After Death of Founder, FARC Forges Ahead
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, rhyming for the vote. Rapper "Pitbull" and how he's using his music to bring a new generation of Latino voters to the polls.
But first, we want to turn our focus to South America. And Colombia officials reported this week that the guerrilla leader known as Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda died of a heart attack back in March. He was 76.
When Marulanda founded the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known as the FARC, it was a ragtag band. But today, more than a decade after most Latin American rebel groups laid down their arms, the FARC is a virtual army with some 11,000 fighters.
To the U.S. and European Union, FARC is also a terrorist organization, as well as a criminal enterprise, engaged in cocaine trafficking and kidnappings.
With the death of Marulanda, the FARC is expected to be led by Alfonso Cano. We want to clarify what the shift in power might mean for the FARC, for the Colombian government and for the international community. So we are going to turn now to Juan Forero, NPR's correspondent in Bogota. Juan, good to talk to you again. Welcome back.
JUAN FORERO: Thank you. Good to be here.
MARTIN: So Manuel Marulanda was able to keep the FARC united for nearly half a century and also to obviously grow it into a major force in Colombian politics. How was he able to do that?
FORERO: Well, Manuel Marulanda had been in the hills for well over a century. In fact, since 1949, well before the FARC was ever founded and even a decade before Fidel Castro defeated Fulgencio Batista's regime in Cuba. So Manuel Marulanda knew how to run guerrilla groups, and in 1964 where he founded the FARC. They, as you mentioned, had been a ragtag group, and they really were a small guerrilla group into the '80's, late '80's and into the '90's.
That's when they began to grow into an organization that was able to go beyond the southern jungles of the country but into most reaches of the country. That is, most of the provinces in Colombia.
Critics say that they did it in part through cocaine trafficking, that they were involved in taxing the cocaine trade and that brought them a lot of money. Running a guerrilla group is not cheap, and they were able to grow, they were able to buy arms. And they also had a certain amount of popular support in the countryside. So they were able to become quite an effectible organization that in the late '90's was a severe threat to the government here in Bogota.
MARTIN: Did he ever appear in public? I mean, was the public ever to see, kind of, the source of his abilities as a leader? I mean, was there a powerful charisma or is it merely that he was a very significant - or he had significant organizational skills?
FORERO: That's a good question because when people think of Latin-American guerrilla commanders they think of Fidel Castro or Shay Guevara who were people who had incredible charisma and that was one of the things that attracted support for their groups.
Manuel Marulanda was not like that. He was very reclusive, and his organization, the FARC, has been a very hermetic group. There have been only specific periods of time, short periods of time when Manuel Marulanda has emerged. In fact, many times over the past 40 years the army has come out to claim that Manuel Marulanda was killed in combat or that he died from some illness and then he would emerge months later and prove them wrong.
In the late '90's and around 2000, 2001, Manuel Marulanda was a fixture here in Colombia on television because the government entered into peace talks that received international attention. And he participated in the talks to a certain extent. So people were able to see him. He had support among his troops who thought that he was a good leader, that he was a top tactician and so he had loyalty among his fighters. But he was not a charismatic fellow in terms of giving rousing speeches or anything of that sort.
MARTIN: Interesting. So what do we know about Alfonso Cano and what do we know about whether this leadership change will signal any shift in policies, especially in regard to the hostages, hundreds whom are still believed to be held by the FARC?
FORERO: That's the big question in Colombia today. Alfonso Cano, at least on paper, does appear quite different from Marulanda. Marulanda was a peasant farmer. He came from the rural countryside and he had peasant roots, and so does the FARC.
Alfonso Cano comes from Bogota. He comes from one of the middle-class neighborhoods here in this city. He studied at the National University. He studied anthropology. His parents were professionals. And he little by little began to get into politics and entered the communist youth and became an activist.
And in the early '80's he entered the FARC. He is considered a part of the FARC's political wing as opposed to its military wing. And so there's hope that he's going to be more pragmatic about negotiations about dealing with government.
However, some folks who've negotiated with the FARC, that is, former government negotiators and others who've accompanied negotiations between the FARC and the government in the past - there have been talks in the '80's and in the '90's - remember Cano as being quite intransigent. So there's a conflict there. Some say he may be more pragmatic and he may be more open to talk to. Others say he's going to be hard-line.
MARTIN: What is FARC's ultimate goal in Colombia? Is it to take over the government? I mean, is it anarchist in its orientation? Is it communist in its orientation? What's its ultimate objective? Is it to run the country?
FORERO: Well, the FARC comes from many different lines. I mean, it does have this peasant background - peasant group background, which basically fought for land reforms and for a more equitable distribution of the country's riches. But there are various lines within the FARC. There are some Marxist, there are leaders who are Marxist. There are others who come from other communist lines.
The FARC'S stated goal is to topple the state. And in 1982, when they had a very large conference, a convention sort of speak where they discussed their plans, one of the things they decided to do at that point - and this is a very important, strategy decision - was that they were going to spread across the country and grow and ultimately take power. So that is their stated aim.
Now, no one believes that they can do that. The state is stronger than ever and the army is Latin America's second largest, quite well equipped and quite adept. And it has shown itself to be quite effective against the FARC in recent months. So no one believes that the FARC can win a war against this state.
MARTIN: NPR's Juan Forero joined us from his office in Bogota, Colombia. Juan, thanks so much for talking to us.
FORERO: Thank you very much.
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