Jungle king's last stand

Manuel Marulanda, founder of the Colombian guerrilla army, Farc, is said to be on his deathbed. So what will become of his vast drugs empire - and his 20,000 troops? Jan McGirk reports
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In a marginally different life, Manuel Marulanda might have been a man of peace. "I never went looking for war," he once said. "The war came looking for me." Until the age of 18, he led a simple peasant existence in Colombia's Quindio state. Then came the first gunshots in what turned into more than 50 years of bloodshed; some 365,000 Colombians have been killed in that time. Today, if reports from the southern jungles are to be believed, Marulanda is close to death himself: not from a bullet, but from cancer. Such an end may represent a kind of triumph for a man who has had a $2m bounty on his head for some years and can reasonably be considered the world's most senior, most deadly and most enigmatic revolutionary guerrilla leader.

In a marginally different life, Manuel Marulanda might have been a man of peace. "I never went looking for war," he once said. "The war came looking for me." Until the age of 18, he led a simple peasant existence in Colombia's Quindio state. Then came the first gunshots in what turned into more than 50 years of bloodshed; some 365,000 Colombians have been killed in that time. Today, if reports from the southern jungles are to be believed, Marulanda is close to death himself: not from a bullet, but from cancer. Such an end may represent a kind of triumph for a man who has had a $2m bounty on his head for some years and can reasonably be considered the world's most senior, most deadly and most enigmatic revolutionary guerrilla leader.

At 73, Marulanda is younger than Fidel Castro, and as taciturn as the Cuban president is loquacious. Unlike El Commandante, however, he is still at war, leading his notorious creation, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), against the US-backed armies of the Colombian government. His death will create geo-political shock waves comparable to those that Castro's will ultimately cause.

With about 20,000 guerrillas on its payroll, Farc controls nearly 40 per cent of Colombia. It also controls a global heroin and cocaine concession worth at least $250m annually: drug-linked money has increasingly funded the rebel war chest since the cocaine cartels of Medellin and Cali were dismantled in the 1990s. Ransoming hostages and collecting "taxes" at gunpoint from highway travellers supplements the Farc takings, along with emerald smuggling. When such an empire loses its emperor, the succession can be a violent affair.

Hence, perhaps, the number of premature obituaries that Marulanda has previously shrugged off: "They have killed me about 1,200 times," he once muttered. This time, however, there is a persuasive ring to the speculation, which began earlier this month when highly-placed sources told the Colombian journalist Patricia Lara that Marulanda is expected to succumb to prostate cancer within six months. A clandestine dash across the south-eastern border to see a Brazilian doctor was too late to stop the spread of the cancer, which is said to be inoperable. Marulanda had never before set foot in a sizeable town, and - assuming he has managed to slip back from Brazil - he will be reluctant to leave his jungle fastness again. Instead, like an elderly jaguar that starves to death after its teeth become too wobbly to devour its prey, Marulanda will live out his remaining weeks in the knowledge that his menace is diminishing daily. His followers will become preoccupied with those who will succeed him. And the legend of the simple peasant who fought a four-decade war of resistance, outlasting 13 presidents and countless generals, and bringing a vibrant democracy to its knees, will become fodder for the obituarists.

It is, by any standards, an extraordinary story. The oldest of five children, Farc's future leader was born Pedro Antonio Marin and grew up in the coffee groves of Quindio state. He left school at 10 to sell knick-knacks and sweets from the back of a mule. He was a slow reader but had a head for figures, and was also handy with a gun - firearms were ubiquitous in Colombia even then. His marksmanship earned him the nickname Tirofijo ("Sure-shot"). Later on, as an adolescent, he chopped wood for cash and set up a greengrocer's in his village. He also played the fiddle and is said to have danced the tango with flair.

Everything changed on 9 April 1948. On that day, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a Liberal Party presidential candidate, was gunned down in Bogota. His supporters blamed the Conservative Party, which abhorred Gaitan and the Liberals as part of a leftist conspiracy. A spiral of revenge murders, punitive rapes, looting and land grabs ensued: over the next decade, 250,000 people perished in what became known as La Violencia. For Marulanda - or Marin, as he was then - the turning point came in 1949, when political gangs torched his shop and killed one of his uncles. He responded by forming a rural resistance force with his 14 toughest cousins and brothers. "They were going to kill me," Marulanda explained, years later. "It would have been crazy not to defend myself."

He assumed his nom de guerre, Manuel Marulanda Velez, to honour a slain union leader, and retreated into the mountainous west. By 1955, he had secured a base called Marquetalia, in remote Tolima state, where 1,000 villagers set up new households. Fears were rampant in the capital that armed and godless socialists such as him might soon overrun all of Colombia.

To stop La Violencia, the two established parties devised a power-sharing arrangement called the National Front. The military was instructed by powerful landowners to repress all attempts to introduce any alternative. To escape the repression, peasants resorted to invading vacant tracts of lands and settling them.

Advocates of political change were stymied and began to trek into the Andes foothills to join Marulanda's guerrillas. Then, in May 1964, the Colombian army napalmed Marquetalia and marched right into its heart. Most of the guerrillas escaped. But the damage was done. Colombia's brutal civil war had been unleashed.

Marulanda's guerrillas regrouped and abandoned their hitherto purely defensive strategy. Inspired by the communist thinker Jacobo Arenas, they vowed to fight until a Marxist regime would bring justice for the masses. By May 1966 this new military wing of Colombia's Communist party had grown into a group of 350 fighters who were calling themselves the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

In mid-1984, after signing a peace treaty with the government, Farc experimented with a legitimate political party, the Union Patriotica. These budding UP politicians - who promoted progressive land and economic reforms and harsh penalties for drug traffickers - soon attracted the attentions of right-wing death squads. In the past two decades, at least 3,000 UP members have been slain or have disappeared. And, perhaps as a result, the brief lull in Farc violence has long since ended, as thwarted UP party activists decided that military action is their only way to gain political influence.

