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FARC under new leader Alfonso Cano

Text by Marie Sophie JOUBERT

Latest update : 2008-10-24

Alfonso Cano steps into Manuel Marulanda’s shoes following the legendary FARC leader’s death. But they are big shoes to fill and Colombia’s deadly insurgency movement does not look as invincible as it once did.


The chief is dead, long live the chief. Not long after confirming the death of Manuel Marulanda, their legendary leader, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced the name of their new supremo: Alfonso Cano.


It promises to be a tough job for the man who has, in reality, led the guerrilla movement since 2004, according to Pascal Drouhaud, an international affairs expert and author of “FARC – Confessions of a guerrilla.”


An intellectual and a committed communist, Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas, alias "Alfonso Cano," is considered the movement’s ideologue and strategist. Well-educated (he studied human rights and anthropology) and hailing from Colombia’s lower middle class, he rapidly rose up the guerrilla ranks thanks to Marulanda’s patronage and support.


“During the 1980s he got acquainted with the movement’s machinery, with crisis negotiation techniques and he continued to frame policy and maintain the group’s international relations,” says Drouhaud.


Despite these assets, this tall, bearded man with thick spectacles has some tough challenges ahead. “Not only must he restore the group’s international image and avoid its disintegration, but he must also control the radical elements within the movement,” explains Fernando Chinchilla, a doctoral candidate at the political science department at the University of Montreal.


Ideologically more moderate, Cano represents the FARC’s political wing while certain field commanders could line up with Mono Jojoy, head of the military wing, according to intelligence sources.


A former bodyguard of Marulanda, Jojoy not only enjoys military powers, he also controls some of the FARC’s largest coca-growing areas – a key asset for a group financed primarily by the lucrative cocaine trade.


A veritable internal haemorrhage


Until his death, Marulanda was a unifying figure within the FARC’s ranks, according to Drouhaud. His death, “is a psychological blow. FARC now has to turn the page on a glorious period and return to reality.”


It was Marulanda who led the movement since its birth in 1964, turning a few dozen armed farmers in southern Colombia into a thousands-strong organization that has staged South America’s longest-running insurgency. Since its inception, FARC has kidnapped an estimated 750 people, terrorized a population and fought a bloody insurgency - financed by drugs trafficking – against the government and right-wing paramilitaries in a civil war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives.



But today, the situation on the ground has changed. Since he came to power in 2002, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, whose father was assassinated by the FARC, has led a merciless campaign against the guerrillas.


Weakened by the Colombian military offensives, FARC has, in addition, lost three of the seven members of their Secretariat in March. Before Marulanda, Raul Reyes, the FARC’s number two, was killed during a Colombian raid in Ecuador. Ivan Rios, the youngest Secretariat member, was killed by one of his own bodyguards. His hand was chopped up by the bodyguard and handed over to Colombian authorities for a $1 million reward.


The losses, “inconceivable three years ago,” according to Drouhaud, had a profound psychological effect on the movement. “For the longest time, the FARC’s greatest asset was their self-confidence.”


For Chinchilla, this assassination also illustrates grave difficulties confronting the movement today. “When you are at the point where you are killed by your own bodyguards, that’s a sign of a serious internal problem,” he explains.


Today, the guerrilla group is facing a virtual internal hemorrhage. Since the start of the year, 1,300 guerrillas deserted, including Nelly Avina - alias " Karina" – one of the movement’s iconic female fighters. Numbering around 16,000 guerrillas in 2002, FARC’s numbers have dwindled by half, according to the Colombian army.


Hostage release still uncertain


On the eve of the announcement of Marulanda’s death, Uribe publicly said the guerrilla chiefs were close to demobilizing and liberating French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt if the Colombian government guaranteed the guerrillas’ freedom.


Betancourt was kidnapped by the FARC in 2002 while campaigning for the Colombian presidency.


But Chinchilla is doubtful on the hostage release front. “I don’t think that the new chief will change much about the movement’s hostage policy for the moment,” he said. “Before doing this, Cano must consolidate his power.” To negotiate better, the FARC has to be in a strong position. And for the moment, Uribe’s government holds the cards.


Although considerably weakened, the FARC are not yet close to giving up, said Chinchilla. “The older the guerrilla movement, the more difficult it is to demobilize.”


Date created : 2008-05-27