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Colombia: Jesus Santrich assassination straight out of the CIA playbook

The Farc leader, killed by Colombian commandos in Venezuela, was a victim of the hybrid warfare techniques taught by the US and Israel, explains OLIVER DODD

ON May 17, Seuxis Pausias Hernandez Solarte, aka Jesus Santrich, one of the two most prominent leaders of the Farc, was ambushed and assassinated in Venezuela by commandos sent by the Colombian state.

Santrich had been a member of the Farc for three decades, having joined Colombia’s Young Communist League when he was 13 years old.

Although crucial to negotiating the 2016 peace agreement, which led to the majority of the Farc becoming a legal political party called Comunes, in 2019 Santrich decided to remobilise militarily.

Under the name Segunda Marquetalia, a substantial faction, which included hundreds of other significant veterans including Ivan Marquez — a friend of the late Hugo Chavez who has for decades been a member of the Farc’s highest organisational body the seven-person secretariat — returned to war.

Segunda Marquetalia declared that the peace agreement had been betrayed by the Colombian state and that the ruling class was not interested in resolving the underlying causes of the civil war.

Santrich and his comrades argued it was not they who were dissenting from the peace agreement but the Colombian state, in refusing to implement the terms negotiated.

US imperialism quickly recognised that Santrich embodied a real threat and possessed outstanding leadership qualities.

Afraid that he would play a crucial role in the regeneration of the armed struggle, they placed a $10 million (£7.3m) bounty on his head, a significant amount likely intended to attract the kind of mercenary commandos who were tasked to kidnap or murder Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in 2020.

At the time of his death, Santrich was on the national directorate of Segunda Marquetalia and was the leader of the Clandestine Communist Party, which is responsible for organising the urban strategy, securing relations between the armed struggle and the legal political movement.

The decision to assassinate Santrich now — widely regarded as the most recognisable and charismatic revolutionary figure in Colombia — was also likely influenced by recent political events, namely the sustained pressure of anti-neoliberal demonstrations taking place in more than 500 Colombian cities.

Following weeks of state terrorism unleashed against non-violent protesters that began on April 28 with a national mobilisation organised by the labour movement, many Colombians are questioning the wisdom and utility of peaceful mobilisation.

The liquidation of a prominent revolutionary figure like Santrich was likely influenced by the state’s desire to send a message to others considering taking up the gun.

But this type of assassination is not new.

Secret cross-border invasions today are actually common military procedures, especially for Colombia, the US and Israel, as they seek to benefit from the plausible deniability based on the successful use of covert commando operations.

Falling under the rubric of “hybrid warfare,” nation states regularly employ highly trained commandos, often mercenary private military contractors as proxies, instructing them to operate in foreign countries covertly so that state officials can claim “plausible deniability” for military offensives and the breaching of international law.

As in the case of Santrich, such forces often do not wear official military uniforms bearing the flags or the insignia of nation states, but they are essentially part of and work for the states that sent them.

After openly invading Ecuadorian territory in 2008 to take out Raul Reyes, the second-highest-ranking Farc commander at the time, Colombia received widespread condemnation from the international community, as Hugo Chavez ordered the Venezuelan military to the border and severed political ties with what he described as the “Israel of Latin America” — Latin America’s number one rogue state and repeated violator of international law.

Colombia learned from the blowback of the Ecuador saga that an outright military invasion provokes unwanted consequences and seriously affects its international standing, thus compelling it to implement a more covert strategy for engaging in aggressive foreign military activities.

The assassination of Santrich in Venezuelan territory also follows military guidelines for operations laid out in secret CIA reports.

The secret report, CIA Best Practices in Counterinsurgency, which was leaked by Wikileaks in 2014, advises that assassinations should be considered in the cases of political leaders who possess “a rare combination of initiative, charisma, strategic vision and communications skills,” a category Santrich certainly fitted into.

Discussing the dilemma of how foreign territories can make it more difficult to assassinate leaders, the CIA report then notes that “strikes in previously impenetrable sanctuaries can produce disproportionate effects such as the demoralisation of remaining leaders.”

Another secret 2003 US Special Forces Manual uncovered by Wikileaks calls for, side by side with censorship and psychological warfare, cross-border invasions using proxies and covert action, with “intent to isolate insurgent forces from their external support, to include external sanctuaries” — providing the strategic rationale for the targeting of Santrich in a foreign territory like Venezuela.

According to nearby witnesses, Santrich was ambushed by gunfire and grenades as he was travelling by truck.

The commandos then cut off his little finger and retreated via a helicopter heading for Colombia, while the Colombian Defence Minister announced that Santrich had been killed by random criminal gangs, thereby presenting the kind of contradictory information that hybrid warfare calls for to generate confusion and plausible deniability.

In reality, Colombia’s state has a well-established record of using proxies in its war against working-class movements and then denying this was the case, perhaps more than any other country in history.

Supported by US national security doctrine, as well as Israeli military advisers, Colombia developed strategy based on using paramilitary forces as proxies to achieve counterinsurgency aims — and then expanded these operations after the CIA estimated in the 1990s that the Farc had gained the strategic initiative and was close to defeating the armed forces.

While the assassination of one of the Farc’s most charismatic figures is no doubt a setback, it is far from a deadly blow.

In the end, the success of the insurgency in Colombia will not be decided by the death of one leader, but by whether the movement can continue to gain and sustain support, as well as adapt and endure in the face of the state’s monopoly on the use of force — including its willingness to use Machiavellian tricks and hybrid warfare.

With millions facing extreme poverty and exploitation and the Colombian state unable and unwilling to address the widespread social and economic crisis, not to mention the routine use of state terrorism against peaceful demonstrations, we can be sure of the revolutionary movement’s enduring potential.

A spectre continues to haunt Colombia — the spectre of the Farc.

Oliver Dodd is a doctoral researcher and journalist covering Colombia’s civil war and peace processes. He can be followed on Twitter @OliverCDodd.

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