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The endangered guerrillas

The Alligator talks to former Columian interior minister Alfonso Lopez about his meeting with one of the most feared guerillas of the 20th century

by Oliver Harvey, 2nd February 2009

In 1998 Alfonso Lopez was selected by then Colombian President Andres Pastrana to act as a negotiator for peace talks between the government and the insurrectionary guerrilla force FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). The stated intention of this peace process was to end the FARC’s four decade long war against the Colombian state, predicated on the establishment of a Marxist revolutionary government. It was prompted by the guerrilla’s growing strength, whose numbers counted in the tens of thousands, almost all of whom were recruited from the southern rural poor, and the near total breakdown of law and order in the country that saw Colombia with the highest police mortality rate in the world.

In May last year, the Colombian government reported the death of Pedro Antonio Marin, more commonly known as Marulanda, or by his nickname ‘Tirofijo,’ - ‘sureshot’, FARC’s military leader and spiritual figurehead. This came as a series of successes against the guerrillas seemed to suggest that the government was winning the war against the FARC, not least after the release of former presidential candidate and globally renowned hostage Ingrid Betancourt. The Alligator spoke to Alfonso Lopez, himself a respected Colombian politician who comes from a distinguished line of Colombian presidents. Señor Lopez is one of the very few Colombian politicians and one of the tiny number of those around the world who has ever met Marulanda. We began by asking him what his impressions were of the man on the other side of the negotiating table.

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Marulanda

Lopez: For two years, during the peace process I met twice weekly with the guerrilla negotiators and occasionally with Marulanda. He enjoyed a tremendous amount of respect on the part of his people. Although he was a peasant with only a basic primary education and he had never visited a major town or flown a plane, he was the undisputed leader of a political and military organization that encompassed about 15,000 fighters and received hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the cocaine trade.

Marulanda was a guerrilla leader on the scale on Mao Tse Tung or Ho Chin Minh and a legend on his own right. The epic birth of FARC took place when the army attacked 48 rebellious communist peasants led by Marulanda in a hamlet called Marquetalia. After a bitter fight the peasants escaped unharmed and founded FARC with the support of commissars sent by the Communist Party of Colombia - notably the co-founder and co-leader of FARC, now dead, Jacobo Arenas.

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Even before the death of Marulanda, it had been reported that the FARC leadership had reverted to the former student radical and now hard-line ideologue Alfonso Cano. Does the death of Marulanda mean the end of the FARC? How far will Alfonso Cano (the current leader) be able to hold the organization together?

Lopez: Marulanda was a peasant who led a peasant rebellion began 50 years ago when Colombia was basically an agricultural country with only a small proportion of the population living in the cities. His successors (with few exceptions) are no longer peasants but hard line communist university drop-outs. Colombia is now a modernizing country with a population that is 74% urban. The gap between the rural population and the urban-industrial population is shrinking less every day and therefore the breeding ground for FARC possible sympathizers is shrinking rapidly. Cano, of course, does not have the mystic of Marulanda. Rumour has it that there are divergences inside FARC and that it is no longer as monolithic as it once was.

However, today the armed forces are far stronger and far more efficient than before and should be able, without too much difficulty, to cope with the remnants of the guerrillas.

These successes seem to have come out of the blue for Uribe, has there been a policy change over the last twelve months?

Lopez: The most important factor in defeating the guerrillas has been "Plan Colombia", i.e. American military aid worth up to $2000 million dollars today. Uribe has provided firm leadership and has rallied the bulk of the population behind the army.

Obama hasn’t supported the free trade agreement with Colombia. Are you afraid that now the Democrats are in the White House, Plan Colombia might collapse?

Lopez: Actually "Plan Colombia" was started by the Democrats under Clinton during the Pastrana government. What concerns me are the recession and the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan which is now, it seems, spreading to Pakistan. Inevitably both factors tend to awaken America's traditional isolationist sentiment. However, today the armed forces are far stronger and far more efficient than before and should be able, without too much difficulty, to cope with the remnants of the guerrillas.

Chavez nurtures imperialistic territorial ambitions that could materialize in the long run.

Will the successes against the guerrillas translate into a reduction in cocaine production in Colombia?

