Colombia's Rebel Patriarch Is Dead

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The historic head commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) 'Manuel Marulanda Velez in 2001.

If truth be told, the tradition of the fatigue-clad Latin American guerrilla, striking and vanishing through mountainous jungle terrain with a raised fist and a Marxist slogan, died years before Pedro Antonio Marin — known by his nom de guerre, Manuel Marulanda — passed away two months ago in a remote Colombian forest. But Marulanda's death by heart attack, confirmed over the weekend by the rebels he commanded for 44 years, makes it official: the Che Guevara era, like that of the hemisphere's military dictatorships, is over. And so, for all intents and purposes, is Marulanda's once feared but now jaded guerrilla army, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC.

Also known as Tirofijo, or Sureshot, Marulanda, who was believed to be between 78 and 80 years old, was the most powerful and resilient guerrilla leader the world had never heard of. In contrast to the flamboyant lives of rebel colleagues like former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Marulanda's was as thickly veiled as the Colombian jungle he occupied for half a century. But he built what was, at its apex a decade ago, one of the world's largest and fiercest insurrection forces. At the turn of the century, the Marxist-inspired FARC numbered some 20,000 fighters and controlled so much territory that it seemed it was on the verge of toppling Colombia's feckless government. "Tirofijo," one Colombian army leader commented, "is this country's only four-star general."

But the FARC's overwhelming strength sprang from sources as mafioso as they were military. After the demise of Colombian drug cartel bosses like Pedro Escobar, the FARC stepped into the vacuum and earned hundreds of millions of dollars each year protecting traffickers as well as the growers of coca, cocaine's raw material. The guerrillas earned just as much via ransom kidnapping — they're estimated to hold more than 700 Colombian army, police and civilian hostages today, including three U.S. defense contractors whom the FARC abducted in 2003.

Those lucrative sidelines eventually became a large part of the FARC's undoing, leaving it corrupt and complacent — seemingly more concerned with spoils than social justice — and increasingly despised among even Colombians who once saw the group as a corrective to their country's admittedly epic inequalities. The U.S. and later the European Union designated the FARC as a terrorist organization. When the U.S. finally came to Bogota's aid in 2000 with the multi-billion-dollar Plan Colombia, a counter-insurgency mission disguised as a drug-interdiction project, Colombia's once laughable military began knocking the FARC to the mat. As a result, conservative President Alvaro Uribe is enjoying approval ratings as high as the Colombian sierras.

The guerrillas aren't down for the count yet; but their membership, according to U.S. intelligence, has been halved to about 10,000 in recent years, and FARC's command structure is dwindling. Weeks before Marulanda died on March 26, his No. 2, Raul Reyes, was killed in a controversial Colombian army raid on a FARC camp over the border in Ecuador; and this month another top comandante, Eldaneyis Mosquera, alias Katrina, surrendered to Colombian authorities and called on her comrades to do the same. Over the weekend, Uribe claimed that other FARC honchos have offered to lay down their arms and release captives like former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. What's less clear is whether the FARC unit holding the three Americans is inclined to do the same. Either way, Uribe, who is the Bush Administration's key ally in South America, has announced the creation of a $100 million reward fund for guerrillas who leave the FARC.

This was hardly the finale that Marulanda envisioned after so many years of armed struggle. He was still in his teens, the son of a poor farming family in Colombia's northwestern Antioquia province, when he went into the mountains in 1948 as a Liberal partisan fighting against Conservative paramilitary gangs. This was the start of Colombia's decades-long fratricidal slaughter, la violencia. When it ended in the early 1960s, revolutionaries like Marulanda found the new Liberal-Conservative establishment as corrupt and oppressive as the old guard; and so he founded the FARC in 1964. That sparked a bloody civil war that has killed more than 40,000 people — including ghastly massacres by right-wing paramilitary armies the Colombian military fostered to help it battle the guerrillas, and which the Uribe government has only recently begun to dismantle. The conflict displaced millions of people.

Through it all, Marulanda attracted thousands of disaffected Colombians with his talent for striking at the military and fleeing into harsh terrain that he knew better than any army commander. "If they drive us off one mountainside," he once wrote, "we counter immediately at two others." Like Castro, he was said to have escaped death repeatedly, and rarely stayed in one location more than a few days. But although Marulanda was originally inspired by the Cuban Revolution, he was never the committed communist Castro became, a fact that always kept relations between the two surprisingly cool. "Marulanda doesn't read Mao," his biographer, Arturo Alape, told TIME in the 1998. "He reads Colombian military academy textbooks." But in the end, Uribe — whose father was killed by the FARC in the 1980s — and the Colombian military proved equally adroit students of Marulanda's tactics.

Aside from being a ferocious fighter, Marulanda also loved to dance and reportedly sired several children around the country. Like Colonel Aureliano Buendia (who himself sired 17 sons by 17 different women) in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Colombia's Nobel laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marulanda was a legendary rebel warrior. And like the fictional Buendia, Marulanda died of natural causes in old age as an enigma. In Garcia Marquez's classic, a character wonders if the colonel "had fought so many wars not out of idealism, as everyone had thought," but rather if "he had won and lost for the same reason, pure and sinful pride."

The most likely answer in Marulanda's case, as it was for so many Latin American guerrilla leaders, is that he was driven by both impulses. Despite the cynical thuggery his rebel army has become known for in its twilight, Marulanda's original struggle was heartfelt: Colombia was and remains one of the most socially unequal countries on a continent whose inequalities are still among the world's worst. Whether he fought for idealism or pride, the injustices he and all the other Che Guevaras targeted in the 20th century still have to be tackled before Latin America can enter the 21st. Even if they have reason to welcome his death, Uribe and the rest of Colombia have to ponder his cause.