Colombian rebel commander ‘Jesús Santrich’ killed, Venezuelan officials say

BOGOTÁ, Colombia – A prominent former commander of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, known by the war name Jesús Santrich, has been killed in Venezuela, according to three senior Venezuelan government officials close to the country’s security forces.

Officials, who requested anonymity to discuss national security issues, did not say how he died. The armed group he led confirmed his death in a post on his website, accusing Colombian special forces of the murder, without providing any evidence. Colombian officials say they are still working to confirm his death and did not immediately respond to the group’s allegations.

The rebel leader, real name Seuxis Hernández Solarte, helped lead the Left Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, before becoming one of the negotiators who struck a peace deal with the Colombian government in 2016, ending five decades of war.

He then turned against the deal and returned to arms.

Mr Hernández – recognizable throughout the country because he often wore dark glasses and a checkered scarf – was, in many ways, a symbol of the difficult balance Colombia has had to achieve as it strives to get out of the bloody conflict that has displaced millions of people, killed millions of people. at least 220,000 and defined the nation for generations.

When the unarmed rebels created a political party and won seats in Congress as part of the peace deal, one of the posts went to Mr. Hernández – but he never served, as Colombian authorities and Americans accused him of returning to the country. the drug trade, a violation of the agreement.

Following his detention on these charges and his release from prison, he disappeared from public view, only to reappear alongside another rebel leader, Luciano Marín, known by the pseudonym Iván Márquez. , in a 2019 video in which they issued a new call to arms, arguing that the government had not lived up to its end of the bargain.

This announcement by the two former leaders dealt a further blow to Colombians’ hopes for a lasting peace, as the agreement has already been compromised by the failure to respect its terms by both parties. The country’s countryside continues to be the scene of massacres, forced displacement and the recruitment and murder of children.

Critics of the deal said Hernández was proof that the FARC would never give up fighting or crime, while supporters of the deal stressed that a large majority of ex-combatants have indeed given up. guns – and claimed that keeping his end of the deal was helping push some people back into the jungle.

Colombian officials have claimed, without providing concrete evidence, that Hernández was in hiding in neighboring Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro, the left-wing rival of the Colombian conservative government, allowed Colombian armed groups to take refuge and even thrive. . Several Colombian groups have taken control of drug trafficking and illegal mining routes in Venezuela, according to security analysts and people living on the Colombia-Venezuela border.

Following the 2016 peace agreement, around 13,000 FARC fighters laid down their arms. But some refused to do so and formed new rebel groups known as FARC dissidents. Mr. Hernández had become a leader of one of these groups, the Segunda Marquetalia.

In a message posted on its website Tuesday evening, the group claimed that Hernández died on Monday on the Venezuelan side of the remote mountains of Perijá, which separate the two countries. He was traveling when his truck was attacked by gunfire and grenades, the group said. The New York Times could not independently verify this version of events.

Adam Isacson, a Colombian expert with the Washington Office on Latin America, said Hernández’s death was a “symbolic blow” to the Segunda Marquetalia – and that the rebel leader’s presence in Venezuela shows just how dissidents entered the country. .

His death comes at a time of heightened tension between Colombia and Venezuela – both of which have accused the other of harboring insurgents – and between the governments of those two countries and FARC dissidents within their borders. borders.

In March, the Venezuelan military launched its largest military operation in decades in an attempt to rout a second FARC splinter group – a rival Segunda Marquetalia group known as the Tenth Front. This broke with the years in which the Venezuelan government had tolerated Colombian guerrillas on its national territory.

Just before Mr. Hernández’s death, the Colombian Supreme Court had indicated that it was in favor of his extradition to the United States to answer drug charges. American officials accuse him to work to produce and distribute approximately 10 tonnes of cocaine in the United States.

Julie Turkewitz reported from Bogotá and Anatoly Kurmanaev reported from Mexico City. Mariana Martínez contributed reporting from Caracas.

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