Obituary: Manuel Perez

Nick Caistor
Sunday 12 April 1998 23:02

SOME guerrilla leaders, like Ernesto "Che" Guevara, seem destined from the beginning to shoot to international prominence and then die young. Others, like Manuel "El Cura" Perez, the leader of Colombia's second largest guerrilla group whose death in February was confirmed last week, remain in obscurity but dedicate themselves to promoting their idea of revolution with a stubbornness and constancy that can be equally memorable.

Manuel Perez Martnez was born 62 years ago into a poor farming family in the harsh north-eastern region of Spain at Alfamen in Zaragoza province. Like many youngsters in the years of hunger following the Civil War, he was sent by his parents to a Catholic seminary, where at least he would be reasonably fed. He went on to study for the priesthood in the city of Zaragoza, from where a typically terse statement last week said simply that he was an "average seminarist, showing no signs that he had any talent as a leader".

By the time Perez was confirmed as a priest in Rome in 1966, Catholicism itself was in the middle of a process of radical redefinition. At the Second Vatican Council in 1964, and in Latin America at the bishops' conference in the Colombian city of Medelln in 1967, a new emphasis was placed on working for the poor. Perez himself went to work in a poor district in Madrid, and soon transferred to Latin America, first to the Dominican Republic and then Colombia.

There, he exchanged the dry plateau of north-eastern Spain for the exuberant Caribbean coast, in the city of Cartagena de Indias, which, despite its attraction as a tourist centre, also has some of the worst poverty in the country. It was only a matter of time before the radical priest met up with the political group that could give his beliefs a more direct expression. This was the Ejercito de Liberacin Nacional (ELN) or National Liberation Army.

The ELN was founded in July 1964 by two brothers, Manuel and Fabio Vsquez Castano. It took its inspiration from Che Guevara and the successful revolution in Cuba a few years earlier, but had a more specific religious input from the model provided by the Colombian revolutionary priest Camilo Torres, who was killed fighting in 1966. In its attempts to ally Marxism and Christianity, it was a natural magnet for Perez, who left the priesthood and joined the group in 1969. The two Castano brothers were killed in a confrontation with the Colombian army in 1973, and it was Perez who is said to have saved the group from disappearing entirely after this rout.

Over the next decade, he re-established it as the second most powerful insurgent group in Colombia, with strongholds particularly in the north- east of the country and more than 4,000 combatants. His strategy was to gain money for what he called a "long-term popular war" by kidnapping foreign businessmen, especially those involved in the oil business centred in the region, regarded by the revolutionaries as "exploiters of Colombia's natural resources". The guerrilla violence was not always as well targeted, however, and in 1986 Perez was finally excommunicated by the Catholic Church when the ELN was thought to be responsible for the murder of a Colombian bishop.

From the mid-1980s onwards, the guerrilla struggle in Colombia fell into a messy stalemate. Neither the ELN nor any other group could take the country militarily; the drugs industry offered a new source of income but also a threat to ELN ideals; a peace settlement seemed like a sell- out. A large proportion of the ELN split to form a new organisation after Perez was accused of diverting funds from the group back into Spain to help the Basque separatist movement ETA, and then "El Cura" or "The Priest" as he was still known, became seriously ill with liver disease.

Paradoxically, it is only in the last few months that this stalemate has shown some signs of changing. The ELN leadership has been holding secret talks with Colombian government representatives and has established a preliminary agreement that could lead to their laying down their arms. The man who has apparently now taken over the ELN leadership, Nicols Rodrguez, has said it was Perez's wish that the talks continue. Manuel Perez is buried somewhere in the mountains of north-eastern Colombia.

Manuel Perez Martnez, priest and guerrilla: born Alfamen, Spain 1936; died Santander Province, Colombia 14 February 1998.

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