largest in Latin America, at a meeting of the University Council this past Friday (March 28), Narro lamented "that we have to open this session with a moment of silence to honor the memory of our dead students. We will never accept the lies and infamies of those who would do harm to our university. The UNAM is a diverse and public university and it will remain that way so long as I am the rector."
John Ross is in Mexico City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org