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Colombian rebel leader murdered: Reflections on meeting with Raul Reyes

By Jess Sundin

Raul Reyes, a leading member of the FARC – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – was killed by the U.S. backed Colombian government March 1. Fight Back! asked Jess Sundin, who traveled to Colombia and met with Raul Reyes, to give her impressions of him and to speak about the significance of his slaying. Sundin is a member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization and an important leader in Minnesota’s peace and justice movement.

I met Comandante Raul Reyes in July 2000, at a guerrilla camp outside of San Vicente del Caguan, Southern Colombia. My visit was the FARC's first from U.S. solidarity activists. At the time, the FARC-EP was in the midst of a dialogue with the Colombian government which took place in the area I visited, an area cleared of all U.S. and Colombian military and police forces, and where the guerrillas operated openly.

After having a taste of life in town, and a visit to the site of the dialogues, we were driven around winding, rutted dirt roads, into the mountains, and to a semi-permanent FARC encampment, where Comandante Reyes was based, along with about 40 other men and women.

He acted as our principal host during my week inside FARC-controlled territory. My first night at camp, he invited us to join him for dinner. After dinner, we shared a few rounds of vodka, and a smoke for those who wanted it. He asked about the political situation in the United States, and how North Americans viewed the struggle in Colombia. Then, the Comandante shared his views, and that of the FARC, on the political situation in Colombia, the significance of the dialogue with the government and the prospects for peace.

That first night, a couple of the young guerrilleras in the camp warned me that the Comandante’s snoring might keep me awake. With his tent just up the hill from mine, I noticed that he fell asleep quickly, and his comrades weren’t wrong about the noise. To be honest, I slept more soundly in this war-ravaged country, with the constant assurance that a top commander of the FARC was sleeping in the next tent.

Throughout my stay, he made himself available to meet with me and answer my questions, he assigned various comrades, young and old, men and women, to look after me and show me around. He spoke about each of them with respect and affection, sharing some of their stories, and encouraging me to meet them – one compañera who was chief of electronic communications, and whose niece and nephew were visiting the camp; a young combatant who was taken in by the guerrilla after all his family was murdered by paramilitaries; and Tio, who had been a FARC combatant since the beginning. If I had any questions about who was in the FARC, why they joined, what life is like in the FARC, or what they thought of various issues, he always encouraged me to ask the guerrillas themselves. And I did.

I enjoyed his warmth and humor. He had a friendly, round face, a quick smile, and surprisingly gentle hands. It was clear that he cared about the men and women under his command. Comandante Reyes did not hesitate to laugh with them, or dance with them, or comfort them. I was struck that he took responsibility for not only giving political and military leadership, but he also gave attention to the individual human development of each of the comrades. My heart aches for the very personal loss suffered by the many brave and dedicated guerrillas who have had the opportunity to fight alongside Comandante Reyes. His example stands in direct contrast to false images from the Colombian and U.S. governments, who strip the FARC of their humanity.

The U.S. opposed the talks between the Colombian government and the guerrillas. The pressure of massive military aid and support via Plan Colombia eventually led to a collapse of government willingness to talk about a negotiated political settlement with the FARC. A year and a half after my visit, the Colombian government abruptly ended the talks with the FARC. Then-president Pastrana launched a massive carpet-bombing campaign across the entire area that had been controlled by the guerrillas and called for the arrest of Raul Reyes and the rest of the FARC’s negotiators. The U.S. State Department put a price on his head – $5 million for information leading to his arrest.

Six years later, the U.S. has what it has wanted: Comandante Raul Reyes has been killed. We know very little about the circumstances surrounding his death. We don’t know to what extent U.S. forces or intelligence were directly involved. We do know that the U.S. has fueled this war with arms, and no doubt it was U.S. bombs, helicopters and bullets that killed Comandante Raul Reyes and his comrades this weekend. We know that in addition to aerial bombardment, some of the FARC members killed were shot in the back. The criminal Colombian government and their U.S. accomplices should be called to pay for this cowardly and criminal attack.

His death is a tragic loss to the Colombian revolution and to the global anti-imperialist struggle. The continuing struggle for the liberation of Colombia and an ever-growing international solidarity movement will stand as a living monument to his contributions. With a heavy heart, I take strength from a statement he made just last November: “A political and socially conscious human being, with liberatory spirit, is always ready to give his life for the most beautiful and just causes!”

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