The FARC After ‘Alfonso Cano’

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In 47 years of existence the FARC have only had two commanders-in-chief: founder “Manuel Marulanda,” who died of natural causes in 2008, and “Alfonso Cano,” killed in an army offensive on November 4. Who will be the third, and will he be able to hold the rebel army together?

President Juan Manuel Santos celebrated the death of Guillermo Leon Saenz, alias “Alfonso Cano,” leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), by stating that “the FARC had reached breaking point” and that “the leadership will come down like a house of cards.”

The president is wrong. When the FARC field marshal Jorge Suarez, alias “Mono Jojoy” was killed in an air strike in September 2010, the predicted mass desertions and unraveling of the Eastern Bloc, the rebels’ most powerful fighting division, did not occur. His successor, Jaime Alberto Parra, alias “Mauricio,” quickly assumed command, made some changes in the command structure and tactics, and continued fighting.

Cano had been fighting for his life ever since he took over as FARC supreme commander in 2008. He had been unable to lead the FARC in any practical way, kept on the run by the 5000-strong military task force hunting him in the provinces of Tolima and Cauca. Whereas under Marulanda, it was Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias “Raul Reyes,” who handled the day-to-day running of the guerrilla army, so under Cano it was left to Luciano Marin Arango, alias “Ivan Marquez,” safely ensconced in Venezuela, to attend to the details.

Cano’s real contribution as the FARC’s top commander was his laying out the change in strategy and tactics for the rebels, in the aftermath of the strategic defeats they had suffered from 2003 to 2008. In his documents, “Plan Rebirth” and “Plan 2010,” Cano moved the rebels onto a new footing, away from large groups of heavily armed and uniformed guerrillas, to very small units, often operating in civilian clothing, hiding among the local communities. The guerrilla militias, once used just for logistics support and intelligence gathering, have become the FARC’s most effective offensive weapon. This strategic shift was approved by the other six members of the Secretariat, and there is unlikely to be any change to this in the short term, as it has allowed the FARC to retake the initiative from the army in certain parts of the country.

As far as the FARC leadership collapsing, this is wishful thinking on the part of the government. There are two strong candidates to take over from Cano: “Ivan Marquez” and Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, alias “Timochenko.” While the latter has more seniority in the FARC, joining the movement when he was just 13 years old, Marquez is the most likely choice, even being mentioned in the rebel-linked website, ANNCOL, as the successor.

Timochenko, believed to be aged 52, is of peasant extraction, and was a protege of FARC founder “Manuel Marulanda.” He made his name as the commander of the 9th Front in Antioquia, before being promoted to the Secretariat. He currently commands the Magdalena Medio Bloc, financing his troops principally by moving cocaine consignments into Venezuela. He is wanted by the U.S. on drug trafficking charges and like Marquez, has a $5 million bounty on his head. While Timochenko has a military reputation within the FARC, he is not known as either a diplomat or a strategist.

Ivan Marquez, 56 (pictured above), is the only member of the Secretariat to have political experience, having been a congressman for the Patriotic Union, the FARC’s one and only foray into democratic politics, in the 1980s. He has earned military respect within FARC ranks for his fighting in both his native Caqueta province, and in Antioquia. He now commands both the Caribbean and Ivan Rios Blocs. One highly placed source in Colombian intelligence described Marquez as “easily the most dangerous leader in the FARC.” However, it appears he does not have the intellect of Cano.

Intelligence also suggests that Marquez has already been responsible for much of the day-to-day running of the FARC, so should he take over the top job there will be little interruption in rebel administration. The guerrilla financial base, thanks to drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping, is solid.

Part of the government’s thinking in killing Cano was not only to reap a political windfall amid accusations that the security policy had gone astray, but also to improve the chances of a negotiated settlement. Military intelligence suggested that Ivan Marquez was the leader more likely to take the rebels to the negotiating table than Alfonso Cano.

Politically, the death of Cano gives president Juan Manuel Santos a lot of room for maneuver, perhaps even enough to put a serious peace process on the agenda. In the short term however, the FARC will seek to strike back, taking their revenge for the death of their leader, and strengthen any potential negotiating position. Most likely this will be dozens of the small-scale actions that have been seen over the last three years: attacks with explosives, the use of snipers and the killing of isolated soldiers and policemen. They have also proven themselves capable of larger-scale ambushes, in September killing 20 members of the security forces on two sides of the country.

Sources in the presidential palace told InSight Crime not to be surprised at the announcement of exploratory dialogue with the FARC in 2013/14, ready for Santos’s re-election. Indeed even before the killing of Cano, the government sent out feelers to the FARC in Norte de Santander province, looking to make contact with Ivan Marquez.

Santos is likely to face opposition from his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, should he make the concessions likely to get the FARC to the negotiating table. In the aftermath of Cano’s death, Uribe said that the FARC could be taken apart “without any pardons to terrorists.”

But for now the 47-year civil conflict will continue, and perhaps even escalate. Both sides know that there is a strong possibility of negotiations in the next couple of years. Both sides will seek to strengthen their negotiating position. More violence is inevitable.

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