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Colombia's then-President Andres Pastrana (left) talks with Alfonso Cano, commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Feb. 8, 2001, in Los Pozos, Colombia. Cano recently became the rebel group's top leader.
Colombia's then-President Andres Pastrana (left) talks with Alfonso Cano, commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Feb. 8, 2001, in Los Pozos, Colombia. Cano recently became the rebel group's top leader. Presidencia Ancol/AFP/Getty Images
Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images
Pedro Antonio Marin, better known as Manuel Marulanda, was the top commander of the FARC until his death earlier this spring. He is seen here in a March 8, 2001, photo.
Pedro Antonio Marin, better known as Manuel Marulanda, was the top commander of the FARC until his death earlier this spring. He is seen here in a March 8, 2001, photo. Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images
Alfonso Cano, the new leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is known more for his intellect than his military prowess. But that won't necessarily make him more prone to negotiate an end to Colombia's seemingly unending war.
Cano ascended to the top post of the Western Hemisphere's largest and oldest guerrilla group after the FARC announced late last month that its maximum commander, Manuel Marulanda, had died of natural causes, ending his 44-year reign as leader of the group.
The last time the outside world caught a glimpse of Cano was in 2000. Cano (whose given name was Guillermo Saenz Leon) was leading a rally of the FARC's newly minted clandestine political party, the Bolivarian Movement.
'Why We Have to Fight'
On the stage, Cano's bushy beard and thick glasses made him look like the professor he might have been had he not chosen to go to war with the government some 26 years ago. After the rally, as a truck cleared the debris from the hoopla, Cano gave a hint as to why he had decided to join the guerrillas.
"It's state policy to destroy anything that isn't in agreement or sympathizes with the government," he said. "That's why we have to fight."
The jungle was a long way away from Cano's roots as a studious middle class kid in the country's capital city, Bogota, where he attended the National University as a young man. Still known then as Saenz Leon, he also got involved in radical student movements and later joined the Communist Party's youth organization, which drew him away from his studies. But Lisandro Duque, a friend of his at the university, said Saenz Leon was more of a thinking man's revolutionary, not an agitator.
"He was always behind the scenes, kind of a political adviser — a writer, someone who would try to understand the deeper problems," Duque says.
By all indications, Saenz Leon was already inching towards the FARC, the Communist Party's military wing, and becoming more dogmatic in his beliefs. After finishing college, his political activities landed him in jail.
Gone to the Hills
Shortly after finishing a six-month sentence, he went to the hills, as they say, and never returned. From then on, he was Alfonso Cano and a member of the FARC's top command.
Alberto Rojas Puyo, a former Communist Party member, met with the young rebel in a cold mountain pass just south of Bogota soon after he'd joined the guerrillas.
"He was a studious man," Rojas Puyo says. "He liked to debate. He didn't shun opinions that were far from his own."
Rojas Puyo added that he thought Cano was a practical guy, something that has come under scrutiny as the country tries to predict whether Cano will want to negotiate a settlement with the government.
Cano and his comrades have presided over an exponential growth of the rebels, in part because of their increasing criminal enterprise involving kidnapping and drug trafficking. But he has also lived through disappointments: three failed peace talks and a government escalation of the war since 2002 that has cost the FARC several top leaders.
'We Want to Be in Power'
Those who have talked with Cano in recent years, like former Colombian President Andres Pastrana, say the would-be academic is a hard-liner, one of many in the new guard of rebel leaders. Pastrana tried and failed to negotiate a settlement with the rebels and wonders whether Cano will be open to such a possibility, even as the FARC's chances of military victory dim.
"Now they have the money from the drug business, and so you have now the political side and the military side," Pastrana says. "The political side is going to be hard-line and the military side is not going to be easy, because this is the hard line of the FARC."
When Cano spoke with NPR in 2000, the FARC was in the midst of a negotiation with Pastrana's administration.
But when asked about the guerrillas' long term goals, Cano didn't mention the peace process. Instead, he focused on his dream.
"We want to be in power — alone or with others — but we want to be there," he said.