Colombia rebel commander ‘Jesus Santrich’ killed, Venezuelan officials say

By Julie Turkewitz and Anatoly Kurmanaev

A prominent former commander of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, who was known by the nom de guerre Jesús Santrich, has been killed in Venezuela, according to three senior Venezuela government officials close to the country’s security forces.

The officials, who requested anonymity to discuss national security issues, did not say how he died. The armed group he ran confirmed his death in a message on its website, blaming the killing 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, whose real name was Seuxis Hernández Solarte, helped lead the leftist 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.

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 strike as it works to leave behind the bloody conflict that displaced millions, killed at least 220,000 and defined the nation for generations.

When the disarmed rebels created a political party and were granted seats in Congress as part of the peace agreement, one of the positions went to Hernández — but he never served, as authorities in Colombia and the United States accused him of returning to the drug trade, a violation of the accord.

Following his detention on those charges and eventual release from prison, he vanished from public view, only to reappear alongside another rebel leader, Luciano Marín, known by the alias Iván Márquez, in a 2019 video in which they issued a new call to arms, arguing the government had failed to uphold its end of the bargain.

That announcement by the two ex-leaders was a further blow to Colombians’ hopes for lasting peace, with the agreement having already been undercut by failures by both sides to comply with its terms. The country’s countryside is still the site of mass killings, forced displacement, and the recruitment and killing of children.

Critics of the deal said Hernández was proof that the FARC would never give up fighting, or crime, while supporters of the agreement pointed out that a vast majority of former fighters have indeed given up arms — and claimed that the Colombian government’s failure to hold up its end of the deal was helping to push some people back to the jungle.

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

Following the 2016 peace deal, about 13,000 FARC fighters laid down their arms. But some refused to do so, and have formed new rebel groups known as the FARC dissidents.

Hernández had become a leader of one of those groups, the Segunda Marquetalia.

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

Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert for the Washington Office on Latin America, said that the death of Hernández was a “symbolic blow” to the Segunda Marquetalia — and that the rebel leader’s presence in Venezuela shows how deeply the dissidents had penetrated the country.

His death comes at a period of heightened tension between Colombia and Venezuela — both of which have blamed the other for harboring insurgents — and between the governments of both those countries and the FARC dissidents within their borders.

In March, the Venezuelan military launched its biggest operation in decades in an effort to rout a second FARC dissident group — a rival group of the Segunda Marquetalia known as the Tenth Front. This broke with years in which the Venezuelan government had tolerated the Colombian guerrillas in its national territory.

Just before the death of Hernández, the Colombian Supreme Court had indicated it was in favor of extraditing him to the United States to answer to drug charges. U.S. officials accuse him of working to produce and distribute about 10 tons of cocaine to the United States.

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