The New York Times
May 25, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela — Colombia’s defense minister revealed Saturday that officials were trying to corroborate an intelligence report claiming that Manuel Marulanda, the supreme leader of Colombia’s largest rebel group, died of natural causes in March.
If confirmed, the death of Mr. Marulanda, believed to be 76, would be a severe blow for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a Marxist-inspired insurgency that has been waging a guerrilla war to overthrow Colombia’s government for more than four decades.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told Semana, the Colombian news magazine, that an intelligence source said Mr. Marulanda died of heart failure on March 26. Mr. Santos said officials were corroborating the report, adding that three bombing raids were carried out in the area where Mr. Marulanda was thought to be around that time.
“He must be in hell,” Mr. Santos of Mr. Marulanda.
Colombia’s government is taking a risk in divulging Mr. Marulanda’s supposed death. Indeed, the rebel leader has been reported killed numerous times since he took up arms as a teenager in an embryonic guerrilla movement in the late 1940s. Every report, including declarations in recent years that Mr. Marulanda had died of prostate cancer, was proven false.
Moreover, Colombia’s government stands to benefit from undercutting the FARC through revealing the unconfirmed intelligence, if only as a distraction from issues like a new scandal over the laptop computers of paramilitary warlords that went missing upon their extradition this month to the United States.
Other senior officials in Colombia welcomed the report of Mr. Marulanda’s death, though qualifying it as unconfirmed. “It is almost certain,” Vice President Francisco Santos told reporters on Saturday. “The source is very reliable,” he said.
If the report proves to be true, Mr. Marulanda’s death, on top of recent killings of other FARC leaders, would raise questions of leadership within the group. Mr. Santos said he believed Alfonso Cano, an intellectual who once led a clandestine political arm of the FARC, had replaced Mr. Marulanda.
The report is expected to reverberate throughout Colombia and Latin America. Born Pedro Antonio Marín to a peasant family in Colombia’s coffee-growing region, the guerrilla adopted the nom de guerre Manuel Marulanda Vélez in 1951 and later attained mythical status as the chief of Latin America’s most resilient insurgency.
Mr. Marulanda’s influence within the FARC was thought to be waning in recent years, but files recovered from the computers of a slain FARC commander in March revealed a firm grip by Mr. Marulanda on major strategic decisions. He signed his communiqués with the initials J. E., thought to stand for “jefe,” or Spanish for “boss.”
The debate is still raging over the authenticity of the recovered computer files, which referred to financial and military support for the FARC by Venezuela’s government, despite a report by Interpol this month saying that Colombian intelligence officials had not tampered with the archives.
In an interview with The New York Times in Bogotá in late March, Mr. Santos, the Colombian defense minister, said he believed Mr. Marulanda was still alive, shuttling between encampments in Guaviare, a region of thick jungle terrain in eastern Colombia.
“He does not sleep more than two or three days in the same place,” Mr. Santos said.
Since then, Colombian security forces have made significant inroads this year against the FARC, even if the rebel group, which has about 9,000 fighters according to the United States Southern Command, is far from defeated.
In March alone, for instance, Colombian forces killed Raúl Reyes, the FARC’s second-in-command, in a bombing raid on Ecuadorean soil. Later that month, an aide-de-camp killed Iván Ríos, another member of the FARC’s seven-member secretariat, offering Mr. Ríos’s severed hand as proof.
In previous months, two other top FARC leaders were killed in battle; these deaths were believed to weaken the FARC’s cocaine-trafficking operations, a main financing activity along with abductions for ransom. Then last week, Nelly Ávila Moreno, a senior FARC commander who went by the name Karina, surrendered.
Still, the FARC remains far from fading away. The rebel group is still believed to have in its control dozens of captives it considers prisoners of war, including Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate, and three American military contractors captured in 2003.
The FARC’s strength was illustrated Friday at a battle in a mountainous area of central Colombia in which five Colombian soldiers were killed. Colombia’s Army said five guerrillas were also killed.
But it would be impossible for anyone in the organization to attain the standing of Mr. Marulanda, who first tasted war in the late 1940s, before Marxism or cocaine or support from Cuba or Venezuela became part of Colombia’s insurgencies. At that time, two groups, Conservatives and Liberals, simply killed each other’s members in Colombia’s interior.
Mr. Marulanda, with the nickname of “Sureshot,” turned his contingent of Liberal guerrillas into the FARC in 1964, embracing Marxism and armed struggle. The FARC was thought to have more than 15,000 fighters at its height in the late 1990s; in the early years of this decade its attacks reached the heart of Bogotá.
But Mr. Marulanda told biographers he never knew city life. When photographed, he looked every bit the peasant turned guerrilla, often appearing with a small towel draped over his shoulder to dab drops of sweat in the steaming jungle. “I never went looking for war,” he once told an interviewer. “The war came looking for me.”
Jenny Carolina González contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia.