Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Death of mythic guerrilla commander in Colombia

Death of mythic guerrilla commander confirmed in Colombia
By Simon Romero
Monday, May 26, 2008

CARACAS: Manuel Marulanda, the guerrilla tactician who rose from peasant origins to become the top commander of Latin America's largest rebel group, died March 26 in a mountain hide-out in central Colombia, the rebels have confirmed. He was believed to be 76 years old.

The cause was a heart attack, said Timoleón Jiménez, a commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who confirmed Marulanda's death in a video that was broadcast Sunday by the Venezuelan television network Telesur. The Colombian military had announced the death on Saturday, citing intelligence sources.

To the end, Marulanda remained an enigma in Colombia, with his death kept secret for two months by FARC. A mythic figure in Colombia's long internal war, he evaded capture and death from the time he formed a rudimentary guerrilla force as a teenager in the coffee-growing hills of western Colombia in the late 1940s.

Marulanda got his first taste of warfare during the years of La Violencia, from 1948 to 1958, a period of civil conflict that served as the basis for the decades of armed struggle that followed. The civil war between two political factions, Conservatives and Liberals, took more than 200,000 lives.

When the killing subsided, Marulanda settled in Marquetalia, a farming enclave of several dozen families in the Andes Mountains south of Bogotá. But this period of relative tranquility ended when Colombian forces attacked Marquetalia in 1964. That same year Marulanda helped turn Liberal fighters who had remained under his control into FARC.

FARC ultimately evolved into Latin America's most feared insurgency, boasting about 15,000 fighters at its height in the late 1990s. Its roots lay, to some degree, in the personal experiences of Marulanda, who was born Pedro Antonio Marín in Genova, a town surrounded by coffee groves.

The year of his birth was 1928 or 1930 or 1932; Marulanda acknowledged to Arturo Alape, his biographer, that he did not know his precise age. He grew up in Genova listening to tales from his grandfather of the Thousand Days War, an epic conflict at the dawn of the 20th century that is featured in "One Hundred Years of Solitude," the novel by Gabriel García Márquez.

As a child, Marulanda sold sweets on the street and worked in a bakery, but he left home as a teenager to try his luck as a woodcutter. The lure of guerrilla warfare intervened. By 1951, he had adopted the nom de guerre Manuel Marulanda Vélez, in honor of a slain union leader.

His marksmanship also earned him the nickname Tirofijo, or Sureshot. Considered a brutal pragmatist, Marulanda vied for power inside FARC with urban intellectuals and labor leaders. By the 1990s he was the group's supreme leader, after the death of Jacobo Arenas, who hewed to Marxist ideology.

While FARC remained Marxist in name, it evolved into something unrecognizable in the annals of Latin America's guerrilla movements.

It was haunted by the killing - reportedly by right-wing paramilitary groups - of about 4,000 members of the Patriotic Union, a movement created by FARC and the Communist Party in the 1980s to enable former guerrillas to enter political life.

Under Marulanda, FARC's paranoia and military acumen coalesced in the creation of an elaborate cocaine-trafficking apparatus.

The rebels also honed the practice of abducting people for ransom.

Their bombs also killed innocents in the heart of Bogotá, and their land mines still cripple dozens of children each year. Today FARC is one of the most despised groups in Colombia: Opinion polls show just 1 percent of Colombians hold a favorable view of the rebels.

Marulanda was reported to have had more than four children, but it was not possible to determine his survivors, other than an unknown female companion at the mountain encampment, located in the Meta department, where he died. Jiménez, the FARC commander, said he died in the woman's arms, surrounded by his personal guard. Jiménez added that Murlanda died after a brief illness.

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