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Colombia's Military Says FARC Rebel Leader Is Dead

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Pedro Antonio Marin may have been one of the world's oldest rebel commanders. He was better known as Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda. He began fighting the Colombian state in the 1950s, and he has headed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, since 1954.

Now Colombia's military says he's dead. NPR's Juan Forero joins us from Bogotá, Colombia's capital. And, Juan, what do we know so far?

JUAN FORERO: What we've been told is that a source, an intelligence source, has alerted the military that Manuel Marulanda, Pedro Antonio Marin, died on March 26, apparently of a heart attack out in the jungle. This has not been confirmed by the FARC; it hasn't been denied by the FARC guerilla group yet, either. But the military has come out strongly to say that they have very good sources that have told them that this is so.

SHAPIRO: But, hasn't the military claimed that this man has died before?

FORERO: They have. This goes back to 1965, actually. This time, the military has been quite unequivocal about it. The defense minister came out to announce it first and then a military communiqué was issued, and an admiral came out to speak to reporters. And they very strongly asserted that this was the case.

SHAPIRO: So, it sounds like this one is different from all of the previous assertions that he's dead. Well, if he has died, what would the significance of that be? What would it mean?

FORERO: Well, Manuel Marulanda represented cohesion for the FARC. He's also very well respected within the FARC ranks as a daring strategist. He is a military man who knows how to combat the Colombian state. The rebels have already lost two top leaders - both of them were actually killed in March. And then to have him die in the same month, apparently, would clearly be a blow.

SHAPIRO: Could he be easily replaced, or is this really going to change the nature of the FARC going forward?

FORERO: The defense ministry said that Manuel Marulanda would be replaced by Alfonso Cano. Well, Alfonso Cano is also a top leader in the FARC. He's a political operative, an ideologue, who has been steeped in Communist Party politics for years and years.

SHAPIRO: Juan, can you just generally describe the condition that the FARC is in generally right now?

FORERO: Well, the FARC remains quite a powerful force. It has about 11,000 fighting members. But the FARC at one point had perhaps 17 or 18,000. And in the last few months, there have been a lot of desertions, hundreds of them, and they've lost a number of midlevel commanders, both to desertions and to army offensives.

So, the FARC has lost some of its seasoned veterans, and this comes at the same time as the Colombian military has become bigger and more effective through U.S. funding.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Juan Forero is in Bogotá, Colombia. Juan, great talking with you. Thank you.

FORERO: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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