There have been other lulls since. In 1998, for example, Marulanda helped ensure an election victory for President Andres Pastrana, by implying that Farc endorsed a novel peace scheme; he even persuaded him to cede Farc a safe haven - twice the size of Wales - in southern Colombia. But three years of negotiations failed to produce any concessions from the rebels (who installed a parallel government in the region and announced a "peace tax" on companies and wealthy residents). Marulanda explained his stubborn stance to the Colombian news-weekly Semana: "We cannot allow our people to continue dying of hunger, without a home, without a car, without a roof over their heads, without education, without health, while others have huge buildings filled with dollars."

Most Colombians reviled Pastrana's efforts as hopelessly naive. After more than half a century in a state of siege, they have learnt that ceasefires are generally followed by retaliatory violence, and it was obvious to everyone that Farc was continuing to kidnap hostages, rustle cattle and stockpile weapons. In 2002 the electorate chose a new president, Alvaro Uribe, a hardliner who was attacked by Farc mortars during his inauguration ceremony. He is keen to reassure Colombians that they are winning the 40-year civil war, even though the rebels are employing dangerous new urban guerrilla tactics (allegedly taught to them by the so-called Colombia Three - the trio of Irish tourists who were arrested after a visit to Marulanda's "Farclandia" in Cacueta, in 2001, and have tried but held without a verdict in Bogota ever since). Earlier this month, Peru announced an agreement with Brazil and Colombia to combat the smuggling of arms and drugs in the labyrinthine Amazonian border zones. And the Bush administration sent in American Green Berets to train two Colombian battallions in fighting insurgents.

But the Farc military machine is now both efficient and formidable. Many guerrillas run away from impoverished rural families where food and money for education are short. Some families are forced at gunpoint to conscript at least one son into the rebel army, but guerrilla life is seen by others as a valiant alternative, a chance to be a hero. At least a third of Farc's fighters are women, while pimply youths and even child guerrillas and scouts also play a significant role.

The life they lead is not always as hard as one might imagine. Two years ago, President Pastrana lost his patience with endlessly drawn- out peace negotiations and sent troops into Farc's jungle stronghold, in a former demilitarised zone that included the Caqueta district. The soldiers found there a sprawling spa, hidden away in the trees, where war-weary guerrillas would go to unwind.

The entrance was labelled "Memories of Eden". Inside was an Olympic-size swimming pool, big-screen satellite televisions, state-of-the- art computer and communications centre, and games rooms set up for billiards and ping pong.

A cavernous dance hall, with a fully stocked bar, dominated one end of the seven-hectare grounds. Locals recalled how generators would rumble and dance music would blast all night long on loudspeakers, and told the army that "Sure-shot" was spotted entering Eden on summer evenings.

In his rumpled fatigues, with a machete strapped to his side, a grotty terrycloth rag perpetually draped over his shoulder so he can soak up sweat or flick mosquitoes, and, sometimes, a bottle of Chivas Regal whisky in his hand, Marulanda is not an obviously prepossessing warrior. Perhaps that is why this stocky campesino grandfather has kept a low profile. Yet he clearly inspires devotion, and he has had no shortage of willing dancing partners among the troops. His insurgent sweetheart, Comrade Sandra, has spent decades in the jungle with him, ever since she was a teenage Farc volunteer.

Meanwhile Colombia continues to be steeped in carnage and corruption. In the past decade alone, nearly 40,000 Colombians have been slain in the random battles fought by different factions of Marxist guerrillas, government security forces (fortified with US training and helicopters) and mercenary paramilitaries. Civilian fatalities from the civil war account for more than 60 per cent of deaths. Another three million Colmbians have been wrenched from their homes, sometimes after seeing their relatives slaughtered in front of them, and now struggle to restart their lives on the streets of cities where the murder rate is 20 times higher than in London. Street gangs menace the homeless. On average, nine Colombians are kidnapped every day-- and at least one of those victims is a child. There is more wealth in fewer hands than almost anywhere else in South America - partly because Colombian academics and professionals of the middle class are vanishing into exile.

News of Marulanda's failing health has triggered speculation about who among the six highest-ranking guerrillas will ultimately take command of Farc. One retired Colombian general, Harold Bedoya Pizarro, predicts that the imminent death of the rebel supremo will cause a leftist scramble and a collapse of communist principles. "What will happen is something like in Cuba when Fidel dies; each one will grab for himself and share the war booty which they had stashed away for so many years," he told La Vanguardia newspaper.

Some analysts say that, since peace negotiations broke down two years ago and Farc were evicted from their safe haven, Marulanda has become little more than a symbolic head for the leftist rebels. Other top rebels, such as Mono Jojoy and Alfonso Cano - as well as Raul Reyes, Marulanda's son-in-law, who is a Farc spokesman and financial adviser - have been mentioned as possible successors to Farc's enigmatic military strategist. But few expect Marulanda's demise to end bloodshed in Colombia. Instead, it is likely to add one more variable to the volatile mix.

As for Marulanda, if he is ever captured he will face criminal charges including drug trafficking, armed uprising, homicide, kidnapping, extortion and robbery. Yet it now looks increasingly likely that - despite being high on the CIA's post-September 11 most wanted terrorist list - he will never be taken alive.

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