RaÃºl Reyes (left), with neither camouflage nor rifle, accompanies Colombian government officials on a 2000 trip to Europe. The visit sought to support a peace process that ultimately failed
I met RaÃºl Reyes once, in 1999, during the FARC’s failed peace process with the government of AndrÃ©s Pastrana. I was with a U.S. congressional delegation whom the Colombian government had brought to the FARC demilitarized zone to learn about the several-months-old dialogues.
Reyes – then, as he was until this morning, the chief spokesman in the FARC’s seven-member Secretariat – received our group. He was soft-spoken and short of stature. He spoke in lengthy, florid phrases, saying much while telling us little. He assured us that the FARC hated narco-trafficking, that they merely taxed coca-growers the same way they charged levies on all economic activity, and that the FARC would be “the best ally the United States could have” against narco-trafficking if we worked with the guerrillas on alternative development. When we raised the issue of kidnapping, Reyes corrected us, insisting that the group’s victims were not kidnapped or held hostage, but “detained.”
During the entire two-hour meeting, RaÃºl Reyes never removed the rifle that hung from his shoulder.
Reyes – his real name Luis Edgar Devia – is now dead, the first member of the FARC Secretariat to be killed in the forty-four year history of Colombia’s conflict. His killing is a big victory for the Colombian government. It is also likely to be an indirect result of U.S. assistance. Reyes was located through an intercept of satellite telephone communications, a capability that the Colombians owe to equipment – or perhaps even signals intelligence itself – provided by the United States.
Though it is hard to know what is going on within the FARC, Reyes was believed to be, after paramount leader “Manuel Marulanda,” either the most powerful or the second-most powerful member of the FARC leadership. Over the years I had heard that he was one of the FARC’s hardest-line leaders; that although he was the group’s chief spokesman and negotiator, he personally had little use for peace talks; that he was one of the group’s chief ideologists; and that he had been a significant backer of the FARC’s decision to raise funds through narco-trafficking. (Of course, I’ve never been able to verify the truth of any of these claims.)
A few points:
- Today’s blow is the latest – and the biggest – in a series of serious reversals for the FARC, making clear that the group’s military capability is far from its late-1990s peak. In the past year, the guerrillas have seen key leaders killed (before Reyes, Caribbean Bloc leader Gustavo Rueda, alias “MartÃn Caballero,” and 16th Front leader TomÃ¡s Medina, alias “Negro Acacio”). Eleven of their hostages were murdered under circumstances that they have yet to clarify. Messengers carrying proofs of life were followed and intercepted by security forces. And then the guerrillas were discovered to have lost track of a baby hostage who, in fact, had been in the custody of government welfare services.
Taken together, these episodes show an insurgent group in a state of strategic crisis. Its problems are compounded by the group’s degraded ability to depend on local populations for logistical support or intelligence. After so many years of international humanitarian law violations, the FARC’s “hearts and minds” problems are beginning to cost them.
- Reyes’ disappearance from the scene is likely to intensify a power struggle within the FARC over who is to succeed aging leader Manuel Marulanda. By some accounts – none of which can be verified – Marulanda is convalescing, suffering from prostate cancer or even dead. The group is not known to have a succession procedure, but Reyes was believed to be a top contender to take Marulanda’s place, and already to have been in a significant decision-making role. With Reyes gone, there may be a period of jockeying for position among the rest of the FARC leadership, which could further affect the organization’s coherence.
- Reyes’ departure could be bad news for the FARC’s hostages. This would not be the case if another FARC leader – Alfonso Cano, Jorge BriceÃ±o – had been killed. But RaÃºl Reyes was one of the guerrillas’ only channels of communication to the outside world. Most of those who visited or interacted with the group – Piedad CÃ³rdoba, foreign diplomats, other authorized facilitators – had to meet with RaÃºl Reyes. With the disappearance of this “spokesman,” a key window to the outside has closed. (Notably, Reyes had not been the principal point of contact with the Venezuelan government; those contacts have been the province of another secretariat member, IvÃ¡n MÃ¡rquez.)
It is possible that this won’t make much difference in the guerrillas’ communications with the outside. Perhaps the group might put forward another spokesperson/negotiator who is more pragmatic and fast-moving than Reyes was (there is little reason to believe that they will, though).
It is likely, though, that efforts to make the contacts necessary to negotiate a hostage-for-prisoner exchange – much less peace talks – will be set back, for months at least, until the guerrillas manage to designate another interlocutor.