Colombia hopeful about rebel successor

Times Staff Writer

A top rebel commander on Sunday confirmed the death of Pedro Antonio Marin, the legendary founder and leader of Colombia's largest rebel group.

In a taped statement broadcast Sunday morning over Venezuela's Telesur network, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia commander Timoleon Jimenez said Marin died of a heart attack March 26, confirming a Colombian government declaration made Saturday.

"He died in the arms of his companion and surrounded by his bodyguards," said Jimenez, a member of the FARC secretariat who is also known as Timochenko.

Jimenez said the rebels' new leader is Alfonso Cano, an ideologue in his late 50s who heads the FARC's political wing.

Two other commanders were killed earlier in March. Second in command Raul Reyes died March 1 in a Colombian bombing raid in Ecuador, and Ivan Rios, leader of the Middle Magdalena Bloc, was killed days later by his bodyguard.

Backed by billions in U.S. military aid, the Colombian army has inflicted other setbacks on the rebels in recent months.

President Alvaro Uribe on Saturday declared there was "light at the end of the tunnel" in the four-decade fight.

The most recent rebel setback was the May 18 surrender of 47th Front leader "Karina," who said she gave up because of constant army harassment, loss of communication and fears that she might be killed by her own troops for bounty.

With the passing of the iron-willed Marin, also known by the aliases Manuel Marulanda and Tirofijo, or Sureshot, the attention of the government and analysts quickly shifted to whether the new FARC leader will be more amenable to peace negotiations.

There have been no direct peace talks since 2002, when the Colombian government ended a four-year demilitarization of a southern jungle zone the size of Switzerland that it had let the FARC occupy as a conciliatory gesture.

Although then-President Andres Pastrana and Marin met four times, the negotiations went nowhere.

The government complained that the FARC used the zone to house hostages. Some analysts theorized that the FARC thought it could take power militarily; at one point it had encircled Bogota, the nation's capital.

But since Uribe took office in 2002, the battle has shifted in the government's favor. At a news conference Sunday, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos reiterated the government's view that the FARC is sliding down an "irreversible" and "terminal" path to defeat and that it should take the government up on its demobilization offer.

"Marulanda was anchored in the past and an obstacle to negotiations," Santos said. "To the FARC, we say, demobilize, you have no future, that 44 years of attacks have brought only desolation and violence. This fight is over; it makes no sense."

Camilo Gomez, the nation's peace commissioner under Pastrana, said that although he believes Cano is more disposed to reopen negotiations than others in the FARC leadership, he doesn't expect any radical departure from current policy until Cano can "consolidate power."

"Time moves very slowly for the FARC. They take a long time to make changes and adapt to new circumstances," Gomez said.

Cano, whose real name is Guillermo Leon Saenz, is thought to be less hard-line than Jorge Briceno, alias Mono Jojoy, who heads the FARC's military operations.

Marin founded the FARC in 1964 and maintained control as it grew to nearly 20,000 fighters earlier this decade. He also presided over the FARC's loss of power and influence as the ranks fell to half that or less.

Santos and former Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez said that the army's improved intelligence has in effect destroyed the rebels' command and communication structure, turning the FARC into what she termed a collection of "regional gangs."

The surrender of Karina, once a feared regional rebel commander, brought to light the difficult conditions under which the FARC operates.

"I left because we were under total constant siege," Karina told government investigators. "Wherever we were, so was the army."

Timochenko ended his video statement by saying the FARC would "continue with its work, according to plans carefully laid out, and is profoundly optimistic."


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