Raul Reyes: Colombian guerrilla leader

Inasmuch as the clandestine Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) had a public face, Luis Edgar Devia Silva – using the nom de guerre Raúl Reyes – was it. He was the guerrillas' chief negotiator, and his death at the hands of the Colombian military, in an air and ground strike against a Farc jungle base just over the Ecuadorean border, was both a major success for President Alvaro Uribe's counter-insurgency policies and a significant escalation of international tensions in the region.

The Colombian action provoked President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Colombia's much more powerful neighbour, to warn that a similar attack on Venezuelan territory could lead to war. Colombia has accused Chávez of giving safe haven to Farc units inside Venezuela, which Chávez denies. But Venezuela, unlike Ecuador, has formidable armed forces, and the ambitious Chávez has been spoiling for a fight with his conservative, pro-American Colombian counterpart.

Reyes was a member of the seven-member Farc "secretariat", the shadowy inner circle of commanders and policy-makers around the guerrillas' supreme leader, who is known variously as Manuel Marulanda, Pedro Marí*and "Tirofijo" ("Crackshot"). Marulanda, a taciturn, 77-year-old campesino, preferred to leave the talking to Reyes, who was his son-in-law and may have been his intended successor.

Reyes travelled abroad to cultivate links with like-minded organisations (including the IRA), and even held talks with a US State Department official in Costa Rica in 1997. He also led negotiations with the Colombian government, and was deeply involved in the recent unilateral release, in two batches, of six prominent hostages held for years by the guerrillas. This deal was brokered by Chávez, who is close ideologically and personally to the Farc leadership, and has called on the international community to recognise Farc as legitimate combatants in a civil war.

Reyes seems to have been behind the Farc strategy of taking prisoners, both military and civilian, and holding them as bargaining chips. The guerrillas' aims were both to raise funds by demanding ransoms for lower-level captives, and to use high-profile hostages, such as Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate, to negotiate the release of several hundred guerrillas captured in combat with the Colombian military.

Despite several years of on-and-off talks between the two sides, no prisoners had been released until Chávez offered his services as mediator late last year. Reyes helped to pile pressure on the Colombian government to make concessions, by keeping the plight of the hostages on the world news agenda. The European Union, however, continues to regard Farc as a terrorist organisation.

The first time Reyes came to international prominence was during the administration of President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), when he headed a Farc negotiating team during formal talks on prisoner swaps (known as a "humanitarian exchange") in a large demilitarised zone in Colombia's southern jungles. During that time this stocky, grey-bearded figure became a familiar sight on Colombian television, and he frequently gave press briefings.

The talks finally collapsed when the government realised that the guerrillas were using the demilitarised zone to regroup and re-equip their forces, and they have not been resumed since Uribe took office in 2002. Reyes' use of hardline Marxist rhetoric, which seemed to be caught in a 1960s time-warp, was one of the factors that made meaningful negotiations impossible.

Luis Edgar Devia Silva was born in 1948 into a poor rural family in the southern department of Huila; his father was a small farmer and his mother a village schoolteacher. After a few years' schooling, Devia went to work at a Nestlé dairy in the jungle region of Caquetá, where he became a local union leader and member of the Communist Party's youth organisation.

He later joined Farc, which had been founded by Marulanda as a rural self-defence militia in 1964, and seems to have risen quickly through the ranks to become Marulanda's spokesman. He always seems to have been a political rather than military figure within the Farc hierarchy, though he liked to be photographed in jungle camouflage fatigues, carrying a machine-gun.

Colin Harding

Luis Edgar Devia Silva (Raúl Reyes), guerrilla commander: born La Plata, Colombia 30 September 1948; married Olga Marín; died Santa Rosa, Ecuador 1 March 2008.

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