Manuel Marulanda, Top Commander of Colombia’s Largest Guerrilla Group, Is Dead

BySIMON ROMERO

SIMON ROMERO

Published: May 26, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela — Manuel Marulanda, the guerrilla tactician whose rise from peasant origins to top commander of Latin America’s largest rebel group was a mythical feature of Colombia‘s long internal war, died on March 26 in a mountainous hideout in the Meta department in central Colombia. He was believed to be 76 years old.

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José Miguel Gomez/Reuters

Manuel Marulanda, who helped turn a Colombian insurgent group into an elaborate cocaine trafficking apparatus, in 2000.

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

To the end, Mr. Marulanda remained an enigma in Colombia, with his death kept secret for two months by the FARC. 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.

Mr. Marulanda got his first taste of warfare during the years of La Violencia, or The Violence, from 1948 to 1958, which 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 that killing spree subsided, Mr. Marulanda settled in Marquetalia, a farming enclave of several dozen families in the Andes Mountains south of Bogotá. But this period of relative idyll ended when Colombian forces attacked Marquetalia in 1964. That same year Mr. Marulanda helped turn Liberal fighters who had remained under his control into the FARC.

The 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 Mr. Marulanda, who was born Pedro Antonio Marín in Génova, a town surrounded by coffee groves.

The year of his birth was 1928 or 1930 or 1932; Mr. Marulanda acknowledged to Arturo Alape, his biographer, that he did not know his precise age. He grew up in Génova 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, Mr. 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, Mr. Marulanda vied for power within the 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 the 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 Patriotic Union, a movement created by the FARC and the Communist Party in the 1980s to enable former guerrillas to enter political life.

Under Mr. Marulanda, the FARC’s paranoia and military acumen coalesced in the creation of an elaborate cocaine trafficking apparatus. Geography helped, offering Mr. Marulanda jungle hideaways in swaths of Colombia where the government has little presence. The country is about the size of California and Texas combined.

The rebels also honed the practice of abducting people for ransom. Their bombs killed innocents in the heart of Bogotá. Their land mines still cripple dozens of children each year. Today the 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.

“The 20th century will leave warriors to history, and the 21st century will leave in history those who took Colombia out of war,” said Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla who is now a senator in Colombia. “Marulanda did not understand this change.”

Indeed, toward the end of his life, Mr. Marulanda had a public standing not much better than the FARC’s.

He rarely emerged from his hideouts. When he did, as in a zone set aside for peace talks early in this decade, Colombians scrutinized his photos in an effort to catch some glimpse into the character of the man who seemed content to live at war for six decades.

What they saw was a stocky man with a machete strapped to his waist. He had bags under his eyes and squinted into the sunlight. But there was a hint of revelry, too. For visitors, he would pour glasses of Chivas Regal whiskey. Then he would prefer to listen than talk.

“Marulanda smiled when talking about his chicken pen,” said Carlos Lozano, who met the rebel leader numerous times as editor of Voz, a Communist newspaper in Bogotá. “The FARC’s objective is overthrowing the government, but I don’t know if Marulanda contemplated life in a government palace.”

Mr. 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 where he died. Mr. Jiménez, the FARC commander, said he died in her arms, surrounded by his personal guard, after what Mr. Jiménez called a brief illness.

New York Times

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