The Colombian government has issued an arrest warrant for one of the FARC’s most militant commanders, which may result in him being expelled from the peace process and threaten the agreement itself.
Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias “El Paisa,” is perhaps the most notorious of the commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- FARC) still in the peace process with the government -- though possibly not for much longer.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz - JEP) -- the judicial system that lies at the heart of the peace agreement signed in November 2016 between the government and the rebel army -- has ordered the capture of El Paisa. The order comes after he has not appeared to give testimony to the JEP and has not reported to the court. El Paisa's whereabouts are currently unknown.
What Makes El Paisa So Important?
Though not the first arrest warrant against a senior FARC commander, the ordering of El Paisa's capture could have far-reaching implications, given his long military history with the rebel force. If he decides to go over to the ex-FARC mafia -- the dissident rebels that either refused to sign the agreement, or have since left it -- he could bring up to 1,000 rebels with him.
El Paisa was the commander of the FARC’s Special Forces unit, the Teófilo Forero Mobile Column, known in the FARC simply as “El Teófilo.” It first came to prominence during a previous, failed peace process with the FARC between 1999 and 2002, when the government of then-President Andrés Pastrana ceded the rebels a 42,000 square kilometer safe haven as a venue for talks. There, the rebels’ ruling body, the seven-man Secretariat, led by FARC founder Pedro Marin, alias “Manuel Marulanda” or “Tirofijo” (Sureshot), gathered. Security was placed in the hands of the Teófilo force, and I spent many hours during those years chatting to Teófilo guerrillas while waiting for interviews with rebel commanders.
SEE ALSO: Profile of Hernán Darío Velásquez Saldarriaga, alias 'El Paisa'
That peace process, however, was brought to an end by an action in February 2002 by the Teófilo -- the mid-air hijacking of a commercial aircraft carrying one of their most despised political opponents, Jorge Gechem. In the style of a Hollywood action movie, the armed rebels took over the plane, while their colleagues cut down trees and obstacles to open a makeshift runway along a road in the southwest Huila department, a Teófilo stronghold. The plane landed safely and Gechem disappeared into captivity for six years.
Two months after the hijacking, the hand of the Teófilo Column was seen in the kidnapping of another 12 politicians in the city of Cali. The guerrillas called in a bomb threat, and then appeared dressed as an army squad, complete with an ersatz bomb dog. They ushered the politicians out of the building and into a life as hostages. All but one of those kidnapped ended up being killed in captivity by the FARC.
Perhaps the most infamous of the Teófilo actions was the February 2003 attack on Bogotá’s exclusive El Nogal social club on the capital’s main road, Seventh Avenue. I felt the blast almost 20 blocks away and arrived to see the heart of the building caved in, smoke pouring across the skyline. The car bombing left 36 dead and some 200 injured.
Such attacks show the ingenuity of the Teófilo and its leader, as well as their ability to strike anywhere in the country, far from the southern departments of Caquetá and Huila, home to the guerrilla unit’s jungle bases.
El Paisa and the Peace Process
El Paisa dutifully appeared at the FARC’s 10th Conference in September 2016, and sat on stage as the FARC leadership announced it had voted to accept the peace agreement. El Paisa’s last job before the FARC signed the accord was as the military head of the Southern Bloc, the guerrillas’ second most powerful fighting division. The current FARC dissidents are built around the FARC’s Eastern Bloc -- the most powerful in terms of fighters and territory prior to demobilization.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace
During the 10th Conference, I met with members of the Teófilo, who suggested that El Paisa was in charge of the FARC’s "Plan B." The plan included 1,200 buried weapons and an equal number of guerrilla veterans ready to take up arms again, if so ordered, or if the government failed to honor the terms of the peace agreement.
However, El Paisa took up residence in one of the FARC concentration zones agreed upon with the government, known as Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces (Espacios Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación - ETRC). His encampment, in Miravalle, was in Caquetá, the Teófilo home department. In April 2018, he was joined there by the FARC's second-in-command, Luciano Marin Arango, alias “Iván Márquez,” after the arrest of another FARC leader, Seuxis Paucis Hernández Solarte, alias “Jesús Santrich,” on drug trafficking charges.
Threats to the Peace Agreement?
The whereabouts of both El Paisa and Iván Márquez are currently unknown. InSight Crime sources have put them in the frontier province of Apure, on the Venezuelan side of the border.
Any decision by them to leave the peace process altogether could severely undermine the agreement and be of a benefit to the ex-FARC mafia. El Paisa offers military prowess and leadership that is beyond doubt; Márquez brings serious political clout and perhaps the ability to unite disparate FARC dissidents that currently number over 3,000. There are several other middle-ranking commanders likely to follow their lead.
If these two men join, unite and grow the FARC dissidents, the peace process -- once called irreversible -- might yet fail.