The reported execution of a top member of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas could be a sign that the country’s largest rebel army underwent an internal purge before it began preliminary talks with the government with an aim to begin peace negotiations.
On September 3, Colombian think tank Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris reported that a high-ranking leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had been stripped of his command and executed in January, just a month before rebels began to explore the possibility of peace talks with the government. Negotiations are slated to begin in October.
According to Nuevo Arco Iris, Noe Suarez Rojas, alias “Grannobles,” led a decadent lifestyle. Although he was the head of three FARC fronts based in the northern province of Arauca, his lack of discipline and misuse of funds cast doubt on his leadership skills. Grannobles reportedly used the fact that he was the brother of the famed guerrilla leader known as “Mono Jojoy” (killed in September 2010 in a bombing raid) as an excuse to flaunt the group’s internal rules.
He was rumored to hold lavish parties using proceeds from drug trafficking, splurging on liquor and prostitutes. He also disobeyed orders from the Secretariat, refusing to withdraw his troops from the border with Venezuela to the interior of the country. After years of disobedience, according to Nuevo Arco Iris, the Secretariat subjected Grannobles to a “revolutionary tribunal”, which ended in his execution.
There has been some disagreement over this, however. Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzon claimed he could not confirm Grannobles’ death, and local media claim to have heard from witnesses who say the guerrilla leader is still alive.
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If the Nuevo Arco Iris’ information holds true, it could offer an interesting snapshot of the FARC’s current priorities as they prepare themselves for peace talks with the Colombian government, to be held in Oslo and Havana. The rebel group has lost a significant amount of influence since 2002, when the last official peace talks with the government fell apart. This time around, the FARC will come to the negotiating table with a far weaker position.
The guerrillas have also lost popular support over the years, as their involvement in the cocaine trade has taken a toll on the group’s legitimacy and cast doubt on the guerrillas’ ideological purity.· This will also affect the strength of their hand in negotiation, as it is far easier for the government to dismiss the political aims of the FARC and cast them as mere “narco-terrorists.”
On September 6 FARC spokesman Marcos Calarca told reporters in Havana that they “have nothing to do with drug trafficking”. The US government refutes this, however, and State Department officials have referred to the FARC as one of the largest drug trafficking organizations in the world. Independent analysts confirm this, and it is estimated that the FARC make some $200 to $600 million a year off of the drug trade, mostly by imposing taxes on drug traffickers and facilitating the sale of coca.
As such, the alleged execution of Grannobles could be a sign that the guerrilla group decided to take stock of its image ahead of engaging in peace talks, reining in its criminal activities and disciplining those who have strayed most from the political struggle.
This fits with the FARC’s release of its security force hostages earlier in the year, and its surprising announcement that it would no longer kidnap civilians. In a recently-released video acknowledging the peace talks, FARC members sing about those who falsely accuse the guerillas of being “narcos” in an effort to extradite them to the US.
This strategy would not likely achieve the intended results, however, as no amount of messaging will erase the group’s criminal activities. Although the text of the preliminary agreement between the government and guerrillas indicates that drug trafficking is one of the six items to be discussed in peace talks, it is not clear what the FARC has to gain from this. The government is unlikely to shrug off the rebels’ drug trafficking ties. Perhaps more importantly, of the six-member secretariat — including top guerrilla commander Timoleon Jimenez, alias “Timochenko” — five are wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges.