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Colombia: Was the United States involved in the murder of FARC-EP leaders?

By James J. Brittain[i]

While virtually every country in Central and South America, including the Caribbean, has waded in on the debate of the Colombian state conducting an illegal military campaign within Ecuadorian sovereign territory, resulting in the deaths of various high-ranking officials in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP), the United States have remained virtually silent. Such surprising silence from the US is quite perplexing, as the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have waged a twenty-two-year assault on this insurgency movement.[ii]

The US has deemed the FARC-EP to be, what it considers, a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO). Therefore, would one not expect, during the so-called ``war on terror’’, some attention from Washington -- other than a few sentences by state officials -- following the deaths of both Comandante Raúl Reyes and Comandante Iván Ríos within less than six days of each; two of the seven highest-ranking members of the organisation (lest we forget the hourly visual barrage of images related to the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003 or his execution in 2006). The following makes a case that the US silence has far more to do with a plausible connection to the deaths of Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos rather than simple disinterest.

The case of Comandante Raúl Reyes (murdered March 1, 2008)

It has become general knowledge that shortly after midnight on March 1, 2008, the President of Colombia Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón and Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos sanctioned an illegal air and ground assault against the 48th Front of the FARC-EP, which resulted in the death of Comandante Raúl Reyes, one of the members of the insurgency’s Secretariat of the Central High Command, Julian Conrado, a member of the Central High Command (and the insurgency’s most recognised cultural icon through his work as a revolutionary folk musician),and twenty other members of the FARC-EP.

Hours after the assault had taken place, Defence Minister Santos reiterated that Colombian forces began the operation with an air assault followed by an elite group of Colombian soldiers engaging in a ground combat against members of the FARC-EP Front. Santos expressed that recently obtained intelligence information related to a satellite phone used by Comandante Reyes enabled the Colombian military to pinpoint the location of the encampment, subsequently enabling the campaign to take place.

During meetings of the Organization of American States (OAS), state officials and representatives from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Peru condemned the assault. Not surprisingly, one of the only backers of the illegal military incursion was the US. Nevertheless, President George W. Bush and J. Robert Manzanares, the US representative during the OAS meetings, had very little to say about the greatest achievement ever realised by Washington’s principal ally in Latin America’s forty-four-year civil war with the FARC-EP.

When asked if the Uribe and Santos administration had informed Washington preceding the transgression on Ecuadorian soil, Tom Casey, a spokesperson for the US State Department, hesitantly stated, ``No, I’m not aware that we found out about this other than after the fact’’. Less than assuring complete impartiality, Colombia’s chief of police General Oscar Naranjo declared that ``I can say for sure that the operation was autonomous’’. As General Naranjo continued his press conference he did however reveal that the US had, in fact, been involved in operations connected to the Colombian military assault in Ecuador, albeit indirectly.

General Naranjo asserted that no external forces were involved in the FARC-EP-targeted attack but he did offer that ``it is no secret that … a very strong alliance with federal agencies of the US’’ exists between the Colombian military. Shortly following this statement, a high-ranking official within the Colombian defence ministry leaked that the US had been involved in the March 1 operation. In fact, the US, through satellite intelligence gathering over southern Colombia and northern Ecuador, had been able to retrieve signals from the FARC-EP’s 48th Front and handed over the identification of the satellite telephone being used by the insurgency to intelligence sectors of the Colombian police. The informant went on to add that it was only then that Colombian officials were able to process the data, thereby enabling the Colombian state to decipher the exact location of Reyes. The informant’s account of the satellite phone effectively mirrors that made during Defence Minister Santos’ first press conference. The leaked information demonstrated that the US was, at the very least, indirectly involved in the actions of March 1. That was until March 7.

On March 7, Ecuador’s defence minister Wellington Sandoval announced that after further investigation of the area targeted during the March 1 attack it was revealed that the site had been bombarded with at least five bombs, with incredible precision (``smart bombs’’). All five detonations were within a 50-metre diameter during a night-time attack, a virtually impossible achievement considering the military capabilities and resources of the Colombian air and armed forces. Sandoval claimed that the arms used during the incursion can only be deployed through the use of aircraft that have the capacity to fly at a considerable height and velocity, weaponry that is again not found within the Colombian Air Force. It was then alluded that not one Latin American nation possesses such military machinery or intelligence equipment and that the only air force with such an arsenal is that of the United States.

