Campaign officials for Ecuador's then-presidential candidate Rafael Correa sought financial backing from Latin America's last remaining leftist rebel army in 2006, and there is evidence Correa was aware of such solicitations, according to a report released Tuesday.
Allegations have previously been made linking Rafael Correa to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, but this is the first time a claim has been made publicly that he was directly involved. The report also says evidence strongly suggests the FARC made a $100,000 payment to Correa's campaign.
Correa denied the allegations Tuesday.
Speaking with reporters in Ecuador's coastal city of Guayaquil, he said he had never known anyone from the FARC. If someone asked the Colombian rebels for money on behalf of his campaign, he added, "the FARC was cheated because we never received any money from the FARC."
The 240-page report, released by the London-based think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies, also says the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, after a failed 2002 coup, enlisted FARC rebels to train loyalists to "attack, neutralize, or liquidate" opponents in the event of another attempt to overthrow the government.
The report's authors based that conclusion on information gleaned from 8,382 electronic documents found on computers belonging to Raul Reyes, a top FARC commander. Reyes was killed in March 2008 in a Colombian bombardment of a FARC camp across the border in Ecuador.
IISS was provided access to the documents by Colombia in 2008 when hardliner Alvaro Uribe was president, Jose Obdulio Gaviria, a former Uribe adviser, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's current president, was defense minister at the time.
The authors plumbed those documents _ and others provided by Colombia _ for details on ties between the FARC and the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela. They released a CD containing the documents along with the report.
There is no evidence FARC-trained forces ever carried out any attacks on Chavez opponents. The Venezuelan Embassy in London issued a statement describing Tuesday's report as "dodgy" and calling the Reyes files "unverified."
The investigators based their conclusions about Correa on documentation that was not from the Reyes files.
They said they saw testimony from a FARC operative in Ecuador in 2006 "that appears to detail Correa's personal interest in and knowledge of illegal FARC contributions to his campaign." They did not say who provided the testimony.
In it, the report said, the operative, who later defected, "reported being lobbied by Correa's campaign team before the presidential elections, speaking first with an intermediary; then by telephone and in person with Ricardo Patino (currently Ecuador's foreign minister) and finally with Correa himself in a series of three telephone conversations in which Correa clearly showed an awareness of ongoing negotiations between his subordinates and FARC."
"Both circumstantial and direct evidence exist indicating that Correa may have been personally aware of and involved in the decision to solicit financial support from FARC for the runoff campaign," the report added.
In June 2008, The Associated Press spoke to a man in Colombia who appears to be the FARC operative cited in the IISS report. He told the same story, though in much more detail. The AP did not publish the interview at the time because it could not independently verify his story.
The man, who identified himself as a defected 25-year FARC veteran, told the AP that he spoke with Correa three times on the phone. Two of those times, Correa asked for help with the campaign, he said, and the third time the FARC operative congratulated the president on his November 2006 election. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he feared for his life.
The FARC veteran said he could not confirm that the rebel group actually contributed to the campaign because he was jailed in Ecuador at the time and defected in March 2007.
The IISS report, however, says that bank statements obtained by Ecuadorean electoral authorities are "the strongest indication that FARC contributions were used in Correa's campaign spending."
The report, citing documents in the Reyes archives, says the FARC gave $100,000 to rebel go-between and Correa supporter Jorge Brito on Oct. 13, 2006. The bank statements suggest that money "was immediately paid into the campaign account," the report said.
While there is no proof the money was forwarded to the Correa campaign, "the timing is highly unlikely to have been coincidental, particularly given that this was the only instance in the statements seen by the IISS in which this sum was paid into the account," the report said.
Patino called the allegations he solicited FARC funds and met with the alleged operative "completely false."
"I don't know anyone from the FARC," he told the AP on Monday. "I have never in my life seen anyone from the FARC."
Correa's former security minister, Gustavo Larrea, called the allegations of direct contacts between the FARC and the Correa campaign "a tall tale."
Larrea had previously admitted having met with Reyes after documents detailing their encounters were discovered in the rebel commander's electronic archive. He said the meetings were of a humanitarian nature, aiming to secure the release of FARC captives.
Patino's alleged solicitation of campaign support from the rebels is also mentioned in a classified U.S. diplomatic cable from January 2010, published by WikiLeaks last month. The cable does not name its source or give an opinion on the credibility of the information.
A videotape that Colombian police say came from a rebel agent's seized laptop, obtained by the AP in 2009 and widely published, shows a rebel commander telling fellow guerrillas that their insurgency had provided "assistance in dollars to Correa's campaign," though no amount was specified.
Many files in the Reyes trove, chiefly electronic communications among rebel leaders, were leaked to news organizations immediately after Reyes' death in the bombing raid, which Santos authorized as defense minister.
Correa and Chavez have suggested the files are fake. Interpol, however, has vouched for their authenticity.
The documents detailed close contacts between Reyes and members of the political circles of both Correa and Chavez.
The report says a "Contingency Plan" written in 2002 by then-loyal Gen. Raul Baduel with Chavez's approval _ and detailed in the Reyes files _ specified that FARC-trained paramilitary forces would be used to "'attack, neutralize, or liquidate' opposition supporters, political leaders and resources through sabotage and targeted assassination."
The report adds that the FARC also delivered training to state security forces and the government's "paramilitary support base."
In one case, in December 2002, "approximately 22 individuals from the 'Bolivarian Circles of Freddy Bernal' completed a monthlong course in 'militias and explosives,'" the report says. Bernal is a former Caracas mayor.
"While it is uncertain to what extent Chavez and other senior members of the civilian government were aware of the details of FARC's participation, FARC's participation is in no doubt," the report added.
When Santos assumed Colombia's presidency in August he immediately sought improved relations with Ecuador and Venezuela. In return, Correa re-established full diplomatic ties and Chavez eased restrictions on imports from Colombia. Chavez has since assisted Santos by arresting an alleged top FARC operative as he arrived in Venezuela on a flight from Europe.
The IISS report highlights what it calls the rebel group's "interest in securing foreign-state funding on a scale sufficient to alter the military balance in Colombia," and says it appears the FARC's did not achieve that goal.
Files from the Reyes archives previously leaked by Colombia's government indicate Chavez promised $300 million in 2007 to the FARC _ as well as help in trying to secure weapons such as shoulder-fired missiles from Libya, China, and other countries.
It is unclear whether any money was delivered.
Colombian officials also have alleged that Venezuela provided medical care and rest and relaxation for the FARC, and that it facilitated the guerrillas' cocaine smuggling.
Associated Press writers Luis Alonso Lugo reported this story in Washington and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru. AP writers Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, and Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.
Luis Alonso Lugo on Twitter: http://twitter.com/luisalonsolugo
Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak