Monday, November 7, 2011

Death of the FARC's Leader Leaves Rebels' Future Uncertain


The commander in chief of the FARC rebel group, in Colombia, Guillermo Saenz Vargas, alias “Alfonso Cano,” was killed by the armed forces on Friday, in what the government has hailed as the biggest blow against the guerrillas in their more than 40-year history.

Operation Odysseus” kicked off some days ago when the military intercepted a phone call between some of Cano’s close associates, according to reports, which allowed them to locate his hiding place, in a rural area between the cities of Cali and Popayan, in the southwest Cauca province.

On Friday morning the army began bombing the area where Cano was thought to be hiding, killing some members of his security team. Later, more than 900 Colombian troops descended from 32 Blackhawk helicopters and surrounded his hideout. According to the armed forces, Cano was shot that evening after refusing to surrender to a soldier who spotted him running away, using nightvision goggles.

The government claimed to have seized hundreds of computer files, in the form of dozens of USB sticks and hard disks, and several computers. These will no doubt contain lots of information about the inner workings of the rebel group, and allow the Colombian government to accuse various enemies of working with the rebels. Computer files found in previous raids of rebel camps allegedly contained evidence of FARC collaboration on the part of government critic Senator Piedad Cordoba, among others.

One police officer told the media details of Cano’s hideout, which he said was a “very humble” farm with a small bed, and computers that the guerrilla head would use to talk to his associates in other parts of the country using Skype. In the house they also reportedly found a pair of his trademark thick glasses, two boxes of false teeth, and his government-issued ID card. He had shaved off his thick beard, likely to avoid identification.

Cano had reportedly been driven out of his previous hideouts in the Tolima province by a series of attacks by the armed forces, and forced to flee west with a security detail of only 10 people.

According to the armed forces, Cano was betrayed by members of his inner circle, who could be in line to receive millions of dollars in rewards. Some of these alleged informants remain in the ranks of the guerrillas, according to the military. This could, of course, be propaganda on the part of the authorities to undermine the morale of the FARC.

It is not yet clear who will succeed Cano. There are several possible contenders in the FARC’s seven-man Secretariat, and commentators have pointed out that it may be difficult for the leadership to meet and come to a decision on who will take over. However, the FARC tend to have a well-organized command structure so it could be that a successor has already been decided, although the group did not announce this in their statement confirming Cano’s death.

One of the contenders in Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias “Timochenko,” who, according to the Colombian press has been tipped as the next victim of a strike by the armed forces. Another leading contender is Luciano Marin Arango, alias “Ivan Marquez,” who is thought to be hiding out in Venezuela, safe from Colombian forces.

Jeremy McDermott at InSight Crime argues that Cano’s death does not mean the end for the FARC, pointing to the fact that the 2008 killing of second-in-command, alias “Mono Jojoy” was not followed by the predicted breakdown in command or mass desertions. While Cano was in control of strategy, McDermott says that Ivan Marquezhas long been in control of the day-to-day running of the guerrilla army, meaning that Cano’s death will not herald an immediate breakdown in the group’s operations.
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.

[...]

even before the killing of Cano, the government sent out feelers to the FARC in Norte De Santander, looking to make contact with Ivan Marquez.
The FARC have vowed to keep fighting, rejecting the government’s calls for them to surender.

The  Miami Herald looks at Alfonso Cano’s background, calling him “a bespectacled middle-class intellectual” who became the “chief ideologist” of the FARC.

The Economist points out that “Ironically ... Mr Cano’s passing may wind up delaying rather than expediting a negotiated end to Colombia’s civil strife,” as he had recently called for dialogue, and may have been brokering a consensus for peace talks with the government among the rebel leadership.

The WSJ says that “The news sent some Colombians cheering into the streets of this Andean capital.”

Colombia Reports looks at the chronology of the operation against Cano.


