Colombia peace unlikely despite FARC leader’s death

Although Colombia’s armed forces delivered a serious blow to the country’s largest rebel force with the killing of its leader, analysts Saturday held out little hope for a peace initiative by the decimated but still potent leftist insurgent group.

The 63-year-old rebel leader, who went by the alias Alfonso Cano, was killed Friday in a military operation in southwestern Colombia. At a news conference Saturday, President Juan Manuel Santos called on the rebels to lay down their arms.

“Violence is not the way,” Santos said. “Demobilize, because as we have said many times, you will end up in a grave or in jail.”

A decade ago, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had up to 20,000 fighters and controlled one-third of the country’s land. But under Santos’ predecessor, the hard-line Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian military knocked the FARC on its heels with the help of $7.6 billion in mainly military aid from the U.S. under Plan Colombia.


Analysts estimate that the rebel forces who have battled the government for four decades now number 8,000 or fewer.

Still, analyst Alfredo Rangel said he sees little chance of any peace overtures from the FARC, which Cano had headed since May 2008 when the group’s founder, Manuel Marulanda, died, apparently of natural causes.

“What his death is more likely to bring is an upsurge in violent incidents against the armed forces, infrastructure and Colombian society generally,” said Rangel, of the Security and Democracy Foundation think tank in Bogota, the capital. “Their first order of business will be to avenge the death of their leader.”

National University of Colombia political scientist Alejo Vargas agreed, saying he doubted there would be any short-term changes in the FARC’s policy of belligerence toward the government

Both predicted that the FARC would begin the collective process of choosing its next leader, probably among survivors of the rebels’ ruling secretariat, of which four members have died violently since March 2008.

Topping the list of possible candidates to succeed Cano is a rebel leader going by the alias Ivan Marquez, who is thought to be holed up near the northeastern border with Venezuela. Marquez made a highly publicized visit to leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, in November 2007 when Chavez briefly tried to broker a peace settlement between the Colombian government and the FARC.

Cano, whose real name was Guillermo Leon Saenz, was killed after a three-year military operation targeting him. His principal base of operations had long been thought to be to the east, in the wild Delicias Canyon area of Tolima state, but Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said intelligence last month located him farther west.

A few hours before the announcement of Cano’s death, the Defense Ministry said that several members of Cano’s security detail had been killed or captured and that seven laptop computers and other equipment had been recovered.

A graduate in anthropology and a member of a communist youth group who spent six months in jail for student activities at the National University of Colombia, Cano was considered the FARC’s ideologue during much of his 33 years in the rebel ranks.

He represented the FARC in peace negotiations a decade ago, when then-President Andres Pastrana temporarily ceded a Switzerland-sized portion of Colombian territory to the rebels while ultimately fruitless negotiations were conducted.

The government also held him responsible in the planning of some of the FARC’s most spectacular attacks, including the 2002 kidnapping of 12 state legislators in the city of Cali and the 2003 car bombing of an exclusive Bogota club in 2003 that left 36 people dead.

Kraul is a special correspondent.