Wounded man in Venezuelan hospital is not FARC leader

Por Venezuela Real - 11 de Marzo, 2008, 17:24, Categoría: Prensa Internacional

Miami Herald
March 11, 2008

Call him Patient X.

The Venezuelan National Guard is protecting a small medical clinic in a town on the border with Colombia, where according to media reports in both countries, there's a man with a bullet in his face who may be a FARC guerrilla.

Once media got wind of heavily military presence, rumors swept the media that the man was Milton de Jesus Toncel Redondo -- aka ''Joaquín Gómez'' -- one of the top members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia with a $2.5 million U.S. bounty on his head. He's the devout leftist rebel who replaced Raúl Reyes last week on the seven-member FARC secretariat when Reyes died in a Colombian military bombing of a rebel camp in Ecuador.

Venezuelan state TV confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the ailing man is not Gómez. They just don't know who he is.

The man has given two names -- Luis Antonio Garai Calderón and José Antonio Ortiz Barrera -- according to the media reports.

News footage showed the La Colonia clinic in the town of Rubio, in the Venezuelan state of Táchira, surrounded by military officers -- and reporters. The latest footage by the state channel showed an ailing man -- much darker skinned than Gómez -- in his hospital bed.

Venezuelan Gen. José González González told reporters the injured man showed up at the clinic Sunday with a friend, fake ID and two different names. The Venezuelan military figured he was a member of a Colombian ''irregular group,'' González said, and launched an investigation to determine the man's identity.

It's unclear how the report surfaced that the patient could be Gómez, a former FARC spokesman and peace negotiator in Colombia's failed peace talks.

Had it been Gómez, it would have been the FARC's third critical setback in less than two weeks. Reyes' death was a huge blow, and it was followed days later by the death of secretariat member Iván Ríos, killed by his own bodyguard.

González said the military prosecutor, the DISIP federal investigative agency, the Military Intelligence Directorate and armed guards were called in.

''It's very probable that they could go to the clinic to finish killing him, putting the rest of the people at risk -- the doctors, the other patients, nurses, etc.,'' González said on Venezuela's Union Radio. ``So the clinic was put in the custody of the National Guard.''

The two men's fingerprints were sent to Colombia for verification, the Venezuelan state TV channel reported.

The Colombian Defense Ministry told The Miami Herald that authorities in Colombia have no knowledge of the matter.

Gómez, who turns 61 next week, is considered one of the FARC's most devout ideologues. He ran the FARC's Southern bloc, its historic stronghold -- on the opposite end of the country from the border where this hospital is located.

He studied for a dozen years in the Soviet Union and has a doctorate in agronomy. His thesis was on artificial insemination methods for the Ceibu cattle that roam Colombia's pastures, he once told The Washington Post.

According to a profile published by Semana magazine last week, Gómez first moved to the Soviet Union fleeing violence. He came back in 1981 to join the insurgency.

A former professor at the Amazon University, he emerged as an important FARC leader in the 1990s when he took over the southern bloc and was involved in the release of police held by the rebels. He was a member of the negotiation team during the peace talks that took place from 1999 to 2002.

He was so deeply committed to the cause that when the peace process broke in 2002, he is reported to have cried.

The Miami Herald stumbled upon Gómez' abandoned FARC camp days after the talks collapsed, clearly left in a hurry. A fake wooden rifle, copious notes on news reports and magazines were strewn about, covered by ripped bags of corn meal.

One notebook contained love notes written in bungled English, the child-like letters of an illiterate person just learning to write and, in the same pad, calculations on how to determine the best distance from which to shoot down an aircraft.

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