Tough Intellectual Takes Rebel Reins in Colombia

By Juan Forero and Steven Dudley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 9, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia, June 8 -- The death of the world's oldest rebel commander has ushered in a new chapter in Colombia's long civil conflict, with a bookish communist intellectual now leading a waning guerrilla force against a government convinced of its ability to deliver a resounding defeat.

Guillermo Sáenz Vargas had been an anthropology student from one of Bogota's most desirable neighborhoods when, spurred by radical university politics and determined to oust the ruling elite, he joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and took the nom de guerre Alfonso Cano. Now, 26 years later, Cano is leading Latin America's last significant rebel movement, a hermetic, anachronistic organization committed to armed struggle long after the Soviet Union's collapse.

Some of those who know Cano, having rebelled with him in the 1970s or sat across from him in doomed peace talks, describe a man of keen intellect whose roots in communist politics make him the guerrilla commander best suited to lead the rebel group, known as the FARC, into negotiations.

But Cano, who is in his late 50s, is also considered dogmatic and intransigent, his old associates say. They describe a man who carefully weighs any possible compromise against his inherent distrust of President Álvaro Uribe's U.S.-backed government.

In a rare one-on-one interview with The Washington Post in 2000, one of his last, Cano said he was open to negotiations, but he did not hesitate to state the FARC's main objective -- to rule Colombia. "For the long term, we have it defined: We want to be in power," he said.

Cano's ascension comes in the midst of hard political realities for the rebels that some analysts and military officials say may prompt the rebel group to intensify the conflict. The guerrilla group, though, is waging war under increasingly trying circumstances: a quarter of its units, known as fronts, have been neutralized, radio communications have been disrupted, and hundreds of guerrillas are deserting each month.

Last year, for the first time in 25 years, the FARC was unable to seize a single town, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said in an interview. Colombia's 270,000-member military has the initiative and its commanders are increasingly predicting victory, unless the guerrilla leadership opts for peace talks.

"They will suffer the consequences," Santos said. "They are very weak, and we are better and better each time."

Colombia's military high command and people who know Cano said the conflict may intensify in the coming weeks because the new FARC commander needs to both consolidate his leadership in the group's seven-man ruling Secretariat and demonstrate his military acumen in the face of recent battlefield setbacks. He also faces a buoyant government that, at least publicly, has offered no concessions to encourage the FARC to negotiate and instead promises no quarter in hunting down commanders.

In the weeks since the FARC's founder and guiding light, Manuel Marulanda, died of a heart attack, the rebels have tried to demonstrate that they remain a threat. They derailed a coal train and bombed electrical towers in the north, and ambushed security forces in the south.

"They're still relevant," said Moisés Daza, the mayor of San Juan in northeastern Colombia, where guerrillas recently made their presence felt. "They can still do some of the things they say they are going to do."

A communique published on the FARC's de facto Web site listed scores of guerrilla strikes and mocked the government's six-year military initiative. "What Democratic Security?" the site asked.

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