News Briefs

Guatemala and Nicaragua both held presidential elections on Sunday, and neither delivered many surprises.
  • Otto Perez, a former army general long tipped as the front-runner, won against rival Manuel Baldizon in Guatemala, in what the Associated Press characterized as a case of “tradition trump[ing] rising enthusiasm for a youthful populist.” The NYT, by contrast, said that Perez’s win was a move into “both new and old territory” -- he is the first figure from the armed forces to be elected president since the end of the military dictatorship, but has long been a major figure in the country, and has been accused by some of abuses during the conflict. Perez gained 54 percent of the vote in the second round, to Baldizon’s 46, with 60 percent voter turnout, according to the AP. However, this does not mean the end for Baldizon’s chance at the presidency -- or for his pledge to bring in televised executions -- as Guatemalans have a habit of voting the second round loser into the presidency in the next set of elections.
    Perhaps the biggest issue in the election was rising violence and insecurity connected to organized crime, with both candidates promising an “iron fist” against drug gangs. Perez will now have to try to live up to his promise to halve the murder rate.
    The Wall Street Journal reports that authorities in Guatemala have opened an investigation into the disappearance of rebel fighter Efrain Bamaca, and the president-elect’s possible role in the case. Bamaca was reported killed in a clash with the army, but intelligence documents suggest he may have been taken for interrogation, and then later killed on the orders of Perez.
  • Preliminary results from Nicaragua’s election seemed even more predictable, with President Daniel Ortega looking set to win a second consecutive term after having altered the constitution to allow his re-election. With just under 39 percent of the vote counted, Ortega had 63.95 percent, and his closest competitor, Fabio Gadea, 29.09. His FSLN party also appeared to have an overwhelming victory in the legislative elections, with more than double the number of votes compared to its nearest rival, Gadea’s PLI. Transparency International told the BBC that the process was “neither fair, nor honest, nor credible,” with signs of fraud and irregularities. Gadea told the press that he did not accept the results.
    Foreign Policy has a piece on the rise of “Ortega-ismo,” which says he may be “the most savvy left-wing firebrand in Latin America.”
  • The Miami Herald has published a piece by Felix Rodriguez, a former CIA agent involved in backing the Contras in Nicaragua, who fought against the Sandinista Revoluation. He writes in support of U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte, who was appointed by Obama to the position during a Senate recess last year. Rodriguez calls for her appointment to be confirmed by the Senate, defending her “stellar and unblemished professional background” against what he calls “gossip and unsubstantiated accusations.” These relate to her alleged ties to the Cuban regime, and a relationship in the 1990s with an alleged Castro ally.
  • The offices of a newspaper office in Veracruz, on Mexico’s Gulf coast, were burnt in an arson attack on Sunday -- some 20 employees were in the building, but no one was hurt. This adds to a string of violent incidents in Veracruz in recent months, as the Zetas fight for control with rival gangs.
  • TV news cameraman was killed during a police operation in a Rio de Janerio favela, as the security forces held a gun battle with drug gangs. Another four people were reportedly killed in the shooting.
  • The NYT reports on the use of teams from the U.S. anti-drug agency DEA in various countries in Latin America; “The D.E.A. now has five commando-style squads it has been quietly deploying for the past several years to Western Hemisphere nations — including Haiti, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Belize — that are battling drug cartels, according to documents and interviews with law enforcement officials.”
  • Also in the NYT is a report on the impact of Brazil’s massive economic growth on neighboring countries, with some in Bolivia calling it “imperialist,” amid Brazilian backing for the controversial road-building project that has rocked the presidency of Evo Morales.
  • Mary Anastasia O’Grady has a strongly worded piece in the WSJ, in which she decries a “human rights swindle” in Colombia. It has been reported that some of those who won compensation over the Mapiripan massacre of 1997 had not in fact lost relatives in the killing. However, the number of those who may have falsely benefited in such cases is dwarfed by the mass of people who have been victims in Colombia’s conflict, but never received compensation or recognition.
  • More from the NYT, in an editorial on Bush-era antecedents to the controversial “Fast and Furious” gun tracking scheme, which reportedly delivered guns into the hands of Mexican traffickers.