Most Colombians can’t remember a time when the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were not a major force to be reckoned with.
But the death of the FARC’s founding leader Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda, coupled with recent military setbacks, has many wondering whether the 44-year-old insurgency might now change course and possibly be more willing to accept government conditions for a prisoner swap.
“The end of the FARC is in sight,” Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told reporters on Sunday after a senior rebel confirmed that Marulanda died on March 26 of a heart attack.
Santos quickly added: “We are winning but we haven’t yet won.”
He and other Colombian leaders appealed to the rebels to put down their weapons and talk peace.
But the FARC, which Colombia’s military says has some 9,000 fighters, was characteristically defiant.
“We will continue our work,” rebel commander Timoleon Jimenez, alias Timochenko, said in a video message, “profoundly optimistic that we will move forward in spite of this adversity.”
He said the FARC’s is a “struggle for political power, the struggle for a socially just society and the struggle for socialism.”
In March, guerrilla commander Raul Reyes and another member of the rebels’ seven-man ruling Secretariat were killed, and last weekend a female leader who held near mythic status in the group defected.
But even as the rebels, who are listed by both the US and the EU as “terrorists,” have suffered setbacks, they remain potent. Across the country, clashes with police and the army are an almost daily occurrence.
Whether the FARC heads in a new direction could depend on Alfonso Cano, a bearded and bespectacled longtime ideologue who was designated the group’s new leader.
Adam Isacson, Colombia analyst for the Washington-based Center for International Policy, says the group is at a “fork-in-the-road moment”.
“For about the past six years, you’ve seen nothing different, no changes in political strategy,” he said. “It’s hard to say in what direction the FARC will go but it seems certain there will be a different direction.”
Isacson considers it a positive sign that the FARC’s leadership did not choose as its new chief a member of the rebels’ military wing, which is thought to be more resistant to the idea of talks with the government.
Cano, whose real name is Guillermo Saenz Vargas, studied anthropology at one of Colombia’s most prestigious universities before joining the Young Communists and is thought to have entered the FARC’s ranks in the late 1970s. He is believed to be about 50 years old.
Two weeks ago, President Alvaro Uribe called Cano a “terrorist who poses as a philosopher.”
Cano was placed in charge of the FARC’s clandestine political arm, the Clandestine Communist Party of Colombia, when it was created in 2000. The party continues to have a presence in Colombian cities, particularly among university students.
Santos held out the hope Sunday that the FARC’s new leader would be more inclined to negotiate peace.
“This is a message to Alfonso Cano,” he said. “The government has always kept open the door of peace.”
The government has refused, however, to meet the rebels’ demand that it clear troops from a New York City-size swath of southwest Colombia for talks on a swap that would free hundreds of imprisoned rebels.