Colombia: The Significance of the Killing of FARC Leader “Mono Jojoy”

In many ways, Mono Jojoy encompassed the complexities and contradictions evident in the FARC. He was a ruthless military tactician who in the late 1990s orchestrated a series of large-scale, successful attacks against military bases in eastern Colombia.  At the same time, he implemented some of the FARC’s most progressive social and economic policies, which have benefited peasants in eastern Colombia.

On September 23, a massive operation conducted by the Colombian military targeted a large encampment of guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in eastern Colombia. The military action killed FARC commander and secretariat member Jorge Briceño, also known by the nickname “Mono Jojoy.” It is only the second time in more than 45 years of armed conflict that the government has killed a member of the guerrilla group’s seven-person secretariat—the previous instance being the assassination of Raúl Reyes two-and-a-half years ago. But what will be the significance of the killing of Mono Jojoy?

Not surprisingly, Colombian government officials quickly began trumpeting the importance of the successful military operation that involved 400 troops and more than 30 aircraft and helicopters. In reference to the killing of Mono Jojoy, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos declared, “It is the most resounding blow against the Farc in is entire history.” Meanwhile, Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera, in reference to the fact that information provided by a FARC deserter led the military to Mono Jojoy’s hideout, stated, “The Farc are falling apart from within.”

Undoubtedly, the loss of a longtime leader such as Mono Jojoy will impact the FARC. The guerrilla commander joined the FARC in 1975 at 12 years of age and rose up through the ranks to command the rebel group’s largest bloc, which consists of some 40 percent of its fighters. Along the way he became one of the most respected of the FARC’s leaders among rank and file guerrillas. This respect was not simply a result of his military prowess which, along with his bloc’s extensive role in capturing soldiers and police as well as kidnapping civilians, led many to view him as the most ruthless of the FARC’s leaders. This respect was also due to the social and economic policies implemented under his command.

In many ways, Mono Jojoy encompassed the complexities and contradictions evident in the FARC. He was a ruthless military tactician who in the late 1990s orchestrated a series of large-scale, successful attacks against military bases in eastern Colombia that caught the attention of Washington and led to a dramatically increased U.S. military intervention under Plan Colombia. At the same time, Mono Jojoy was responsible for extensive human rights violations including the kidnapping and killing of civilians in the regions under his command.

Meanwhile, what has been frequently ignored in the reporting on Mono Jojoy is the fact that the bloc he commanded has implemented some of the FARC’s most progressive social and economic policies, which have benefited peasants in eastern Colombia. Over the past 20 years, many small towns in remote regions under Mono Jojoy’s control experienced significant infrastructure improvements as a result of the FARC’s public works programs. The FARC has built hundreds of miles of roads that connected dozens of communities to each other. In 2003, according to a Washington Post report, Efrain Salazar, the FARC’s public works director in Meta, had an annual budget of $1 million and paid civilians who worked for him a monthly salary of $125.

And during the 1990s, Mono Jojoy used some of the FARC’s tax revenues to construct electrical grids in dozens of remote towns and villages long neglected by the national government. The guerrilla commander also oversaw agrarian reform projects such as the breaking up of ten large ranches in the southern part of Meta in 2002 and 2003 with the smaller properties then distributed to subsistence farmers.

So, ultimately, what will be the impact of Mono Jojoy’s death? Colombian government officials and many analysts are already claiming that his demise constitutes the beginning of the end for the FARC. However, the same claims were made after the deaths of three members of the FARC’s secretariat—Manuel Marulanda, Raúl Reyes and Iván Ríos—in March 2008 and the guerrilla group not only survived those setbacks, it actually increased its military actions over the past year. In fact, the FARC has killed more than 50 Colombian soldiers and police over the past month in one of the bloodiest periods of combat in many years.

While the death of Mono Jojoy will undoubtedly prove to be a setback for the FARC in the short term, particularly with regard to troop morale and desertion rates, it will probably not have a significant impact over the long term. After all, Mono Jojoy’s influence and role had already diminished in recent years due to health reasons, primarily diabetes. Furthermore, despite military setbacks, the FARC still has many experienced mid-level commanders who are capable of moving up the ranks—a fact made evident following the deaths of Marulanda, Reyes and Ríos two-and-a-half years ago.

Many analysts also argue—as they did following the deaths of Marulanda, Reyes and Ríos—that the FARC’s new supreme commander Alfonso Cano is more likely to engage in negotiations as a result of the military setbacks. Their latest arguments are based on the premise that Cano is the guerrilla group’s long-time political leader and therefore will be more willing to engage in negotiations than military leaders such as Mono Jojoy. But the assumption that Cano is more open to negotiations is flawed, because the FARC commander is an ideologue who is actually less likely to compromise the rebel group’s political ideals.

Interestingly, the principal obstacle to negotiations both before Mono Jojoy’s death and now is not the FARC, but the government. Previously, the Uribe administration refused to engage in negotiations with the FARC as long as the guerrillas demanded certain conditions, such as the establishment of a safe-haven in which to conduct talks. Last week, FARC commander Cano announced that the guerrilla group is willing “to talk with the current government and find a political solution to the social and armed conflict in the country and without any kind of conditions.” But now it is the Santos government that is setting conditions in order to initiate peace talks, demanding that the FARC first cease its military attacks and kidnapping.

The death of Mono Jojoy, like the killing of Reyes, illustrates the impact of U.S. military aid under Plan Colombia. The military operations that killed the two FARC commanders would not have been possible a decade ago. The Colombian military’s increased intelligence gathering capabilities along with its capacity to rapidly deploy well-trained combat units with U.S.-supplied helicopters has put the FARC on the defensive. The guerrilla group’s internal communications have been compromised and the ability of its leaders to remain undetected in remote jungle regions has been seriously restricted.

Given the Colombian military’s vastly improved capabilities, it will not be a surprise if the FARC’s supreme commander Cano is its next battlefield trophy. After all, the military has deployed more than 4,000 soldiers with the sole mission of tracking down Cano. However, as has occurred in the past, new leaders will simply replace those killed and, given that most FARC units operate on the local level with little regular communication with the group’s secretariat, the death of Mono Jojoy, Cano or any other high-ranking commander will have little direct impact on the daily activities of the rank-and-file. Therefore, the FARC will likely continue its armed struggle in some form or another for many more years.

Ultimately, a negotiated solution is the only way to bring peace to Colombia, but it would have to be a peace with social justice in order to truly end the violence. But the government, empowered by its military successes in recent years, has little desire to engage in any peace process that would affect the social and economic status quo by addressing the country’s gross inequalities and threatening the interests of the ruling elites.