Will FARC Commander’s Killing Rock Colombia’s Peace Talks?

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Colombian security forces have killed a long serving FARC commander who coordinated international drug shipments and colluded with paramilitary successor groups, in a move that could slow the progress of the country’s peace process.

On March 9, Colombian police killed the commander of the 57th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Jose David Suarez, alias “El Becerro,” reported El Espectador. In addition to El Becerro, three other FARC operatives died during the confrontation in Bojaya, a rural town in the northwest department of Choco, reported El Tiempo.

It appears El Becerro was betrayed by two members of his security detail, who allegedly handed over information to authorities on the FARC commander’s movements, according to El Tiempo.

El Becerro — a 36-year veteran of the guerrillas — was reportedly a member of the FARC’s Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central) and had 220 fighters under his command.    

Becerro: a Drug Trafficking Pioneer

As commander of the 57th Front, El Becerro was in charge of one of the FARC’s richest units. InSight Crime has estimated the group — with a base of operations along Colombia’s northwestern border with Panama — earns over $50 million per year from the illicit drug trade. 

El Becerro had contacts with Honduran, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan criminal groups, according to police intelligence. He reportedly spent much of his time in Panama, and worked with Panamanian traffickers to send drug shipments northward using go-fast boats. The 57th Front is also considered to be a direct supplier of cocaine to Mexican drug cartels.

Within Colombia, for years El Becerro had an agreement to divide up drug territory with the initial leader of paramilitary successor organization the Urabeños, Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias “Don Mario,” who was arrested in 2009. The lack of violent confrontations between the FARC and the Urabeños in Choco suggests a similar type of pact may still hold between some guerrilla fronts and Colombia’s most powerful criminal group.

Earlier in his career, El Becerro played a decisive role in the FARC’s emergence in transnational drug trafficking, reported El Colombiano. According to demobilized FARC operatives, in the mid-1990s El Becerro decided to move the rebel army’s involvement beyond taxing coca growers, which is known as “gramaje,” and begin taking over other phases of the drug supply chain. 

Becerro’s Military Operations

According to Colombian media reports, El Becerro participated in one of the most notorious acts of violence in the FARC’s 50-year history: the 2002 bombing of a church in rural Bojaya that reportedly left over 70 dead. El Becerro was also involved in the FARC attack on the town of Vigia del Fuerte in 2000 in which 21 police officers were killed, according to El Espectador

Prior to his death, El Becerro reportedly oversaw the finances and weapon purchases for the FARC’s Ivan Rios Bloc, to which the 57th Front belongs. In 2013, InSight Crime indicated this Bloc is one of the most vulnerable to fragmentation and criminalization should the FARC agree to a peace deal with the government.

SEE ALSO: FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization 

According to El Tiempo, El Becerro had previously led the 36th Front and helped coordinate security for the former supreme commander of the FARC, alias “Manuel Marulanda,” who died of natural causes in 2008.

InSight Crime Analysis

The killing of a longtime FARC commander comes at a pivotal moment for the Marxist guerrilla group. The FARC and the government have been in negotiations over a peace agreement for over two years, but important questions remain on how the two sides will finalize a deal. Nevertheless, considering the achievement thus far of partial agreements on land reform, political participation, and drug trafficking, many observers see this as the best ever chance for a negotiated end to Colombia’s 50-year battle with the guerrillas. Colombia’s Attorney General recently stated the country’s peace process had reached “the point of no return.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace

In a post-conflict situation, as leader of the 57th Front, El Becerro could have played a pivotal role in the possible criminalization and fragmentation within the Ivan Rios Bloc. His death may strain the FARC’s commitment to maintain the unilateral ceasefire they initiated in December 2014.

The FARC conditioned the ceasefire on their not being targeted by Colombian security forces, and they will likely see the killing of El Becerro as a violation of that stipulation, although it was never accepted by Colombian authorities. Nevertheless, if it does contribute to the ceasefire ending, it would be a significant setback, and could further extend the timeline for a peace agreement to be reached.

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