Colombian rebel led the FARC army

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Times Staff Writer

Pedro Antonio Marin, the hard-bitten Colombian peasant who oversaw South America’s largest rebel group’s rise to power as well as its recent disintegration, has died, a fellow rebel announced. He was thought to be 77.

In a video broadcast Sunday over Venezuela’s Telesur network, Timoleon Jimenez confirmed Marin’s death on March 26 of a heart attack. The Colombian government, which said it had launched bombing raids in the area where Marin was believed to be camped around the time he died, wants to conduct an autopsy. Marin’s body has not been recovered.

Under the twin banners of land reform and social justice, Marin went by the aliases Manuel Marulanda and “Sureshot.” He built the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, into a force that a few years ago numbered nearly 20,000. The FARC at that time seemed on the verge of assaulting the capital.


But strategic decisions that Marin made in the 1980s to finance the FARC through drug trafficking, kidnapping and terror reduced the popular support on which the leftist rebel group’s success depends.

In recent months, FARC leadership has suffered several killings, captures and surrenders, and its ranks have been sharply reduced by desertions. Colombia’s armed forces, which have benefited from billions of dollars of U.S. equipment and training, have “seized the initiative,” analyst Antonio Caballero wrote in Monday’s Semana magazine.

Born into a peasant family in the coffee-growing Quindio state, Marin left school after the fifth grade to work as a farmhand. He was deeply affected by La Violencia, the social upheaval of the late 1940s that left several family members dead and the town he lived in, Ceilan, burned to the ground.

He told his biographer, Arturo Alape, of witnessing massacres and seeing “ten or 15 bodies floating daily down the Cauca River.” He joined a Liberal Party self-defense group in the early 1950s, which operated like a small guerrilla group, and immediately displayed leadership qualities. It was then that he took the Marulanda alias.

Although the FARC later adopted a communist ideology and hierarchy, Marin’s initial aim was to protect his family and other peasants from marauding Conservative Party gangs. “We didn’t call ourselves guerrillas. We didn’t know what a guerrilla was,” Marin told Alape for his 1989 biography.

But Marin moved leftward after meeting ideologue Jacobo Arenas in the 1950s, when he is also thought to have received military training from communist trainers. Around that time, Marin was nicknamed “Sureshot” for his prowess with a rifle.


Formed by Marin with 48 other fighters in 1964, the FARC slowly gained influence in remote mountain and farm areas by performing judicial and police functions that the weak Colombian state had abdicated, political economist Jaime Zuluaga said. Marin stayed in the shadows during his 44 years as leader, rarely giving interviews and emerging in public only during the abortive peace negotiations with former President Andres Pastrana from 1999 to 2002.

Although the FARC never took on the broad appeal of popular revolutionary movements in China, Cuba or Vietnam, its message resonated in the cities and universities where in the late 1990s it could count on thousands of milicianos, or urban guerrillas, to keep it informed and supplied.

But at a critical 1982 leadership meeting, Marin and the FARC secretariat made a fateful decision to change the group’s goal from attaining popular support to taking over military control of Colombia, authorizing the use of kidnappings to raise funds. Later that decade, the rebels would shift from merely forcing drug traffickers to pay “transit taxes” to taking over the trafficking business themselves.

“When first Medellin and then the Cali cartels were dismembered through death and plea bargains, the ensuing vacuum gave FARC new opportunities to become more deeply involved in drug trafficking,” said Bruce Bagley, a political scientist and Colombia expert at the University of Miami.

“The upside was an influx of millions of dollars per year,” Bagley said. “The downside was the loss of ideological coherence and a growing distance from the peasantry and traditional FARC support groups in both the countryside and the cities.” Analysts agree that forced coca cultivation, kidnapping and use of terror techniques such as land mines -- which kill 400 mostly poor civilians a year -- have cost the group popular support among the poor.

“Now the people do things for us only at the point of a gun, not voluntarily,” said a high-level FARC commander who uses the alias Karina. According to a defense ministry recording of her interrogation, she gave up the struggle on May 18, saying she was tired of dodging the army.


Meanwhile, the FARC ranks have been chased into ever more remote areas by Colombian armed forces greatly aided by U.S. aircraft, intelligence technology and financial backing for a 40% increase in troops, all part of the Plan Colombia aid package.

The rebels are badly balkanized and unable to hold meetings because their communications are compromised, said a U.S. government source who follows the FARC and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.

Since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, the FARC has also been trumped on the political front, said political analyst Alfredo Molana. Uribe’s social programs guaranteeing thousands of peasant families $180 a month for not growing illicit crops has caused the FARC to “lose solidarity in those zones.”

The three-year peace talks between the rebels and the government that ended in failure in 2002 were the last attempt at negotiations.

Marin’s recalcitrance may have come from his bitter experience in the 1980s, when the Patriotic Union party, which he helped form as a step toward peace, was systematically wiped out by paramilitary militias acting with the Colombian military.

With the Colombian army at the FARC’s heels, Marin’s successor Alfonso Cano is faced with the daunting task of putting the fragmented group back together or suing for peace. But Cano has problems of his own. The defense ministry says it is hot on Cano’s trail in Tolima state and expects to soon catch or kill him.