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 concerns, did not say how he died. The armed group he led confirmed his death in a post on its website, blaming the murder on Colombian special forces, without providing any evidence. Colombian officials say they are still working to confirm his death and did not immediately respond to the group’s allegation.
The rebel leader, real name Seuxis Hernández Solarte, helped lead the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, before becoming one of the negotiators who reached a peace agreement 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 find as it strives to leave behind the bloody conflict that has displaced millions of people, killed 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 a authority in Colombia and the United States. accused him to return to drug trafficking, a violation of the agreement.
After his detention on these charges and his eventual release from prison, he disappeared from the public eye, only to reappear alongside another rebel leader, Luciano Marín, known by the pseudonym Iván Márquez, in a 2019 video in which they launched a new call to arms, arguing that the government had not lived up to its end of the bargain.
This announcement by the two ex-leaders dealt a further blow to the hopes of Colombians for a lasting peace, the agreement having already been compromised by non-compliance by both parties with its conditions. The country’s countryside is still the site of massacres, forced displacement and 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 had indeed surrendered weapons – and claimed that the Colombian government’s failure to hold its end of the bargain 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 over the routes of drug trafficking and illegal mining in Venezuela, according to security analysts and people living on the Colombian-Venezuelan border.
Following the 2016 peace accord, 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 the 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 for 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 the dissidents had entered the country. .
His death comes at a time of heightened tension between Colombia and Venezuela – who have mutually blamed each other for harboring insurgents – and between the governments of those two countries and FARC dissidents within their 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 group of Segunda Marquetalia known as the Tenth Front. This broke with the years when the Venezuelan government had tolerated Colombian guerrillas on its national territory.
Just before Mr. Hernández’s death, the Colombian Supreme Court said it was in favor of his extradition to the United States on drug-related 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.