Imagine if the United States captured the laptop computer in Iraq containing encrypted e-mails detailing Iranian financial and military support for insurgents.
Now stop imagining and consider a very real scenario in this hemisphere. Just substitute Colombia for the United States and Venezuela for Iran.
In early March, Colombian forces attacked a hideout of the Revolutionary Armed Forces in Colombia, or FARC, across the border in Ecuador. They killed a key FARC leader and in the process got ahold of several of his laptops, containing numerous e-mails that indicated the Venezuelan government had created a $300-million secret fund for the FARC and that the Venezuelan military had delivered surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down Colombia's U.S.-supplied Black Hawk helicopters.
The scandal has dominated headlines across Latin America. But outside of Florida's Hispanic media, the controversy involving one of Washington's principal allies in the region, a group it has labeled a terrorist organization and the government of leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez has generated scant attention.
Just last week, Interpol reported that the computer files had not been tampered with by the Colombian military, seeming to refute categorically Venezuelan claims that the files were politically manipulated by the Colombian government.
So far, no one (besides Colombia) seems prepared to challenge Chavez head-on. The Bush administration has taken a hands-off approach, hoping that the laptop files will oblige Chavez to retreat from his solidarity with the FARC. U.S. officials also worry that turning up the heat on Chavez could help him stir up nationalist sentiment among his followers, as well as jeopardizing Venezuelan oil imports to this country.
Washington would like to see Latin American leaders rally around Colombia, and join the United States and Europe in officially recognizing the FARC as a terrorist organization. But no Latin American country has so far done so, heeding a tradition of noninterference in the internal affairs of fellow states.
However, analysts point out that Chavez's seemingly brazen advocacy of the FARC, flies in the face of regional nonintervention.
Supplying surface-to-air missiles could alter the balance of the war, though the FARC has yet to use the missiles if it has them. Colombia's air supremacy, thanks to the U.S. helicopters as well as U.S.-trained pilots equipped with night-vision goggles, is the main reason why the FARC rebels have been forced on the defensive in the last couple of years.
Independent verification of the files won't be easy, at least not to a courtroom standard of proof. But Colombia's case may benefit from recent defections that have reached higher and higher up the FARC's ranks. This has produced new human intelligence about rebel operations, Colombian military sources say, including drug trafficking and weapons smuggling.
Only last weekend, a major female rebel boss, known as "Karina," turned herself in to Colombian forces in an unprecedented surrender.
What can Karina tell the Colombian armed forces? No doubt quite a lot. If FARC chiefs begin to talk — or if a missile were to bring down a helicopter — then Chavez may find himself in even hotter water.