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Arrow Colombia’s Former FARC Guerrilla Leader Calls for Return to War

Colombia’s Former FARC Guerrilla Leader Calls for Return to War
By: Nicholas Casey and Lara Jakes - New York Times - Aug. 29, 2019

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Luciano Marín, the former top commander of Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces, during the signing of a peace agreement in 2016.Credit...Desmond Boylan/Associated Press

MEDELLÍN, Colombia — A former top commander of Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces, vowed a return to war and issued a new call to arms on Thursday, almost three years after the rebels signed a peace deal to disarm.

The commander, whose real name is Luciano Marín but is known by the alias Iván Márquez, said in a video that his group, known as the FARC, would return to fighting because of what he called the government’s violations of the peace agreement.

The announcement could signal a shattering of the agreement, which ended a war that lasted 52 years, displaced millions from their homes, and left at least 220,000 dead.

Mr. Márquez was a crucial part of the peace talks three years ago, and now, by turning away from the deal, he could have an equally important role in tearing it apart.

By unifying dissident fighters and reaching out to Colombia’s most violent rebel group, the National Liberation Army or ELN, which has made inroads in crisis-ridden Venezuela, Mr. Márquez and other FARC leaders could embolden drug traffickers and significantly destabilize the region.

“Today the risk is returning to armed, political conflict,” said Ariel Ávila, the deputy director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, a Colombian research group. “What we had hoped to see was an end to politics justifying violence — now we are looking at a new guerrilla war.”

In the video, Mr. Márquez called for “a new phase of the struggle” for the group under “the universal right that all people have to raise arms against oppression.”

The call to arms marked one of the biggest blows yet to the accords signed by the FARC in Cuba, which raised hopes for a lasting peace when the rebels initially disarmed and reorganized as a political party. But the agreement was steadily undercut as both the government and former fighters failed to make good on their promises to each other.

[Although Colombia’s peace deal promised a new era, at least 500 activists and community leaders have been killed.]

In a statement Thursday, President Iván Duque of Colombia vowed to stop Mr. Márquez, saying that the country “will not accept threats of any kind.”

Mr. Duque described Mr. Márquez not as a revolutionary leader, but as part of a “band of narco-terrorists,” seeking to enrich themselves with drug profits while “shielding themselves with fake ideological clothing to hold up their criminal structure.”

Colombia’s top official for peace implementation, Miguel Ceballos, also downplayed Mr. Márquez’s call to arms, saying he only represented a small faction of the former rebels and that his main goal was to re-establish a narcotics network and evade drug trafficking charges at home and in the United States.

Mr. Ceballos said government officials had begun to suspect the new movement was afoot as far back as April 2018, when Mr. Márquez stopped complying with obligations under the transitional justice tribunal, established as part of the peace accord.

“These guys are going to destroy the peace process if they go on in creating this kind of group,” Mr. Ceballos said. “Because they are against the peace process and against their own people who are committed to the process.”

Mr. Ceballos expressed confidence that the vast majority of former FARC soldiers, including Rodrigo Londoño, who is known as Timochenko and was the guerrillas’ former commander, would remain committed to the reconciliation process. He said he had spoken to Mr. Londoño as recently as Monday about ensuring peace in elections on Oct. 27.

But many former FARC members who have committed to the peace deal and are living as civilians have repeatedly expressed fears, echoing Mr. Márquez’s criticism, that the government is not holding up its end of the bargain.

Many, arguing the government was not protecting them, have already joined the dissidents, taking up arms to fight paramilitary groups out of fear for their safety. At least 120 rebels have been killed since the peace deal was signed.

Some estimate the number of fighters at 3,000, between new recruits and veterans who have picked up arms again.

Mr. Márquez on Thursday laid blame on the government and returned to the Marxist language of class struggle championed by his movement.

“This is a continuation of the guerrilla struggle in response to the state’s betrayal of the Havana accords — it’s the march of Colombia’s poor, ignored and despised, toward justice, which glimmers in the hills of the future,” he said.

Mr. Márquez appeared to offer olive branches to some Colombians, saying his group would not attack soldiers or police officers who were “respectful to popular interests,” and would renounce kidnappings for ransom as a source of income.

He indicated, however, that he had plans to work with the country’s most violent rebel groups, such as the ELN, which the authorities blame for a car bombing that killed 22 people, including the bomber, in the capital this year.

Mr. Ceballos, the government peace commissioner, said an alliance with the ELN was troubling, because the group had reached deeper into the drug trade.

The ELN also has made use of the political and economic instability in neighboring Venezuela to expand into its territory. More than half of the ELN’s members — about 2,400 fighters — are now based in western Venezuela, he said, including two of its top commanders: Antonio Garcia and Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo Quinchía, known as Pablito.

The group now controls sections of the border with Colombia, raising worries that the insurgency could become a broader, regional conflict.

Mr. Ceballos accused President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela of supporting both Mr. Márquez and the ELN and letting them use the border as a staging ground.

“There is a direct link between the dictator, Maduro, and these groups that are trying to affect our democracy and our rule of law,” Mr. Ceballos said.

Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special envoy to Venezuela, also described a “significant” dissident FARC and ELN presence in Venezuela, and that it had received the help and cooperation of Mr. Maduro’s government.

The guerrilla groups are “deeply engaged” in drug trafficking, with a direct effect on the United States, Mr. Abrams said on Thursday.

But he also expressed concerns about the guerrillas’ ability to destabilize security in the region, which could force more people to flee.

“Of course it would hurt the security situation in western Venezuela and in Colombia,” Mr. Abrams told reporters at the State Department in Washington. “That in itself is likely to mean greater flows of migrants out of Venezuela, into Colombia and then other South American countries.”

More than four million Venezuelans have fled their country’s economic collapse — and many have sought refuge in Colombia, straining its resources.

“It’s a great concern,” Mr. Abrams said. “The regime in Caracas seems to be fomenting this kind of activity, in essence turning over parts of the country to the ELN.”

Mr. Márquez remains a powerful figure among former rebels, and his call for a new war has been long feared in Colombia. He expressed doubts about making peace with the government even as talks were underway, and after the deal was signed he disappeared from public view, refusing to take a Senate seat promised to the rebels in an apparent rejection of a crucial part of the deal.

Many Colombian voters became disenchanted with the deal as well, at first voting against it in a referendum and then electing President Duque, whose right-wing party has argued that the agreement was too soft on the rebels and needed to be changed.

Since taking office, Mr. Duque has proposed an overhaul of a special justice system the rebels had accepted, on the condition that their confessions would not result in jail sentences. Mr. Duque’s proposal raised concerns that the new president was seeking to imprison commanders.

These concerns were heightened when Mr. Duque called for Jesús Santrich, a former commander who had been jailed on drug trafficking charges, to be reimprisoned after the country’s top court ordered him released for lack of evidence. Mr. Santrich had also vanished from public view.

On Thursday he appeared again — this time alongside Mr. Márquez, calling for rebellion.

Two former officials who had negotiated the deal for the government, Sergio Jaramillo and Humberto de la Calle, issued a statement condemning Mr. Márquez’s call to arms, saying that a majority of guerrillas had chosen civilian life.

They also said the government shared the blame, however.

“Again and again, we told the government that its permanent attacks on the peace process and the risk to legal stability that come with it, could push commanders to make wrong decision,” they said.

About these writer(s): Nicholas Casey reported from Medellín, Colombia, and Lara Jakes from Washington. Jenny Carolina González contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia.

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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