March 02, 2008
Strike by Government Forces Called Major Setback for FARC Guerrillas
Colombia's U.S.-backed security forces struck a major blow against the country's main guerrilla group Saturday, for the first time tracking down and killing a member of the organization's ruling echelon, the Defense Ministry said.
Luis Edgar Devia, better known by his nom de guerre, Ra¿l Reyes, died just across Colombia's border with Ecuador after a firefight with Colombian troops and an airstrike, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said in an interview.
Devia, 59, was among seven commanders of the so-called Secretariat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and was its most visible leader after the organization's commander, Manuel "Sure Shot" Marulanda.
The strike signals a strategic crisis for the 44-year-old guerrilla group, known as the FARC, which has been significantly weakened in recent years. "This is the biggest blow the FARC has suffered in its history," Santos said by phone from Bogota, the capital. "He's not as legendary as Sure Shot, but he's one of the most important chiefs the FARC had."
Devia's death is among a series of strikes the armed forces have inflicted in recent months on the FARC, an organization that was so well-funded, large and visible that it was considered more or less invincible in the early part of this decade. From its roots as a tiny, peasant-based group in the 1960s, the FARC had by the 1990s morphed into a powerful fighting force operating nationwide and deeply involved in cocaine trafficking.
The group remains formidable and is far from being defeated but has fewer than 11,000 members today, down from nearly 17,000 in 2002, said Sergio Jaramillo, vice minister of defense.
More than 1,800 guerrillas were killed in 2007, including seasoned mid-level commanders. About 2,500 deserted, including 200 who had spent more than 10 years in the FARC.
"More important even than the numbers is the quality of the people who are leaving the FARC," Jaramillo said. "We now have fully fledged cadres who have a lot of experience and who have decided that they don't want to spend their lives in the FARC. They don't think it's going anywhere."
The United States and European Union classify the FARC as a terrorist organization. Devia and other commanders had been striving for political recognition by negotiating the release of hostages held by the group with Venezuelan President Hugo Ch¿vez, whose leftist ideology has made him palatable to the FARC. Six Colombians have been freed in the past two months. But their stories of mistreatment have horrified Colombians, and millions marched against the group last month.
Alfredo Rangel, a military analyst at the Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogota, said Devia's death and the FARC's other recent setbacks could lead to a power struggle in which more pragmatic leaders emerge.
Barely 5 feet 2 inches tall, with glasses and a neatly trimmed beard, Devia was known as an extremist determined to topple the state. A former trade union leader who worked at a Nestle milk plant, he favored military action over negotiation, according to analysts, and was an advocate of the FARC's policy of using civilian hostages as pawns. In talks with government emissaries and journalists, he always carried his assault rifle.
"His death comes after a lot of defeats at the hands of the army, the capture of leaders, the killings of leaders, the loss of territory, the reduction in finances, the reduction in the military capacity," Rangel said. "So this could be very significant, in the perception the guerrillas may have about the possibility of military success in the future. This shows that its military project has no possibility of triumphing in Colombia."
For the government of President ¿lvaro Uribe, and by extension its benefactor, the United States, Devia's death was seen as validation of a strategy that centers on improving the military's capacity by beefing up the army and improving intelligence. The Uribe administration has received more than $4.2 billion, mostly in military aid, from the United States.
On Saturday morning, Uribe was late for a breakfast meeting with U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez and seven members of Congress who had traveled to Colombia to discuss trade issues. After arriving at the meeting, in a hotel in the city of Medellin, Uribe explained the importance of the strike to the American lawmakers.
"He put in context the nature of Reyes and how significant he was," Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) said by phone from Colombia. "He told us that some of the generals he'd been in touch with earlier in the day had gotten emotional and teared up."
Santos, the defense minister, said the operation against Devia was launched after the security forces learned that he and other rebels were in a camp in Putumayo, an isolated jungle state that hugs Colombia's southern border with Ecuador. Military helicopters arrived at the camp at 12:25 a.m. Saturday and took gunfire from the other side of the river, in Ecuador, the defense minister said.
The soldiers fired back and Brazilian-made Super Toucan fighters were called in to attack the rebels, he said. They reportedly killed 17, among them Reyes and Guillermo Torres, a commander also known as a singer-songwriter.
The fighters dropped bombs on the FARC, and then soldiers crossed the frontier into Ecuador and recovered the bodies. A picture of Devia's battered body appeared later in the day in El Tiempo, Bogota's largest newspaper.
Uribe called Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa on Saturday morning to inform him about the firefight on the border. Ecuador has strongly criticized Colombia for military operations near the border, but Correa's public comments after talking to Uribe were muted.
In Venezuela, though, Chavez said Bogota "violated I don't know how many international laws."
He also warned that if the Colombian military entered Venezuela, there could be war. "Is Colombia going to become the Israel of the Americas?" Chavez said in comments carried by the Telesur network.