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As Colombia peace accord unravels, ex-FARC leaders take up arms, announce return to conflict

A former commander of FARC, the Colombian guerilla group, announced Aug. 29 a returned to conflict, breaking with the 2016 peace deal signed in Havana. (Video: Reuters)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Former senior leaders of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group announced a break with the 2016 peace accord that ended Latin America’s longest war, appearing in green fatigues, toting rifles and declaring a “new chapter” in the armed struggle against a government they said had betrayed the deal.

In a video posted online early Thursday, the former lead negotiator for the FARC — the leftist guerrilla group that became a political party in the aftermath of the deal — denounced the failure of the government, led by conservative President Iván Duque, to live up to the promises of the accord.

Luciano Marín — known by the nom de guerre Iván Márquez — stood among a group of 20 heavily armed FARC members, including other prominent leaders, and condemned the killing in the past two years of more than 500 left-wing community leaders and 150 former fighters.

“The state has not fulfilled its most important obligations, which is to guarantee the life of its citizens and especially avoid assassinations for political reasons,” Marín said. He said his group would fight for a government that upholds the peace process.

Duque announced a reward of $100,000 for tips leading to the capture of the people in the video. He said the Colombian army was well equipped to find them.

“Colombia doesn’t accept threats from anyone, much less from drug traffickers,” he said in a televised address from the presidential palace. “This group of delinquents means to mock the Colombian people, and we won’t permit it.”

Colombia wasn’t confronting a new insurgency, Duque said, just a “band of criminals.” He accused Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro of giving them refuge in Venezuela.

Rodrigo Londoño, the former supreme leader of FARC who now heads its political party, rejected the move by his former ally. He said more than 90 percent of ex-guerillas remain committed to the peace process.

“Our commitment today more than ever, as a majority, as a party, as a country, is peace, defense and compliance with the agreement,” Londoño tweeted. “Those who move away from peace are mistaken.”

U.S. officials were monitoring developments.

“Our concern is partly Colombian national security, and it’s partly that those guerrilla groups are deeply involved in drug trafficking that affects the United States directly,” Elliott Abrams, the U.S. envoy for Venezuela, told reporters in Washington.

Two years after Colombia’s peace accord, the historic pact is in jeopardy

Marín’s announcement poses the most significant threat yet to a peace process that has been gradually unraveling. Other former FARC members, frustrated by a lack of promised training and re-insertion programs, have already returned to the jungle. But Marín’s move is the most significant break with the accord.

Analysts warned that it could unite the two dozen small groups of dissident fighters who have continued the armed conflict. Marín said he would seek to coordinate with the ELN, the armed group that became Colombia’s largest guerrilla group after FARC members laid down their arms.

Naryi Vargas, a researcher with the Bogota-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, suggested that Marín and other leaders in the video could bring together at least 1,500 fighters. The FARC had more than 13,000 members, about half of them armed combatants, before the peace accord.

The Marín faction has “the capacity to regroup the close to 24 dissident groups that are in the country, they have the capacity to give them energy, a solid organizational structure, to give them a long-term plan,” Vargas said.

For more than half a century, the FARC — the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — waged a leftist struggle in which more than 220,000 Colombians were killed and 7 million displaced. The FARC, who adhere to a Marxist-Leninist doctrine, became linked with drug trafficking; their fight earned widespread rejection from a population exhausted by decades of kidnappings, bombings and land seizures.

The conflict ended with the historic 2016 deal, but some fighters continued the struggle.

Marín disappeared from public view a year ago. Duque said Marín had fled to Venezuela, where Maduro’s government has been accused of aiding Colombian rebels.

Left-wing rebel group blamed for car bomb that killed 21 in Bogota

Marín appeared in the video with other senior FARC officials in what appeared to be a jungle clearing. At his side was Seuxis Pausias Hernández, known more widely as Jesús Santrich. Hernández was detained in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raid in 2018, threatened with extradition, jailed, released, jailed again, then escaped.

Also present was Hernán Darío Velásquez, known as El Paisa, who once commanded an elite guerrilla unit of the FARC and was later part of the negotiating team that struck the accord in Havana. And Walter Mendoza, a former commander of the FARC forces in Cauca, a Pacific department of Colombia that has been a center of FARC dissent. His appearance suggested that FARC groups in restive Cauca could heed the faction’s call to arms.

In the years since the accord was signed, FARC officials and observers have criticized the Colombian government for not making good on ambitious promises of rural reform and economic development.

The government had pledged to build roads and schools in isolated communities, extend credit and land titles to small farmers, send personnel to help families that relied on the coca crop develop alternative agricultural projects to get by in a new, peaceful Colombia. But efforts to translate those pledges into reality never really got off the ground.

Miguel Ceballos, Duque’s high commissioner on the peace deal, defended the government against charges it has not moved fast enough to enact its pledges.

“You have to remember that the peace process was meant to be implemented over 12 years, and we have been in office for just one year,” he told The Washington Post. “It’s not fair to say that we are not complying the process.”

Ceballos suggested Marín and the others were committing “new crimes” not covered by the amnesty granted to members of the FARC by the peace accord. He said the weapons and new uniforms seen in the video suggested the rebels were being funded by drug traffickers and aided by the Venezuelan government.

The ELN, with whom Marín said his rebels would cooperate, have been operating within Venezuela, and are allegedly involved in the drug trade. 

“They have financing,” Ceballos said. “We can assume that it comes from narco-trafficking.”

 Venezuelan officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ceballos agreed with Londoño that “90 percent” of the former FARC still backed the peace deal. Analysts said the faction cobbled together by Marín and others remained in the minority.

“I don’t think they have a real chance to tilt the balance of power,” said Sergio Guzmán, founder of the consultant firm Colombia Risk Analysis. “They don’t have the manpower. They don’t have the weaponry.”

Key to maintaining a semblance of peace, he said, is how the government responds. Some in Duque’s party could seek to push the president to act quickly, and use force, to put the faction down.

“I think cooler heads from the United Nations and the international community — which hold the peace agreement very dearly, and believe that this is basically the country’s most important accomplishment in the last 50 years — are going to try to hold the government back from acting harshly,” Guzmán said. 

Faiola reported from Miami. Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report. 

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