The Miami Herald
March 02, 2008
A Colombian air raid into Ecuador killed the man expected to one day take over the rebel group
BOGOTA -- Colombian government forces scored their biggest victory yet over the country's strongest rebel group Saturday in a predawn cross-border air raid that took the life of the highest-ranking FARC rebel the government has ever killed.
''Alias Raúl Reyes has been killed in combat,'' a beaming Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos announced in a news conference, flanked by the army and police commanders whose troops participated in the operation. ''It is the most serious blow so far to that terrorist group,'' he said.
Reyes, whose real name was Luis Devia Silva, is the first member of the secretariat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to be killed in combat with government troops in the more than four decades the rebels have been battling the state.
He died when the Colombian air force bombed a FARC base across the Putumayo River inside Ecuadoran territory. The aircraft opened fire from within Colombian territory and never crossed into Ecuadoran airspace, the minister noted. Colombian police were then sent into Ecuador to secure the base and await the arrival of Ecuadoran authorities. The rebels opened fire on the ground troops, Santos said.
President Alvaro Uribe informed Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa of the operation. In a news conference later, Uribe thanked Correa for his ``comprehension of the moment Colombia is living.''
In a radio address, Correa said he would send troops to the area where the bombing took place to ''clarify the incident.'' Late Saturday, The Associated Press reported Correa said he would send a diplomatic note to protest the incursion.
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, which shares a long border with Colombia, cautioned Uribe against similar actions in Venezuelan territory.
''Don't think about doing that over here because it would be very serious, it would be cause for war,'' Chávez was quoted as saying by the AP. ``How far is President Uribe willing to go in his warlike madness?''
Chávez, who maintains warm relations with the rebels, said ''it was obscene to see the smiling faces'' of Colombian military commanders standing behind Santos as he announced the death of Reyes.
A source close to the Defense Ministry said troops had been on Raúl Reyes' tail for months but that he had slipped away on several occasions. Informants on the ground and electronic intelligence led the troops to pinpoint his location late Friday.
Santos said 16 other rebels and one soldier died in the raid, including Guillermo Enrique Torres, called Julián Conrado, a FARC ideologue who composed ballads about the rebels' fight. The rebels' bodies were recovered from Ecuadoran territory and brought back to Colombia, the minister said.
Local TV broadcasted pictures of Reyes body that show him wearing a white, blood-stained T-shirt with what appeared to be an image of FARC's leader Manuel ''Sureshot'' Marulanda.
As spokesman and leader of the political wing of the guerrillas, Reyes was believed to be first in line to take over from legendary FARC leader Marulanda, who is 77. Reyes, believed to be about 60, was one of the FARC's top negotiators during failed peace talks with the government of Andrés Pastrana from 1998 to 2002, during which he led a FARC commission on a tour of several European nations.
Reyes was wanted in connection to 57 murders and four cases of kidnapping, according to the general prosecutor's office. He also faced charges for 26 counts of terrorism and 25 for rebellion. The United States was offering a $5 million reward for his capture.
Under Uribe's security policies, the FARC have been driven to remote, rural areas of Colombia and have seen their ranks slashed by desertions, casualties and captures.
The rebel army that once was estimated to number about 17,000 members is now believed to have half that. Many FARC units have been pushed to the borders with Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama, where they reportedly cross over to find respite from military pressure.
In just the first two months of the year, not counting Saturday's operation, the military claims it has killed 247 FARC fighters and captured 226. And 362 guerrillas have turned themselves in.
Reyes' killing is the latest and most significant of a string of blows to the rebels' leadership that include the killings last year of the commander of the FARC's Caribbean Bloc's Gustavo Rueda Díaz.
Saturday's operation will probably be a big morale booster for the military, long criticized for not being able to capture or kill any of the FARC's top leaders, analysts said.
Román Ortiz, a security and defense analyst with the Ideas Para la Paz think tank, said the operation proves that the Colombian military -- which receives roughly $600 million a year in U.S. aid -- now knows how to fight them. ``The military has shown them that it is capable of defeating them.
''The Colombian military's strikes are now systematic,'' he said.
Security analyst Alfredo Rangel, of the Seguridad y Democracia studies center said the death of Reyes was a ''devastating blow'' to the FARC, adding that the rebels would now have to ``reconsider whether their armed struggle is still valid.''
In an editorial posted on its website, El Tiempo said that the blow to the rebels, while significant, will not put an end to the secretariat or to the FARC. But, it says, ``it is a warning to the other leaders: They are not safe anywhere.''
Reyes' death came three days after the FARC unilaterally released four civilian hostages who had been held for more than six years in jungle camps. The FARC said it would hand over the remaining 40-odd hostages -- including French Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors -- only in exchange for jailed rebels, including two serving sentences in the United States, and only if the government granted them a demilitarized zone for the talks.
It was not immediately clear how Reyes' killing will affect the possibility of such negotiations. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has taken a personal interest in the fate of the hostages because of Betancourt's dual Colombian-French nationality, said in a statement that all parties involved should ``give priority to humanitarian considerations.''