Are FARC rebels reaching into Central America?

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — The reach of Colombia’s leftist guerrillas has always extended past the country’s borders — with money, arms and support coming from nearby countries.

Though the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has mostly been in retreat in recent years, its tentacles still reach Costa Rica, suggests a recent report from the U.S. Treasury.

The Treasury cited two Costa Rica-based agricultural businesses among its blacklist of people and businesses believed to be supporting the FARC, Colombia’s largest left-wing guerrilla group.

FARC began as a leftist campesino movement in the 1960s but it’s now accused of drug running, ransom kidnappings and waging war with the Colombian military and politicians.

Once the office places individuals or companies on its blacklist, it freezes their U.S.-based assets. Anyone caught doing business with the individual or company — with a few exceptions such as lawyers — from inside the United States can face hefty fines and even jail time.

The blacklist — known in Latin America as the “Clinton List” because it started with a 1995 executive order by then-President Bill Clinton — now includes more than 750 businesses and individuals linked to 87 drug kingpins.

“We call it economic death penalty,” said Erich Ferrari, a U.S. attorney who follows cases closely and writes about them on the blog sanctionlaw.com.

The companies Agropecuaria San Cayetano de Costa Rica Ltda and Arrocera El Gaucho Ltda are owned by a “FARC financial associate,” Jose Cayetano Melo, said the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control in a June press release.

Costa Rican anti-drug authorities here said they identified suspicious activity in Melo’s private bank account in 2008, including the movement of $1 million from Costa Rica to Colombia, according to local press reports from August 2009.

Security Ministry spokesman Jorge Protti told GlobalPost that Melo’s case was shelved after an investigation found no proof of Melo’s FARC link. Melo has fought the accusation, claiming that he resides in Costa Rica because he had to flee the FARC, not assist them. “Because of the persecution (from the FARC), I sought a place to put my soul at ease,” the business owner told the daily La Nacion. Melo could not be reached for comment.

The FARC is accused of infiltrating other countries in the region — most notably the dense jungles of nearby Panama — and some say Costa Rica’s links to the group go deeper than the alleged financial ties.

It’s a prickly accusation: Former Security Minister Fernando Berrocal stepped down in 2008 after sparking a national uproar by alluding to possible links between the FARC and Costa Rican politicians.

Berrocal’s controversial remarks came days after the March 1, 2008, Colombian military raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador. The army killed rebel commander Raul Reyes and obtained FARC’s computer containing information that led to probes inside and outside Colombia.

That same month, the computer’s information brought investigators to an academic’s home just north of the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, where police found $480,000 in rotting cash in a safe that belonged to FARC.

The discovery and Berrocal’s assertions also unearthed a largely forgotten history of cozier times shared by Costa Rica and Colombian leftist rebels that involved frequent visits by FARC members.

Mercedes Munoz, dean of social sciences at University of Costa Rica, criticized Berrocal for taking the computer intelligence out of context without acknowledging the past. “Actions by Reyes and other FARC leaders in Costa Rica not only were not clandestine, but were promoted by ... the very Costa Rican government,” Munoz said. One example is when Costa Rica hosted talks in 1997 between Reyes and a U.S. State Department official.

Further back, from the 1960s through the 1980s, Costa Rica was a “rest stop and medical rehabilitation” location for Colombian rebel groups including the FARC, wrote Costa Rican diplomat Melvin Saenz in an article posted on the governing National Liberation Party website. “They would interact with people in this country, not just the (left-wing) Popular Vanguard and Socialist Party but the (moderate) National Liberation too.”

However, the tone has changed. Today it’s faux pas to discuss FARC friends in most circles. The group is labeled a terrorist organization by Colombia, the United States, the European Union and others.

Adam J. Szubin, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement that his office’s recent singling out of kingpins and their financiers is part of the “Treasury’s longstanding campaign against the FARC by exposing their key support networks in Ecuador and Costa Rica.”

Szubin said, "We will continue to dismantle the FARC's financial and logistical networks and reveal its facilitators."