While the US and the Colombian governments state that the US was not involved in the attack, it is quite likely that the US played more than an informal role.

The case of Comandante Iván Ríos (murdered March 4 or March 7, 2008)

On the afternoon of March 7, Colombia was once again the witness of an interruption by Defence Minister Santos on both television and radio. Similar to his announcement six days earlier, Santos pronounced that a member of the FARC-EP’s Secretariat had been killed. A great surprise to many, the defence minister announced that Comandante Iván Ríos had been killed by another member of the FARC-EP named Rojas (with two other combatants associated with the insurgency) on March 4, 2008.

The defence minister proceeded to tell the press that after those deemed responsible had killed Comandante Ríos they severed his right hand in order to prove to Colombian officials that the youngest member of the Secretariat was dead.[iii]

It was then stated that the three insurgents took the severed limb, along with Comandante Ríos’ laptop and identification, and handed them to members of the Colombian army and the Colombian attorney general office’s Technical Investigation Body (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación, CTI). During a brief press conference, Santos said that the Colombian army had launched an operation designed to capture Comandante Ríos on February 17, 2008, after (again) receiving intelligence that he was located in a highly elevated region in the department of Caldas. Unlike the March 1 press conference, however, Santos did not entertain any questions or reveal any additional information other than that listed above and that Comandante Iván Ríos had been officially pronounced dead.

Confusion immediately began to circulate around the events presented by Santos. The reason for the uncertainty was that previous to the ``official’’ pronouncement of Ríos’ death another state official within the Prosecutors Office of Colombia had outlined a different account of what transpired.

An anonymous official had prematurely contacted the press and reported that Comandante Ríos had been killed on March 7, 2008 during an attack carried out by an elite wing of the Colombian army in conjunction with members of the CTI in Aguadas, just outside the Samaná municipality within the department of Caldas. This again mirrors events in Comandante Reyes’ death; intelligence provided to state officials, an upper level official presenting sanitised sanctioned accounts explaining the deaths of the FARC-EP’s high command, and lower-level officials disseminating alternative accounts of the actual goings on.

Another strange complexity related to Comandante Ríos’ death is simply, where is Rojas? One would think that the state would put forward details concerning who Comandante Ríos’ murderer was, what his social background or personal details were, how the murder occurred, and what has happened to Rojas. Interestingly, however, nothing related to the above queries concerning Rojas were released.

If Comandante Ríos was, in fact, murdered by Rojas, such events surrounding the death are quite puzzling due to the structure and practice of the FARC-EP. It is difficult to understand how one FARC-EP combatant -- let alone three -- were capable of breaking rank and violently reacting against not only a highly ranked officer but a leader within the FARC-EP’s Secretariat. Each comandante associated with the Secretariat has a cadre of more than a dozen immediate personnel who are not only responsible for the comandante’s protection but oversee the goings on of the guerrilla camp in which the leader is stationed. From first-hand experience, all meetings and interactions with the comandante are coordinated each day and formally scheduled. Prior to each meeting, the party invited must wait and ask for approval to enter the comandante’s barracks. Once approval has been arranged it is only then that a member is escorted into the comandante’s quarters by at least one other armed guard.

How is it then that three armed FARC-EP combatants were able to violently enter into Comandante’s Ríos’ barracks directly in front of an entire FARC-EP front, which includes two FARC-EP companies and two FARC-EP guerrilla squads which contain, on average, at least twelve combatants per squad?

For any researcher, academic, environmentalist or journalist who has spent any significant amount of time within FARC-EP-controlled territory since 2002, the defence minister’s ``official’’ account of ``Rojas’’ and two other so-called FARC-EP combatants being solely responsible for the murder of Ríos is highly problematic let alone incredibly simplistic. Comandante Ríos’ limb being removed by a FARC-EP member is too out of character to any informed analyst of the Colombian civil war. There has not been one confirmed case of any FARC-EP combatant in its forty-four years of existence of employing such tactics; however, such a tactic has been systemically employed by government paramilitaries, privately funded ``security forces’’ and right-wing civilian vigilante groups dating back to the 1940s and increasingly carried out over the past decade.

