Wearing combat fatigues and a yellow sweat towel slung over his shoulder, Pedro Marin, aka Sureshot, told me in 1999 that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Colombian guerrilla organization he created in 1964, was far more efficient than the state because it seriously punished those who were corrupt. "We execute them," he noted.
That ruthless efficiency might have helped turn FARC from a peasant movement looking for land reform into one of the world's largest rebel forces. Today, it's a top supplier of cocaine and a big reason why Colombia became one of the world's most violent countries. Washington calls it a terrorist group and has spent billions in recent years in part to help the Colombian government stamp it out.
FARC has faced huge setbacks in recent months. This spring, it lost three of its top seven commanders – including founding father Sureshot. In March, Colombian authorities seized a FARC laptop with damaging information – including evidence of ties to Venezuela.
Suddenly, there's talk that FARC could be approaching collapse. Will its remaining forces keep up the armed struggle and kidnappings? Or, as other militant groups have done, will they give up violence and join the political process?
What happens to FARC now is important. That's because Colombia is a crucial American ally in South America and a bulwark against the leftist populism promoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his so-called Bolivarian Revolution. Colombia receives hundreds of millions of dollars each year from the United States as part of the counternarcotics initiative called Plan Colombia, which represents Washington's largest sum of foreign aid outside the Middle East and Afghanistan. Many of those funds go to counterinsurgency activities. If FARC folds, it would be a big victory for US aid.
More broadly, what happens to FARC matters because it's emblematic of the global struggle to stop guerrilla forces, either by defeating them militarily or persuading them to join the political process.
In 1999, I interviewed FARC leaders who were participating in a peace process. The group's top military commander, Jorge Briceño, aka Mono Jojoy, explained FARC's devotion to Sureshot, a man responsible for countless acts of violence: "He is our symbol, a legend … our political and military master … the reason why many of us became revolutionaries."
With Sureshot gone, some of that loyalty may be gone, too. Some observers hope that FARC, in desperate straits, would opt to negotiate with the government, which it has in the past. Some are also hoping for defections.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has set aside $100 million for rebels who leave FARC, and he's indicated they'd receive some sort of amnesty. FARC currently holds about 700 hostages, including three US military contractors, and Ingrid Betancourt, a Franco-Colombian kidnapped while campaigning for president.
A big question is what FARC's new leader, Guillermo Sáenz, aka Alfonso Cano, will decide to do next. Intelligence officials noted that the group was deciding between Mr. Cano, whom some see as an ideologue, and Mono Jojoy, who is considered a tough military strategist.
Cano's background is quite different from that of Sureshot, who was from poor, rural origins. The son of an engineer and a teacher, Cano studied anthropology, was a student activist, and started as a leader of the Communist Party. Considered a hard-liner, he was not very actively involved in the most recent negotiations that took place between 1998 and 2002. FARC has been accused of using those talks as a smokescreen to strengthen its forces.
But FARC is now in a weaker position: It has about 9,000 troops today, down from about 16,000 in 2002. Many have surrendered. In a carrot-and-stick strategy, the government has expressed interest in peace talks, but has threatened more military action, too. On Monday, President Uribe restated his belief that FARC is a terrorist group that's too reliant on drug money to negotiate in good faith.
As its strength wanes, FARC leaders might desperately try to organize attacks in order to show that they are still capable of doing so. For now, FARC remains a threat in rural areas, but it is far from assuming power through the use of arms. Disarming and becoming a political movement might be the most effective route for FARC to take. Some FARC leaders, though, are skeptical that they would even be allowed to participate politically. They remember all too well the extermination 20 years ago of 3,000 members of the Patriotic Union, a FARC-related political group. A government guarantee to protect future FARC politicians would help facilitate a peaceful transition.
In the meantime, Colombia should more effectively address one of the causes behind FARC's rise all these years: social and economic inequality. UNICEF calculates that 39 percent of Latin America's young people live in poverty. Colombia remains one of the most socially unequal countries on a continent where inequalities rank among the world's worst. FARC has recruited thousands of young people who live in regions marked by poverty.
That's a good reason for Colombia and other Latin American countries to significantly strengthen their social policies. Providing Latin American youths broader opportunities to succeed could weaken FARC propaganda that's based on class warfare and hatred toward the "privileged elites." More progressive social policies could not only control the social discontent, but fuel the stability that development policies need to succeed.
• Maria Cristina Caballero, a former fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership, was the director of investigations at Semana, a Colombian news magazine. She's now a freelance writer.