Alfonso Cano, the new leader of the FARC.
The FARC have just confirmed that Manuel Marulanda, who had led the guerrilla group since 1964, died of a heart attack at the end of March.
What does this mean for the conflict in Colombia? Though the crystal ball is hazy, three scenarios appear to be most likely. I offer my best guess – a gut reaction, based on having followed Colombia’s conflict for more than ten years – about the probability of each scenario actually taking place.
1. Disintegration (25% probability). Call this the “Shining Path” scenario: after the group loses its founder, it disintegrates. Discipline, command and ideological direction largely disappear with the maximum leader.
This scenario is unlikely for several reasons. Marulanda is one of many FARC leaders whose involvement in the group goes back to the 1960s or 1970s. The FARC’s rigid hierarchical structure, with apparent lines of succession and highly visible second-tier leaders, is unlike that of the Shining Path under Abimael GuzmÃ¡n. Meanwhile, it is far from clear whether Marulanda himself had been actively involved in running the FARC in recent years – he may have been convalescing for some time, leaving most command duties up to other leaders.
2. Greater cohesion and increased military action (35% probability). For the FARC, Marulanda’s latter years have resembled Cuba during Fidel Castro’s last years in office, or China awaiting Mao’s death in the mid-1970s. While a new generation awaited its turn to lead, the aging founder continued to hold ultimate decision-making power, refusing to change course – and perhaps losing touch with reality – while his creation stagnated.
If Marulanda’s chosen successor, Alfonso Cano, is actually able to command the remaining top FARC leaders – a big “if” – the FARC could become more dangerous. If the group’s decision-making process becomes less hidebound and sluggish, it may pose more of a threat on the battlefield. If, for instance, Cano urges the group to attack vulnerable military targets more aggressively, or (as the group’s chief idologist) puts more emphasis on radical indoctrination of FARC fighters, thus making them more willing to risk their lives in military actions, the conflict could intensify.
It will also be interesting to see whether Cano, who is thought to lead the more moderate, “political” faction of the FARC, takes steps to improve the guerrillas’ image among poor Colombians. For years, the FARC has appeared to believe that drug money and military capabilities could somehow substitute for hearts and minds. Will Cano seek to reverse this by reducing the guerrillas’ international humanitarian-law violations, releasing hostages and being more open to political negotiations with the government? We can hope so, but it’s possible even the FARC leadership itself doesn’t know the answer.
3. Partial fragmentation (40% probability). With Marulanda gone, a power struggle could begin within the next tier of the FARC’s leadership. There may be purges and schisms as moderates and hard-liners vie for control of the group.
In such an internal power struggle, the hard-liners – such as Eastern Bloc leader “Mono Jojoy,” the FARC’s de facto military leader – would likely emerge triumphant. They are the leaders whose units are wealthiest from the drug trade, and as a result larger and better-armed. The group’s smaller, less hard-line units might wither away, leaving behind a hard-line, drug-fueled military rump.
Like bandits and drug cartels that came before, this rump would be easier for Colombia’s military to defeat within the next five to ten years. While this would not mean the end of violence in Colombia’s poor, ungoverned rural areas, it would probably mean the end of the FARC as a generator of that violence.