The Significance of the Deaths of the FARC Leaders
The Colombian government and many analysts are calling the killing of two top commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) last week a turning point in the country’s long-running civil conflict. Others suggest, despite the initial euphoria in many circles over the killings, that the guerrilla group will simply replace its two fallen commanders and continue on with business as usual. These differing perspectives suggest that the deaths of Raúl Reyes and Iván Ríos will either amount to little more than a bad week for the FARC or the beginning of the end for Latin America’s oldest guerrilla group.
Colombian military officials have acknowledged that an intercepted satellite telephone call from Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez to FARC Commander Raúl Reyes revealed the guerrilla leader’s whereabouts. But paid informers had already told Colombian officials the region along the Colombia-Ecuador border in which Reyes was operating. While other FARC commanders will likely be far more cautious in the future with regard to their use of satellite telephones, the role of informers could still prove troubling for the rebel group.
The circumstances surrounding the killing of Commander Iván Ríos six days after the death of Reyes only highlights this dilemma for the FARC. The Colombian military claims it launched an operation specifically to target Ríos in a mountainous region of the Department of Caldas in mid-February based on information provided by informants. Just over two weeks into the operation, the FARC leader was killed by his own security chief who then turned himself in to the Colombian army.
The Uribe administration claims that more than $4 billion in US military aid provided under Plan Colombia has dramatically improved the government’s intelligence gathering capabilities and military capacity. It also suggests that the military pressure placed on the FARC in recent years has led to increasing numbers of rebels and peasants in conflict zones becoming informers for the government in order to claim financial rewards. According to government officials, the killings of Reyes and Ríos prove that these strategies are working and that the FARC is in serious trouble.
If the government is correct in its assessment, then the killing of Reyes and Ríos should result in a dramatic decline in morale among guerrilla fighters and diminished loyalty among peasants in the FARC’s traditional strongholds over the next six months to a year. Consequently, the military should be able to achieve several more significant successes, including capturing or killing other members of the FARC’s central command. If such a scenario does in fact unfold then it will be safe to say that last week’s killings did indeed mark a turning point in the conflict.
But what if the Colombian military does not achieve other significant successes over the next six months to a year? What if the conflict continues in the country’s remote rural regions in much the way it has for the past five years? While such a scenario is difficult for the Colombian government and many of its supporters to imagine in the midst of all the excitement surrounding the deaths of Reyes and Ríos, it is a distinct possibility. In fact, some would say it is the most likely scenario given the FARC’s ability to replace members of its central command who have died of natural causes in the past.
Jacobo Arenas, for instance, an original founder of the FARC and the rebel group’s most important military leader, died of natural causes in 1990. Arenas was crucial to the FARC from a military perspective because he was instrumental in restructuring the guerrilla group and turning it into a modern, powerful insurgency. The death of Arenas is undoubtedly the greatest loss ever suffered by the FARC, even more significant than the loss of Reyes last week. However, Iván Márquez replaced Arena in the FARC’s central command and the guerrilla group’s military effectiveness actually increased during the ensuing decade. In 2002, Efraín Guzmán, another of the FARC’s founding members also died of natural causes and Iván Ríos quickly replaced him.
There is no shortage of experienced guerrilla leaders within the FARC organization who are capable of filling the shoes of Reyes and Ríos in the rebel group’s central command. The FARC did not hesitate to replace Reyes after he was killed, promoting Joaquín Gómez the next day. Furthermore, despite the killing of Reyes and Ríos, the FARC’s central command still contains experienced guerrilla leaders such as Manuel Marulanda, Alfonso Cano, Mono Jojoy, Iván Márquez and Fabián Ramírez.
Those who argue that the killing of Reyes and Ríos will not have any significant long-term effect on the FARC also point to other important factors as evidence. Firstly, while security in urban areas has increased under Uribe, the Colombian president’s Democratic Security Strategy has not achieved a decrease in the number of FARC attacks against the military and police in the country’s rural conflict zones. Secondly, the FARC still controls vast tracts of territory in the south and east of the country in which the guerrillas move freely and maintain significant support among the peasantry.
Finally, the death of Reyes has led to an outpouring of international solidarity with the FARC, suggesting that the guerrilla group is not as isolated on the global stage as many critics in Colombia and North America would have everyone believe. The Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, for example, wrote a public letter to Colombia’s President Uribe following the killing of Reyes in Ecuador declaring, “You have shown the true face of your government: State terrorism.” The letter went on to call the FARC a “military-political organization” and to criticize Uribe for not listening to “the demands of Latin-American countries and of the world that the FARC be recognized as a belligerent force.”
Statements of solidarity have also been issued by dozens of other organizations in many countries including Uruguay, Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, as well as by noted Portuguese writer Miguel Urbano Rodrigues. This solidarity suggests that Reyes had been somewhat effective in his role as the rebel group’s ambassador for international relations. Over the years, he has regularly received foreign delegations in his jungle camp—evidenced by the presence of five Mexican university students who were in the FARC commander’s Amazon hideout to participate in a political seminar when the attack occurred. At least one, and as many as four, of the students died and one was wounded in the air strike that killed Reyes.
There have also been public expressions of sympathy and solidarity from several Colombian organizations including the Movimiento Juvenil Bolivariano. There would likely have been more demonstrations of solidarity from other organizations and from those sectors of Colombian civil society that work clandestinely with the FARC’s political front if such public expressions did not amount to a death sentence.
Ultimately, only time will tell if the killings of Reyes and Ríos represent a turning point in Colombia’s long conflict. Are their deaths the beginning of a series of successes for the Uribe government that will ultimately lead to the unraveling and defeat of the FARC’s military and political fronts? Or will the deaths of the rebel leaders prove to be as inconsequential in the war against the FARC as the killing of Pablo Escobar turned out to be in the war against drug traffickers. After all, the euphoria that initially followed Escobar’s death led many to claim that the country’s cocaine traffickers were on the verge of being defeated. Time certainly proved them wrong.