May 26, 2008 in Nation/World

Colombia rebels confirm leader died in March

Tyler Bridges McClatchy

Immediate action

President Alvaro Uribe called on guerrillas holding 700 kidnap victims to desert and free the hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

CARACAS, Venezuela – The longtime leader of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas is dead, a rebel leader confirmed Sunday, plunging Latin America’s oldest and most powerful insurgency into an uncertain future at a time when a government offensive already had the Marxist group on the run.

Manuel “Sure Shot” Marulanda died March 26 of natural causes, guerrilla senior commander Timoleon Jimenez said in a video broadcast by the Venezuela-based Telesur network. Marulanda was 78 or 80 years old.

Jimenez corroborated a statement from the Colombian Ministry of Defense on Saturday that many found hard to believe because Marulanda’s death has been reported frequently over the years.

Marulanda died “in the arms of his companion, surrounded by bodyguards and all the units who comprised his security,” Jimenez said, adding that Marulanda’s death came after an undisclosed illness.

Jimenez also confirmed the Ministry of Defense’s report that guerrilla leader Alfonso Cano would succeed Marulanda.

Marulanda’s death ends an era that began in 1964 with the founding of the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in English.

As other guerrilla groups came and went throughout Latin America – many of them supported in the 1960s by Cuba’s Fidel Castro – the FARC survived, taking advantage of rural poverty in Colombia to find recruits and using Colombia’s jungles and mountains to operate relatively freely until recent years.

Marulanda’s death marks another major victory in the all-out effort that President Alvaro Uribe has waged against the FARC since 2002.

Uribe’s government wasted no time in trying to capitalize on Marulanda’s passing.

Uribe called on guerrillas holding 700 kidnap victims to desert and free the hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Those who did so, Uribe added, could qualify for financial rewards and resettlement outside of Colombia.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos called on Cano and another FARC leader known as Mono Joyjoy to negotiate a peace deal with the government, or else.

“We already have three of the seven members of the FARC ruling secretariat below ground, and to the others, we say that they are running the same risk, that they open their eyes and take this advantage and enter the door of peace,” Santos said in a statement.

Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert with the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., said Marulanda’s death will likely lead to a debilitating power struggle over his succession or the FARC could simply disintegrate.

But Isacson did not discount Marulanda’s death strengthening the FARC as new blood takes over.

“If Marulanda’s chosen successor, Alfonso Cano, is actually able to command the remaining top FARC leaders – a big ‘if’ – the FARC could become more dangerous,” Isacson said. “If the group’s decision-making process becomes less hidebound and sluggish, it may pose more of a threat on the battlefield.”

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