FARC, ETA and Al Qaeda: the terror connection
Ongoing terrorism investigations suggest some extraordinary links between three very different terror groups. Recent allegations related to these connections have put the government of Prime Minister Zapatero in an uncomfortable spot as it tries to protect Spain’s investments in Venezuela.
By Marty Delfin
When the US Drug Enforcement Administration announced in December that it had arrested three suspected Al Qaeda operatives in Ghana and brought them to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges, investigators unveiled some astonishing allegations. The defendants had offered to help rebels of South America’s oldest active guerrilla front, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), traffic cocaine into Spain using North African routes. While there had been speculation regarding such a connection in the past, this was the first time US law enforcement authorities had linked the dots between Islamic extremists and the FARC in a criminal indictment.
Then in early March, Spanish High Court Judge Eloy Velasco said there was enough evidence to charge and arrest a mid-ranking official in Hugo Chávez’s government who has allegedly been the point man for the Basque terrorist group ETA in Venezuela. Arturo Cubillas Fontán, a Basque national who emigrated to Venezuela in 1989, put FARC rebels in touch with ETA hitmen in a fruitless attempt to organise a series of assassinations in Spain, including the murder of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, Velasco concluded. Arrest warrants have been issued for Cubillas and 12 other ETA and FARC members suspected of hiding out in Venezuela and Cuba, including Remedios García Albert, who allegedly represents the Colombian rebels in Spain.
US government and military officials have continuously warned of such ties between Chávez’s administration and groups they see as terrorists, such as the FARC, but have never before formulated any such accusations in a criminal complaint.
The opposition Popular Party (PP) has called on Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to break off relations with Venezuela. Although the PP’s stance is premature at this stage, it is no surprise that these serious charges levelled by a Spanish judge have put Spain’s Socialist government in a legal and diplomatic limbo, with Zapatero caught between protecting his country’s considerable investments in Venezuela and maintaining a tough stance against terrorism.
Big money in the Caribbean
Over the last two years, Spain has penned agreements worth hundreds of millions of euros in Venezuela’s energy industry. Last year, Spanish energy giant Repsol, working alongside state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (Pdvsa), made a major find in the Gulf of Venezuela that, officials say, could yield as much as 1.5-2.0 trillion cubic-feet of natural gas from underneath the massive body of water off the country’s Caribbean coast. As part of a consortium in a different project, Repsol has begun tapping into a field in the Orinoco basin called La Perla, which experts believe contains between one and 1.4 billion barrels of heavy crude. Spain’s share in the project could help meet the country’s energy needs for five years. The company has also agreed to refine one million barrels of Venezuelan crude in Spain, which would generate huge profits for the Spanish government.
On March 12, after Velasco’s charges were announced, Chávez warned during a television address that Spain had “a lot more to lose” than Venezuela if the High Court insisted on pursuing the case. He publicly asked the Spanish companies operating in Venezuela “to reflect on this message and pass it on” to Madrid . The previous day, during a closed-door meeting of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican Senator John McCain asked the head of the US Southern Command, General Doug Fraser, about the Chávez-ETA-FARC connection and the allegations about the assassination plots in Spain.
While not specifically mentioning the Basque terrorist group, Fraser wrote on his blog; “There is indeed clear and documented historical and ongoing evidence of the linkages between the Government of Venezuela and the FARC. We track this and continue to monitor the amount and level of direct support in the form of money, networks, and providing a safe haven for operations and personnel.”
Meanwhile, the case of the three Al Qaeda operatives, who are being held in a New York jail, is ongoing. According to the federal grand jury indictment, which was unsealed last December, the defendants -Oumar Issa, Harouna Touré and Idriss Abelrahman– met with an undercover agent between September and December last year to plan the transport of hundreds of kilos of cocaine from West to North Africa and ultimately into Spain. “Touré stated that Al Qaeda would protect the FARC’s cocaine shipment from Mali through North Africa and into Morocco en route to Spain,” the DEA said. “Touré also discussed the possibility of kidnapping foreign nationals to raise money for the cause.”
While the grand jury charges don’t outline a Chávez government or ETA connection, many experts believe that Venezuela is being used as a launching pad for Colombian drug runners. In a Reuters interview in January, Jay Bergman, the DEA director for South America’s Andean region, said all of the aircraft drug seizures in recent years that have been made in West Africa – “and we’ve made about a half of dozen of them” – were found to have departed from Venezuela. “If you look at the range and refuelling requirements, that’s the place you have to fly from.”
In January, Spanish authorities acknowledged that ETA was involved in the drug trade when they arrested five members during raids in Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa. Police confiscated 39 bags of cocaine and material typically used to cut the drug, as well as two pistols and some explosives.
Italian journalist and mafia specialist Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, the 2006 account of organized crime in Naples, is also convinced that ETA is working alongside the FARC. Italian investigators, he says, have evidence that demonstrates the Basque group obtains part of its funding through the drug trade. “The (ETA) terrorists obtained the cocaine from their Colombian-guerrilla contacts and assume the responsibility in ensuring that it gets to Italy ,” Saviano told Spanish daily El Mundo in an interview on February 7.
It is, however, no surprise that ETA has a strong foothold in Venezuela. During the 1970s, many Basques fleeing the Franco dictatorship settled in the Andean country, where they have since become mainly prosperous, hardworking citizens living quietly in a tight-knit community. Some descendants of these Basques have also become famous in their own right in Venezuela, such as Omar Vizquel, the US major league baseball shortstop, and Goizeder Azua, a beauty queen.
But for the last two decades, the Basque connection has also had a darker side to it. In 1991, then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez, a Social Democrat, was asked by Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González “to take in” about a dozen ETA members who had been living in Algeria and other countries. The agreement didn’t seem controversial at the time and the Venezuelan press interpreted it as a humane gesture. This of course was before the United States and the EU deemed ETA a terrorist group.
In the Caracas suburb of El Paraíso, the Club Centro Vasco is the social meeting place for Basque residents and their families. Along with several swimming pools and tennis courts, the club also has a popular Basque restaurant. This was where Arturo Cubillas, the High Court’s now-wanted ETA suspect, once worked as a chef. He arrived with the wave of separatists under Gonzalez’s deal and later married a Venezuelan woman of Basque descent who works directly with Chávez’s vice president.
Following Chávez’s attacks on Judge Velasco, which included accusing him of being part of a rightwing mafia headed by former Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, Zapatero demanded that the Venezuelan leader respect Spanish institutions. But the delicacy of the situation was apparent in the way that Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos has sought to tone down Spain’s “demands” in relation to this case.
The ball is in Chávez’s court now that Spain has sent him and the Cuban authorities copies of Velasco’s order. But given that it is unlikely Venezuela -or Cuba- will extradite any of the wanted suspects, Zapatero is in a difficult situation. Cutting diplomatic ties might be a popular move among his own electorate but it could prove disastrous for Spain’s enormous business interests in Venezuela; alternatively, he might seek a deft compromise that is seen to protect Spanish security and defend judicial integrity on the peninsula, as well as preserving the business status quo in Venezuela.
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Published: Mar 24 2010
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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Tags: Africa, Al Qaeda, Arturo Cubillas, Basque, Basque community, cocaine, Colombia, DEA, drugs, Eloy Velasco, ETA, FARC, gas, guerrillas, Hugo Chavez, investment, Moratinos, oil, Pdvsa, Repsol, Roberto Saviano, terrorism, Venezuela, zapatero