Colombian assassination raises fears about FARC's strength

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 24, 2009; A06

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Colombia's largest rebel group, which in recent months has launched a string of armed attacks to demonstrate that it is not a spent force after 45 years of conflict, this week staged a strike that alarmed Colombians and raised questions about President Álvaro Uribe's U.S.-supported security strategies.

At 10:15 p.m. Monday, as Luis Francisco Cuéllar, the governor of a rural state in southern Colombia, was settling into bed, a commando unit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia barreled into his home, clad in jungle camouflage and carrying assault rifles. The men killed a police guard, then blew up the front door.

"He was in his pajamas, shoeless," Cuéllar's wife, Imelda Galindo, said by phone Wednesday from Florencia, the bustling capital of Caqueta state. "I said, 'Please, what do you want?' He is sick, I told them."

The men did not answer, Galindo said. Instead, they hustled the 68-year-old Cuéllar down three flights of stairs, out the front door and into a four-wheel-drive vehicle. With Colombian troops in pursuit, his captors sliced his throat and dumped him just outside Florencia. Security forces found his body Tuesday, when he would have turned 69.

That the guerrilla group would target the state's highest-ranking official in the middle of the heavily guarded state capital underscored the threat it still poses. Cuéllar's slaying has also left Colombians wondering whether FARC, as the group is known, is reviving a policy many thought it had abandoned: kidnapping high-profile civilians. In 2002, a French-Colombian politician, Ingrid Betancourt, was abducted in Caqueta while campaigning for the presidency.

The influential Colombian newspaper El Tiempo said Wednesday that the operation against Cuéllar "showed the terrorist capacity" of the FARC. "Underestimating its capacity to plan kidnappings of high officials and military strikes like those in recent months is a crass error society cannot commit," it said in an editorial.

León Valencia, director of New Rainbow, a Bogota policy group, said there is no doubt that the rebels had been weakened by an army offensive, backed by U.S. training and intelligence-gathering, that culminated in last year's daring rescue of 15 hostages, including Betancourt and three Americans.

But a recent New Rainbow study has shown, he said, that the number of guerrilla "actions" -- including ambushes, slayings and the planting of land mines -- increased from 1,200 in 2008 to 1,600 this year. He also said that FARC, under new leadership, is working to recover key zones in the south while forging an alliance with the National Liberation Army, another rebel group.

"This is a new phase," Valencia said. "There is a new reorganization of the group, with a plan they call 'rebirth.' "

Sergio Jaramillo, vice minister of defense, said that military officials do not think the rebels can recover from their recent setbacks, including the desertions of thousands of fighters and the deaths of experienced commanders in attacks carried out by the military.

"There is no way back for them strategically, though they can do things here and there," he said.

Still, Jaramillo acknowledged that the group has a strong intelligence network in Caqueta. The state, a regional center of the drug trade, has also seen FARC killings of other local officials. "This does say something about the security in Caqueta," he said.

The abduction of the governor was carried out in a city that is accustomed to a heavy military presence. The Colombian army's 6th Division is based in Florencia, and just to the north is an army base, Larandia, where U.S. personnel have trained Colombian soldiers.

In Florencia on Wednesday, people took to the streets, waving white flags and shouting in unison, "Why did you have to kill him?" Cuéllar's casket was driven along narrow streets and then brought to the state assembly building so mourners could pay their last respects.

"This was an attack against order, against life, against all the good people here," Olga Patricia Vega, the acting governor, said in a phone interview from Florencia. "This attack was designed to give the sensation that the FARC is strong, that they are important here in Caqueta. But they should know that the good people here outnumber them."

Galindo, the governor's wife, said that her husband was familiar with FARC tactics: He was a rancher who had been kidnapped four times, released each time after paying a ransom.

Galindo said she presumes that this time, he did not want to cooperate. She said she also thinks her husband could not walk quickly enough for the guerrillas, his feet having been cut by the broken glass left after the kidnappers destroyed the front door with explosives.

The evening had begun, Galindo said, with a pleasant pre-Christmas gathering at their home. The couple had invited about a dozen guests for drinks and food, a common occurrence in Colombia in the days before the holiday.

But she said he had a busy day planned for Tuesday and told his guests he was feeling tired.

"My husband said, 'I'm ready for bed.' And so everyone left," she recalled. Only minutes later, she said, the kidnappers were in their bedroom.

"I screamed and screamed: 'Help, help! They kidnapped the governor!'" she said.

Galindo said that she had hoped he would soon be released but that she also remembered he had once told her: "If God calls, I will be ready."

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