In another blow to the FARC rebels, Guillermo Leon Saenz, alias “Alfonso Cano,” the commander in chief of the group, has been killed by government forces.
The leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was killed in a government bombing raid in the Cauca department, southwest Colombia, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said in a press conference (See video below). The guerrilla leader’s body was found in the municipality of Suarez (See map below).
Saenz took over the leadership of the rebel group after founder Pedro Antonio Marin Marin, alias “Manuel Marulanda,” died of natural causes in May 2008 (Listen to InSight Crime Co-Director Steven Dudley’s report on National Public Radio when Saenz took control).
The death was the culmination of a three-year effort by the Colombian army to strangle and starve the guerrilla leader and his multiple security rings. By the end, these rings had reportedly been decimated, an apt metaphor for the group’s dwindling power.
The FARC rebels have lost four member of the ruling Secretariat since 2008, in a series of major blows to the leadership of the guerrilla army. Second-in-command Victor Suarez, alias “Mono Jojoy,” was also killed in a bombing raid by the security forces, in September 2010.
Despite the publicity and victory in morale that these deaths lend the authorities, it could be that killings of such high-ranking political leaders actually move the rebel group further away from peace talks with the government, as those who take over may have less political control over the rank and file of the FARC.
Should Cano be killed, or already be lying dead somewhere in the Andes mountains in Tolima, it is likely that, if the FARC can keep their coherence and discipline, Luciano Marin, alias “Ivan Marquez,” will take over. He is a rebel leader with both political experience (he was a congressmen for the doomed Patriotic Union party, the FARC’s one and only foray into mainstream politics) and military credibility. After him, there is no one with the profile to keep the FARC together and fragmentation and criminalization could follow, ensuring that any peace process with the government would deliver only a fraction of the rebel ranks.
Saenz had been in the FARC since 1982, where he spent most of his time as the political leader of the Western Bloc (Bloque Occidental). He was well known within the organization for his communist ideals and hard revolutionary line, although many of his cohorts scoffed at his scant military experience.
Since he assumed the leadership of the FARC, he had spent millions of dollars on weapons and was trying to shift the guerrillas’ tactics in response to the government´s military offensive, which has pushed the FARC to the fringes of Colombia and into neighboring countries. This has resulted in heavier use of landmines to keep the military at bay, and car bombs to catch them off-guard.
Saenz was more political ideologue than military tactician. An anthropologist who studied at the National University in Bogota, Saenz began his FARC career in the early 1980s as an emissary of the Communist Party. From the beginning he had close ties with the rebels’ then political commander, Luis Morantes, alias “Jacobo Arenas,” who fast-tracked him to the guerrillas’ central command, the Secretariat.
Following Morantes’ death in 1990, Saenz became the FARC’s top political emissary. In 2000, he launched the Bolivarian Movement for a New Colombia (Movimiento Bolivariano por la Nueva Colombia), a clandestine political party. He is also in charge of the Colombian Clandestine Communist Party (Partido Comunista Clandestino Colombiano – PC3).
Saenz’s emergence as the maximum FARC commander gave credence to the notion that the guerrillas may be more open to a negotiated settlement. He participated as a political representative of the FARC in the 1991 Caracas peace negotiation and in the Tlaxcala Peace Dialogues in 1992.
During the Caguan Peace Dialogues with Andres Pastrana’s government between 1999-2002, however, he had a lower profile and actively looked for members for the Bolivarian Movement. After the negotiations failed in 2002, Saenz led an operation where 12 Valle del Cauca politicians were kidnapped. The guerrillas later executed the politicians.
Saenz also became known as a hardliner inside the guerrillas. He was accused of executing 40 rebel soldiers for insubordination. He was also accused of murdering Guillermo Gaviria, Antioquia’s former governor, the former minister Gilberto Echeverri and eight members of the military forces in 2003, when the army tried to rescue the two politicians who’d been kidnapped. What’s more, the U.S. Department of Justice accused him of producing and exporting cocaine to the U.S. The U.S. Department of State offered a $5 million reward for his capture.