Manuel Marulanda: Commander of the Farc guerrilla army during four decades of insurgency against the Colombian state

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The Independent Online

Pedro Antonio Marín, the septuagenarian leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Farc, better known as Manuel Marulanda Vélez, stamped his personality for better or worse on Colombia more effectively than any of his compatriots in the 20th century. He was also known as Tirofijo ("Crackshot"), a nom de guerre which he claimed was too violent for one whose aims were social and not militaristic.

He was born in 1930 the eldest of five children of Pedro Pablo Marí*Gallego, a small landowner and a supporter of the Liberal Party, and his wife Rosa Delia at Génova in the Colombian coffee-growing department (province) of Quindío. Until his death, Marulanda retained the characteristics of a Colombian peasant, cautious, stubborn, resilient and distrustful – particularly of city folk, a fact which made it difficult for the Farc ever to make much progress in the country's main centres of population.

As a teenager he gave evidence of strength of character, according to Arturo Alape, his biographer, leaving home at 16 to make his way in the world as a small businessman in the villages of the department, building houses here, contracting to cut down trees there. He took up the sport of fencing and the violin with equal enthusiasm.

His first experience of the violence of Colombian politics came with the assassination in the centre of Bogotá of the Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitá*on 9 April 1948. The killing plunged the country into a bloodbath of Conservatives against Liberals, known as "La Violencia", which was followed by 60 years of civil conflict. The senseless war, ignored by Western governments in the Cold War shy of any close examination of their strategies in Latin America, sputters on to this day. Terror by government and opposition has already killed and maimed millions and caused millions more to flee their homes: nor has the excessive concentration of Colombia's wealth in few hands been modified.

The young Marí*saw a village rise up against the authorities and threw in his lot with the armed bands of the Liberals. Later he recalled a typical slaughter when the corpses of 260 Liberal supporters in the little town of Betania were left by their Conservative opponents to be eaten by animals and birds of prey.

He soon showed qualities of initiative and leadership which got him named to the local command of Liberal armed bands and he began a guerrilla way of life which, though it was to become anathema to most Colombians, he would never abandon.

Rejecting a Liberal proposal to make war as seriously on Communists as on Conservatives, Marí*experienced the primitive Communism that members of that party were fostering in the early 1950s in various villages in the south of the department of Tolima, notably El Davis. The decision of local Liberal chieftains of the day to back the authoritarian General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla disgusted Marín. Soon Rojas seized the presidency himself and ruled dictatorially from 1953 to 1957.

Marí*was one of the leaders of a band of 270 fighters who set up the Revolutionary Movement of Southern Tolima, quit El Davis and set out to establish a zone, "the Republic of Marquetalia", free of the government influence. He adopted the nom de guerre of Manuel Marulanda in honour of a Communist who was assassinated in Medellí*in 1951, not least for his opposition to the sending of Colombian troops to the Korean War.

The Farc were formally constituted in 1966 and Marulanda was named a member of their general staff. The founders however made it clear that the Farc were not born out of the Colombian Communist Party nor was it the party's armed wing. "We're independent," said one commander, "we don't depend on them nor are we going to dissolve the day they say, 'Farc, dissolve' ".

From the first days of the Farc Marulanda was a leader, taking his place with six others in the Secretariat of the 25-member Central General Staff. Under Marulanda the organisation became a well-organised and fearsome fighting machine.

Apart from a number of autonomous groups of six in a UTC, or Tactical Combat Unit, the lowest formation of the Farc's 17,000 full-time fighters has been the 12-person squad; the guerrilla was a group of two squads; the company was two guerrillas; the 110-person column was two or more companies while a Frente or front, of which there were five, was two or more columns. In addition there were two "joint commands" in areas of less activity. The organisation was commanded by the Central General Staff. Marulanda to the end refused to halt the widely criticised practice of recruiting children, many under 10, to Farc ranks

Marulanda did his best to keep control over and use for exclusively guerrilla ends the large and ever growing sums that the Farc collected from drug traders. In 1982 he started levying a "tax" on coca growing, on the production of pasta básica, the first stage of manufacture of cocaine, and on the flights which took it overseas. The lowest estimate for the Farc's annual income from drugs, extortion and kidnappings today is put by Colombian experts at $100m.

Marulanda went on to organise peasants in demonstrations against government moves to limit the drug trade. By 2000 the Farc were themselves diversifying into the manufacture of pasta básica and the following year were promoting the planting of coca bushes. Despite his efforts Marulanda was unable to foil the desertion of a guerrilla leader, Julián, who decamped with $3m in 2000.

The Farc set up an efficient international banking network to handle their cash, a practice which was soon followed by the right-wing paramilitary terrorists. Nevertheless the latter soon overtook the guerrillas in the narcotics business, casting dark shadows over the government of President Alvaro Uribe, who had to get rid of various ministers who co-operated in drug trafficking. The President's cousin was arrested on drugs charges and in April denied entry to Costa Rica where he sought refuge.

As he aged, Marulanda was seen as having built up enormous strengths for the Farc. These included its members' general adherence to founding principles; an ability to adapt to expansion into new territories; strong internal leadership; long-term strategic planning and the promotion of women. On the debit side were the guerrillas' low education standard and meagre political training; inflexibility to change; a preponderance of centralism over democracy; the overwork of the most capable leaders and the Farc's inability to gain political objectives after decades of activity. The government in Colombia, even with increasing numbers of US troops and massive quantities of US money – Washington gave $5.5bn over seven years – is unable to hold the countryside: the Farc Marulanda created is incapable of conquering the cities.

Despite the difficulties of communication and liaison in a huge, mountainous tropical country, Marulanda maintained his authority over his closest lieutenants: Jorge Briceño Suárez, a former peasant and the most militaristic member of the leadership, Alfonso Cano, a university graduate and the most politically able, and the former schoolmaster Raúl Reyes, the Farc spokesman, who conducted various negotiations with the government (and was killed in a military air strike on 1 March) all occupied senior positions but none dared challenge the old man.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy

Pedro Antonio Marín (Manuel Marulanda), guerrilla commander: born Génova, Colombia 12 May 1930; married (seven children); died 26 March 2008.

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