He was a legendary recluse. Some say he never set foot in the capital of the country with which he waged war for 44 years.
The death of Manuel Marulanda (his real name was Pedro Marin), 78, was confirmed last weekend by Colombia's main rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
His passing is a huge blow to the FARC, which has been reeling from a series of strategic setbacks in recent months at the hands of Colombia's heavily U.S.-backed armed forces. He is one of three high-ranking FARC leaders to die in the past three months.
Marulanda's death also marks the end of an era of armed struggle in Latin America. Marulanda, known as "Sureshot," was a one-of-a-kind revolutionary leader who picked up a gun as a young man and never put it down.
As a peasant leader in the late 1940s, and founder of the FARC, he waged war uninterruptedly for the next six decades, the longest and deadliest guerrilla struggle in Latin American history. He built his peasant army from a few dozen men in 1964 to a heavily armed force of about 20,000 fighters. He lived the last years of his life with a $5-million bounty on his head.
Impressive perhaps. Yet, seen another way, never in modern revolutionary conflict did anyone fight with such brutal futility. Unlike some of his fellow left-wing icons — Fidel Castro, Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega — Marulanda never tasted the victory of taking power. Instead, he died in the arms of his comrades in a jungle hideout, no closer to the halls of government than the day he started.
The capital certainly felt his presence at times, whether it was attacks on President Alvaro Uribe's inauguration in 2002, blowing up the city's top social club or the infiltration of the slums with murderous militias.
In the early years, Colombia's downtrodden peasantry needed a champion. It's hard to say, though, exactly when that cause ceased to be noble. Injustices continue in rural Colombia, but any justification for armed struggle disappeared long ago.
Instead of seeking a political accommodation, Marulanda stuck to his guns, funding his war effort with cocaine, kidnapping and extortion. He knew how to hide, always slipping back with his hostages to the protective canopy of Colombia's vast jungle.
The future of the FARC remains hard to predict. Marulanda's successor, Alfonso Cano, is an equally shadowy figure. Considered less of a warrior and more of an ideologue, he may be more open to negotiation.
What does seem certain is that after rampaging for most of the last decade, the FARC has seen its power greatly reduced, to 9,000 men and women — and, sadly, children.
The days of the FARC may be waning. Twenty-first century warfare, with satellite and infrared technology, no longer makes it so easy to hide. Thanks in part to U.S. training and billions in U.S. funding, Colombia's armed forces are also far more effective than 10 years ago.
Most likely, the FARC will go back to what revolutionaries like to call la guerra de pulgas, or war of fleas, no more than a bloody nuisance.
David Adams can be reached
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