Lopez: The drug trade is what gives muscle to the guerrillas. They have no popular support whereas the President enjoys an approval ratio approaching 80% basically because of his success in fighting them. But they will remain a threat as long as Colombia is a major drug producer.

Despite the government's active spraying policy it has not been possible to eradicate the coca crop. This is due, in part, to technological advances: stronger seeds and more productive plants. As long as there is a strong demand for drugs there will be a supply to meet that demand, be it from Colombia or elsewhere, or from chemical substitutes. The military defeat of FARC only means the loss of military muscle for part of the trade. As long as there is strong demand for drugs supply will arise somewhere.

Does the Chavez government pose a threat to the stability of Colombia? When Colombia made a raid over the border in Ecuador to eliminate (FARC leader) Raul Reyes last year, Chavez responded with an attempt to isolate the Colombian government in the region – is this evidence of long term plans by Venezuela to provoke a conflict?

Lopez: Chavez aims to be the leader of South America. Many countries in South America (Paraguay the latest) have gone his way. Colombia has a totally different outlook. Chavez not only sees her as an obstacle against his dream but also he probably also nurtures imperialistic territorial ambitions that could materialize in the long run. In any cases he is armed to the teeth (9 new Russian attack submarines, 30 new Sukhoi warplanes - the most modern attack aircraft in existence). His neighbors, with the exception of Colombia, are either too small (The Guayanas) or too big (Brasil). What does he need them for? He says it is to defend himself in the case of a US attack!

What, then, should be Colombia’s approach to Venezuela?

Lopez: Difficult, the world is oil thirsty and oil is in for the most part the hands of rogue states: Iran, Venezuela, and Russia. They have complementary interests and are extremely powerful financially. In Venezuela the state is taking a bigger share of the economy but apparently there is not outright expropriation but payment at prices which are more or less satisfactory. For Colombia the key aspect is to keep Chavez from supporting the FARC and in that connection playing the terrorist card is the most effective strategy to rally the world community on our side. The evidence of his involvement found on Raul Reyes' (the slain guerrilla leader) computer has been a very effective weapon to that end. Because of it Chavez changed his attitude and denied that he has any links with the FARC.

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Alvaro Uribe

There have been numerous criticisms of the Uribe government for human rights abuses by the army against trade union leaders. In some parts of the press in Britain and America, Uribe is viewed with suspicion and some of Chavez’s social policies seen through rose tinted spectacles – how does Colombia win the public relations battle?

Lopez: The stakes are of course, much higher in America (Plan Colombia and the Free Trade Agreement). Our main problem in most places is the distorted perception of Colombia's reality. Like all countries with important interests in the US we need the support of professional lobby and communications consultants. We need the American public and American decisions makers to realize that Colombia is a strong democratic country and a bulwark against the radical populist tendencies that are engulfing Latin America. In Europe a different approach is required to the same end depending on the country. Basically we must cover 5 fronts: the Government, the Parliament, the media, the trade unions, and academia.

Uribe has invested a lot of money and political capital into his rehabilitation campaign for former paramilitaries, in particular the program Paz y Reconciliacion. Do you imagine the same formula will work for former guerrillas? Could the FARC be turned into a purely political organization like Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland?

Lopez: The post-conflict era is a very difficult period. Such has been the case in El Salvador and Guatemala. You not only need to find employment for the demobilized guerrillas but also for redundant army personnel and for the many bodyguards and employees of private security agencies which blossomed as a response to the threat of violence. You have to reconstruct the areas affected and rebuild trust.

FARC supposedly has a political party, the "Clandestine Communist Party of Colombia". But they have no major political appeal. The Left has been preempted by the "Polo Democratico". It is a democratic left on the mold of Brazil's Lula. Presumably they should join it.

Rehabilitation will be difficult in many cases. Many have been involved in violence all their lives and know no other way. Some former guerrillas will drift into the drug trade, some may join criminal bands. That is what has happened in El Salvador after the peace process.

The approach taken by Colombia was to subdue them with military force, to spray the coca crop, and to improve the welfare of the rural population. The guerrillas basically arose, from the tensions brought by the process of modernization plus the ideology of communism. They would not have become such a threat had it not been for their marriage with the drug trade.

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