The plausible paramilitary role in the deaths of both Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos

Over the past two years the Uribe and Santos administration has increasingly heralded that Colombian paramilitarism has come to an end with the demobilisation of the right-wing United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) through 2003-2006. Such proclamations are in direct contradiction to existing evidence, eye-witness reports and escalating violence targeted at civilians critical of the Colombian state and political-economic structure. More accurately, the AUC has decentralised its actions and activities through various small-scale organisations rather than operating, as it did between 1997 and 2006, a single umbrella organisation.

Comandante Ríos’ murder are symbolic of those carried out by Colombia’s many far-right paramilitary groups. However, if it was to get out to the general international public that paramilitarism has, in reality, continued within Colombia, various political and economic consequences could potentially be realised.

The Colombian state cannot afford to have a paramilitary group claim responsibility for the murder of Comandante Ríos for this would, once again, demonstrate that the state has either failed in its political capacity to demobilise the paramilitary forces, or more accurately, that the state has been complicit in covering up the actions of Colombian paramilitarism, which is rampant throughout the Colombian countryside (seeking to sustain political, economic and social control through aggressive coercion).

Rather than supporting the claim that ``FARC-EP combatants’’ committed the assault and subsequent amputation of Comandante Ríos’ hand, it is more likely that what transpired was a tactic which has been widely utilised by the paramilitaries over the past several years. Countless researchers and journalists have exposed how reactionary forces dress up in fatigues making themselves appear to be FARC-EP combatants. Paramilitaries have regularly presented themselves as members of the FARC-EP so as to commit atrocities against civilians in the hope of creating false condemnation of the insurgency.

The plausible US role in the deaths of both Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos

The Bush administration has had great difficulty trying to have a new free-trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia passed. Internal congressional protests by sectors of the Democratic Party have opposed the legislation due to alleged and proven atrocities committed by the paramilitaries, crimes that the Colombian state has allowed to go unpunished. Many of these politicians argue that the Colombian state and the US government and military have failed to quell the illicit drug trade or decrease the FARC-EP’s strength throughout the Colombian countryside even though billions of US dollars have been spent. Therefore, if the Bush administration was able to claim even the slightest victory over the FARC-EP then it could argue that its counter-insurgency funding has been successful and that a new FTA should be supported in Congress.

There is a very real possibility that the United States may have been involved in the actions leading up to Comandante Ríos’ death. Reports have detailed that US special forces and marines have been illegally engaging in counter-insurgency campaigns within Colombia for years. Even though the legal number of US troops cannot exceed 800 state forces (and 600 private forces), thousands have been operating in campaigns against the FARC-EP. For example, Peter Gorman published that as far back as 2002 roughly 1100 US counter-insurgency troops were on ``orders to eliminate all high officers of the FARC’’. This does not even take into account possible actions by private US-based contracted counter-insurgency forces.

The media’s role

There is a very real two-fold psychological affect from the propaganda related to the deaths of Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos, which is being disseminated through the centralised media, primarily El Tiempo.[iv]

1) Systemically exposing Colombia’s general public to photographs of the bullet-ridden and mutilated corpse of Reyes and of the Esky containing Ríos’ severed limbs is a tool utilised to intimidate and deter sympathisers of the insurgency, political activists and state opponents from criticising the state’s far-right social and economic policies.

2) Telling the world that Comandante Ríos’ was murdered by his own comrades is a tactic employed to decrease international solidarity. People abroad may now falsely believe the argument that the FAERC-EP is losing ground, power and influence in the Colombian countryside. At the same time, such accusations are disseminated in the hope of destabilising the FARC-EP itself. Propagating that the rank and file have abandoned the leadership and that the movement is collapsing is a strategy to destabilise the insurgency forces.

[i] James J. Brittain is an assistant professor of sociology at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada, and the co-founder of the Atlantic Canada-Colombia Research Group. James is currently completing two books on Colombia; one analysing the FARC-EP’s revolutionary ideology and praxis within rural Colombia and another detailing the rise of Colombian paramilitarism throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He can be reached at

[ii] United States opposition to the FARC-EP dates back to the John F. Kennedy administration but it was in 1986 that the White House officially condemned the FARC-EP as a threat to the country’s national security.

[iii] In November 2003, Iván Ríos replaced Comandante Efraín Guzmán as a member of the Secretariat, who died on September 7, 2003 of a heart attack.

[iv] Vice-President Santos was the former editor of El Tiempo newspaper.


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