By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 26, 2008
BOGOTA, Colombia, May 25 -- Colombia's largest rebel group pledged Sunday to carry on in its decades-long war against the U.S.-backed government after confirming that the group's legendary commander had died of natural causes. The Defense Ministry had said the day before that Manuel Marulanda, who led one of the world's oldest insurgencies in a brutal if quixotic battle against the state, had died in March.
"With immense sadness, we inform that our commander in chief, Manuel Marulanda Vélez, died March 26 of a heart attack in the arms of his companion and surrounded by his personal guard," Rodrigo "Timochenko" Londoño, one of seven members of the guerrilla directorate, said in a video provided to a Venezuelan state television station, Telesur. "Our struggle continues without rest until we reach the objective of a new Colombia, a great Latin American fatherland and socialism."
The announcement closes a long chapter in the history of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and raises the possibility that the new rebel leadership may consider peace negotiations in the face of a military offensive that has recently resulted in the deaths of top commanders and the desertions of thousands of fighters.
Some military analysts say the group, which has seen its forces contract from 16,900 fighters in 2002 to fewer than 11,000 today, has to seriously consider the possibility of engaging President Álvaro Uribe's government in peace talks.
"The FARC is going through a process of decomposition and defeat," said Joaquín Villalobos, who helped lead El Salvador's guerrilla movement in the 1970s and '80s and is now a conflict resolution consultant who has studied Colombia's war. "They will fracture. You already see it in the command-and-control structures. Its option is to look for a way to bring the conflict to an end."
The FARC grew from a nucleus of several dozen peasants in 1964 into a rebel army with virtually nationwide reach, one of the largest and certainly the richest that has ever operated in Latin America. Marulanda, whose life as an insurgent predates Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba by a decade, came to embody the ideals of a political-military organization that considered all of Colombia's governments decadent and fought to overthrow them.
The son of a peasant farmer who was born Pedro Antonio Marin, Marulanda was inculcated with Marxist ideology in Moscow and spoke of how the group fought for land reform and income distribution in a country notorious for its inequitable distribution of wealth.
"There has to be an allocation of land to those who need it and will work it," he once told a television interviewer. He explained that the handover would happen peacefully, or through war. "We'll see if it's through politics," he said ominously, "or the other way."
While the FARC did enter peace negotiations with three administrations, the group was accused of using talks as a smokescreen while it fortified its forces to achieve the goal it set for itself in a 1982 conference: expand nationally beyond its rural roots and take power.
The group, though, has never been able to generate strong civilian support, political analysts and former rebels say, and in fact became despised by many Colombians for its close ties to drug trafficking and its use of what often appeared to be gratuitous violence. The FARC often attacks civilian targets, and its planting of mines kills hundreds of poor farmers every year.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said that Marulanda's death, along with the recent killings of several top commanders and the desertions of others, shows that the FARC is in an irreversible decline.
He reiterated the government's offer of peace negotiations, saying that he hoped that less militaristic leaders in the guerrilla command would open the door to talks. With the death of Marulanda, who was at least 76, the FARC has named as his successor a more political-minded leader, Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas, stepping over a younger generation of more militaristic commanders in doing so.
"He was completely anchored in the past, with an archaic vision of the world and the country, and he many times impeded advances in peace negotiations," Santos said of Marulanda in an interview. "He was a very shrewd person but very elemental person, not very sophisticated in his intellectual preparations and intellectual visions, so he had been a stumbling block."
Sáenz Vargas, better known by the alias Alfonso Cano, is considered the FARC's top Marxist ideologue and had been a Communist Party politician. His main rival is the FARC's top military commander, Jorge Briceño, a rotund man best known as the FARC's leading military tactician.
Briceño, whose nom de guerre is Mono Jo Joy, oversaw a military expansion in the 1990s and helped plan some of the group's biggest victories against the army that decade. The military high command believes that the decision to choose Sáenz Vargas could touch off a struggle within the FARC.
"Mono Jo Joy, who many thought was going to be the successor of Marulanda, had never had the best of relations with Alfonso Cano," Santos said. "And we might see an internal conflict between those two, between the political side and the military side."
It is difficult to predict the actions of a group that is considered among the most hermetic in the long line of Latin American insurgencies. Even those with a direct channel to the rebel command are unable to say what decisions might be taken.
Álvaro Jimenéz, a former guerrilla with the now-demobilized M-19 rebel movement, said Cano, who studied at Bogota's National University and oversees the FARC's clandestine political cells, could provide fresh ideas to the rebel movement.
"Alfonso Cano is the man who can have a better connection to the country we are today, who can best interpret the point of view that Colombians have in wanting an end to this conflict," he said.
The Colombian government, though, also has to show it is willing to reach a negotiated solution to the conflict. Jimenéz said that although high officials say Uribe is open to talks, the president's hard-line rhetoric against his opponents has created political polarization that is not conducive to negotiations.
Senator Gustavo Petro, of the center-left Polo Democratic Party, said the government cannot assume its recent successes against the FARC will push the group into talks. He said the FARC must be induced to the negotiating table with a viable peace offering. Otherwise, he said, the conflict could continue, even if the FARC does begin to splinter.
"Uribe right now projects war, and the war route just generates more war," Petro said. "That could, of course, lead to a military triumph. Or the perpetuation of war."