Setback for FARC

Published : Jun 20, 2008 00:00 IST

Manuel Marulanda. A file picture-RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP

Manuel Marulanda. A file picture-RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP

MANUEL Sureshot Marulanda, the legendary leader of Colombias biggest guerilla group, has died, delivering a devastating blow to the insurgency. The founder and commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) died of a heart attack on March 26. The grizzled veteran, believed to be around 78-years-old, died in the arms of his companion, surrounded by his bodyguards and all the units who comprised his security, a senior FARC commander, Timoleon Jimenez, told the television network Telesur.

The death could deprive Latin Americas longest-running insurgency of cohesion at a time when it is already reeling from offensives from Colombias United States-backed security forces. The news prompted giddy speculation that the rebellion was crumbling and that hostages languishing in jungle camps might soon be released, including Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian politician.

We welcome it with the greatest joy because it would be the end, or the beginning of the end, we hope, of Ingrid Betancourts calvary, said Frances Human Rights Minister Rama Yade.

Colombias Defence Minister, Juan Manuel Santos, broke the news on May 24 in an interview with the magazine Semana. Asked where Sureshot was, the Minister said: He must be in hell. Asked in which hell, he replied: The one where dead criminals go.

The military bombed the southern jungle, where the guerilla leader was believed to be hiding, three times in late March. Whether the death of Marulanda came in a bombardment or from natural causes, this would be the most serious blow this terrorist group has suffered, the Defence Ministry said in a statement.

Initially the announcement, which cited intelligence sources, was greeted with caution because the government in the past had made numerous claims about Marulandas death.

But FARC confirmed it in a video broadcast by the Venezuela-based Telesur network. Jimenez, also known as Timochenko, said his commanders death followed a short, unspecified illness. A great leader has marched on, he said. He added that FARCs new leader was its chief ideologist, Alfonso Cano.

Marulandas mystique is irreplaceable. A farmers son with basic education, he was sucked into the Andean nations savage political turmoil in the 1940s. Known as Sureshot for his accuracy with a rifle, he studied guerilla warfare and founded FARC in 1964 as a small band of peasant fighters.

They adopted Marxist ideology and swelled to a 15,000-strong force, which besieged the capital Bogota and almost overwhelmed the state in the late1990s.

The tide turned from 2002, when President Alvaro Uribes security forces, backed by heavy U.S. military aid, started pushing the guerillas back into the jungle. Lacking popular support, the rebels suffered further setbacks in recent months with the death and desertion of senior commanders and a reported plunge in morale. Losing Marulanda is the heaviest blow yet, which may encourage surviving commanders to seek a negotiated settlement.

The military claims that Cano is cornered in south-western Colombia.

The FARC is like a dying giant, dying slowly, but this is the beginning of the end, Pablo Casas, an analyst at the Bogota think tank Security and Democracy, told Reuters. I dont see any factor they can use to keep a strong structure. It will start collapsing. Other analysts were less sure, pointing out that some commanders remained committed to the fight and still controlled swaths of jungle. Uribe, whose tough security policies have made him popular at home but earned rebukes from human rights watchdogs, said the government might pardon rebels who gave up arms and freed some of FARCs estimated 700 hostages.

He said he would ask the judiciary to grant such deserters conditional liberty, and suggested they could benefit from a 50 million demobilisation fund and be sent abroad, to a country such as France.

Guardian News & Media 2008
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