On March 1, Raul Reyes, a central leader of the 18,000-strong left-wing guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was killed in an illegal midnight attack by the Colombian army. The attack targeted a FARC encampment three kilometres south of the border in the Putumayo province of Ecuador.
At least 21 FARC members were killed in their sleep during the
cluster bomb attack. The Colombian military then invaded Ecuadorian
territory to retrieve the body of Reyes, the FARC's chief negotiator and
public spokesperson. Reyes bloodied corpse, still wearing pyjamas, was
presented to the Colombian media as a trophy.
Reyes — born Luis Edgar Devia Silva on September 30, 1948 — began his
revolutionary activities as a member of the youth organisation of the
Colombian Communist Party, where he became an organiser.
Reyes became a union militant, working at a Nestle plant, until 1980,
when he, along with many other unionists, was kidnapped and tortured by
Seeing few alternatives, he moved to the mountains to join the FARC,
which was waging an armed struggle against the Colombian dictatorship.
Reyes' transformation — from union activist to guerrilla — reflects the
tragic reality of politics in Colombia, which holds the macabre record
of the highest rate of killings of trade unionists in the world.
By 1984, Reyes was on the seven-member FARC secretariat and, as their
chief international spokesperson, became the best-known face of the
The current armed conflict in Colombia dates back more than five
decades, to "La Violencia", the 10-year civil war between the
Conservative and Liberal parties of the Colombian oligarchy that caused
at least 200,000 deaths from 1948-'58.
Many workers and peasants fled the violence, creating independent
"peace communities" in the country's south. When the government attacked
these communities, residents formed self-defence organisations with the
assistance of the communist party. Out of these groups, the FARC was
formed in 1964.
Since John F. Kennedy's administration, the US government has funded
and supported the Colombian government in its brutal counter-insurgency
war and state repression against the Colombian people — more than half
of whom live in abject poverty.
After a truce was negotiated in 1984, the FARC helped form the
Patriotic Union (UP), which participated in elections and won a number
of senators and hundreds of local councillors. A wave of terror was
unleashed in the year following the elections that resulted in 4000 UP
activists being murdered.
Faced with this mass slaughter, the FARC withdrew back to the jungle,
where they now control around a third of Colombian territory.
In the late '90s, the FARC took part in peace negotiations with
President Andres Pastrana's government. They were again betrayed. Under
the cover of a truce, the Colombian government prepared for an
escalation of its war.
The US and Colombian government's devised Plan Colombia, whereby the
US provides Colombia with around US$600 million in military aid each
Ostensibly part of the "war on drugs", Plan Colombia actually focused
on the part of the country controlled by the guerrillas, while ignoring
areas controlled by the right-wing terrorist paramilitaries of the
United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).
Despite claims from the US and Colombian governments, the FARC denies
it is involved in drug trafficking, insisting its involvement extends
only as far as refusing to forcibly eradicate the coca plants that are
the only source of income for impoverished peasants in territories that
it control. The FARC calls for alternative crops to be provided for
peasants to grow.
A 2002 Colombian government report admitted that the FARC garners
only 2.5% of the profits of the cocaine industry, through taxes imposed
on the areas it controls. By contrast, the AUC (linked to the Colombian
state) receives 40% of drug profits, and is connected to the large
Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe is himself linked to both the
paramilitaries and the illicit drug trade. Uribe's father was a drug
trafficker killed by the FARC in 1983. Uribe was close friends with
notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. In 1991, the US Defense Intelligence
Agency listed Uribe as one of Colombia's top 100 drug lords.
As governor of Antioquia province, Uribe was also an architect of the
Convivirs, the immediate predecessors of the AUC. When the Convivirs
were outlawed in 1997, they were simply transformed into the then-legal
AUC. The AUC are responsible for the murder over 800 people every year,
including trade unionists, peasant leaders and peace activists, and
claim to control 35% of the Colombia's Congress.
It was in the struggle against this system — of state-sponsored
terror, controlled by drug lords, and terrible poverty — that Reyes gave
his life. At the time of his assassination, the FARC were against
negotiating for prisoner exchanges with the Colombian government.
Reyes was centrally involved in these negotiations — which was
torpedoed by Uribe in November. He was the key negotiator with the
French government over negotiations for the release of French-Colombian
Ingrid Betancourt, who is being held by the FARC.
Reyes insisted that the FARC "is struggling for a new Colombia, hand
in hand with the Colombian people. The FARC is part of the people. It is
struggling for political power so that there are no exploiters or
exploited, so that we can have a just society."
Uribe's brutal murder of Reyes and other FARC fighters was aimed at destroying this goal.
First published in Green Left Weekly, March 7, 2008.