Reyes, who’s birth name was Luis Edgar Devia Silva, was the FARC’s chief ideologue and voice to the outside world. He was the first member of the FARC secretariat to be killed. The internal affairs of the FARC are opaque, but Reyes was frequently described as the number two in the FARC hierarchy after Manuel Marulanda, who is in his late 70s and is rumored to be ill. In the FARC’s hierarchy he is roughly equivalent to al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The loss of Reyes to the FARC is important in and of itself, but it is one in a series of reverses that indicate the organization may be in serious decline. According to the State Department’s 2008 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report the FARC has lost a number of important leaders in the past year.
The GOC achieved significant success against the FARC leadership in 2007. Over a dozen mid-to-high level FARC commanders were killed or apprehended, including FARC 37th Front leader Gustavo Rueda Díaz, alias ‘Martin Caballero,’ 42nd Front leader Ernesto Orjuela Tovar, alias ‘Giovanni Rodriguez,’ and 16th Front leader, Tomas Molina Caracas, alias ‘Negro Acacio.’ Molina Caracas was considered a Consolidated Priority Organization Target (CPOT) by the USG and was one of 50 FARC commanders indicted in the U.S. in March 2006 for allegedly running the country’s largest cocaine smuggling organization.In addition, the rank and file is also suffering from attrition – reportedly 2800 FARC cadres deserted the FARC in 2007. While that number may have been exaggerated, there have been many desertions and it is clear that the rank and file are losing their ideological fervor. (Last year the diaries of a disgruntled FARCette were discovered and shed some light on the sordid daily reality of life in the FARC.)
Despite its decline, knockout blows against the FARC are not likely. The organization still has thousands of fighters under arms, a steady revenue stream (from narcotics, kidnapping, and other criminal activity), international links to other terrorist groups and criminals, and – in Hugo Chavez – a supporter willing to provide a safe haven across the border as well as rhetorical support. A major FARC revenge attack is well within the realm of possibility.
It is possible that Reyes killing could lead to internal power struggles, but it should be emphasized that there do not appear to be any moderates in the FARC’s upper echelons. The divide might be between the ideologues and the drug dealers. One very real concern would be that as it fractures FARC factions may turn from its rural insurgency to major terror attacks – both within Colombia and without. If any terrorist group had the capacity to go international it would be the FARC, with its extensive international links.
It is also difficult to predict what Reyes’ killing will mean for the long-suffering hostages held by the FARC. Reyes was the key negotiator and without him future transfers may be difficult to arrange. On the other hand, the hostage issue is central to the FARC. They appear to be releasing them in tiny drabs in the hope of negotiating for a de-militarized zone in Colombia. Such a zone would be crucial for the organization to train and re-energize the organization.
Colombia helicopters killed Reyes just inside of Ecuador. It is worth noting the Simon Trinidad, the highest-ranking member of the FARC captured, was arrested in Ecuador in 2004. Colombia’s President insists that he informed the President of Ecuador. But Ecuador is calling for a “clarification,” calling the attack an “aggression on our territory.”
Naturally, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez bristled, stating that any Colombian actions that crossed the border with Venezuela would be an act of war. He also called Colombia the Israel of South America. Chavez’s bluster is also a de-facto admission that he is permitting the FARC to operate in Venezuelan territory. States that support terrorism are subject to severe sanctions from the United States and the international community.
Finally, this is a victory for the people of Colombia, but there was a U.S. hand in it. American intelligence support has been crucial in penetrating the FARC’s communications networks. A recent US indictment claims that the Drug Enforcement Agency infiltrated compromised satellite phones into the FARC.
The killing of Reyes is an important step forward, but unfortunately for the long-suffering people of Colombia, the FARC cannot be counted out – yet.