The second-highest-ranking leader in Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla group was killed in a predawn firefight near the Ecuadorean border, the Colombian government announced Saturday morning.
Luis Edgar Devia Silva, better known by his alias Raul Reyes, was found dead early Saturday in a jungle camp in Ecuador after a battle erupted between rebels and Colombian armed forces in southern Putumayo state and continued on the Ecuadorean side of the border.
Reyes, 59, was second in the hierarchy of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and was the rebel group’s principal spokesman and chief diplomat. He was one of 50 FARC leaders indicted in the United States on drug and terrorism charges in March 2006. The U.S. State Department had offered a $5-million reward for information leading to his arrest.
Analysts described the killing of Reyes, part of the seven-member FARC secretariat, as the most damaging blow yet struck by the government of President Alvaro Uribe in his five-year campaign to defeat the rebels.
“This is of enormous importance. Reyes was the public face of the FARC and the only one who had international contacts,” former Foreign Minister Maria Emma Mejia told Colombian TV network Caracol. Former President Ernesto Samper told an RCN television reporter that Uribe’s campaign is “showing results and this is an example.” Seventeen other rebels and one Colombian soldier were killed in the battle.
Reyes was the FARC’s chief negotiator with the Colombian government during the failed peace process between 1998 and 2002 and visited several foreign countries to muster support. Recently, Reyes led negotiations that resulted in the FARC releasing six political hostages to representatives of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, including four last week.
U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), who has been involved in back-channel efforts to persuade the FARC to release three U.S. defense contractor employees held since 2003, in a telephone interview declined to comment on how Reyes’ death would affect those efforts.
“We sent a letter last week through our contacts to the FARC asking that the humanitarian releases continue and that we have a specific interest in the three Americans,” said Delahunt, who met Reyes in 1999 in a peace mission to the Colombian jungle. “We’re still waiting for a reply.”
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro issued a statement Saturday evening criticizing the killing of Reyes as a “blow to the humanitarian accord process in Colombia. . . . It reveals once again the stubborn conduct of those who favor military options and armed conflict over a negotiated political settlement, without regard to the grave consequences.”
Chavez later threatened Uribe with war if Colombian forces entered his country as they did Ecuador, according to Venezuelan news reports.
In a news conference Saturday, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the fight began when Colombian aircraft, acting on a tip that Reyes was present, bombed a FARC encampment at a village called Granada around midnight Friday.
As troops closed in, they took fire from rebels about a mile away on the Ecuadorean side of the Putumayo River, which separates the two countries at that point.
After Colombian planes returned fire from their airspace, soldiers were ordered to cross into Ecuador to continue the fight. President Uribe, who was monitoring the operation, called Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to inform him of the operation “as it was happening,” a Colombian Defense Ministry spokesman said.
It was unclear from government statements whether Uribe had Correa’s permission to send troops into Ecuador.
On a Saturday morning radio show in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, Correa acknowledged receiving Uribe’s call and said FARC rebels at times made incursions into his country. He made no comment on the Colombian troops’ presence there.
The rebels use Ecuadorean territory for rest and recuperation and as refuge from army attacks. Correa is said by Colombian and U.S. authorities to be concerned about the FARC’s presence and increased drug trafficking, much of which the rebels control.
In recent interviews, Colombian military sources have told The Times that Correa’s government has been highly cooperative in anti-drug operations targeting the FARC in the common border area.
The Colombian government said that after recovering Reyes’ body in the Ecuadorean village of Santa Rosa, which is within a mile of the initial attack, soldiers took it to the Colombian town of Puerto Asis. It was not clear on which side of the border Reyes was killed.
Reyes entered the FARC after working as a labor leader in the southeastern jungle state of Caqueta, where he organized employees of Nestle. In the 1990s, Reyes headed the FARC’s so-called international front that kept offices in Mexico and Costa Rica.
Since taking office in 2002, Uribe has succeeded in retaking large swaths of territory from the FARC, which is principally based in the sparsely populated jungle regions in the southeastern part of Colombia. That success is due in large part to billions of dollars in U.S. military aid that has enabled him to expand and modernize Colombia’s armed forces.
According to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on drugs released Friday, Colombia’s military last year apprehended or killed more than a dozen mid- to high-level FARC commanders. Among the dead were FARC 37th Front leader Gustavo Rueda Diaz, alias Martin Caballero, and 16th Front leader Tomas Medina Caracas, alias Negro Acacio.
But Reyes is the first member of the secretariat to be brought down.
Alfredo Rangel, director of the Security and Democracy Foundation, a Bogota-based think tank, said the killing delivered a blow to FARC morale and could presage big changes in the rebel group.
“Reyes led the radical faction of FARC leadership, so his death could lead to a recomposition in favor of a more practical and realistic side, in terms of making a humanitarian agreement” to release hundreds of hostages still in FARC custody, Rangel said.