Raul Reyes and Colombia's tragedy

On March 1, Raul Reyes, a central leader of the 18,000-strong left-wing guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was killed in an illegal midnight attack by the Colombian army. The attack targetted a FARC encampment three kilometres south of the border in the Putumayo province of Ecuador.

At least 21 FARC members were killed in their sleep during the cluster bomb attack. The Colombian military then invaded Ecuadorian territory to retrieve the body of Reyes, the FARC's chief negotiator and public spokesperson. Reyes bloodied corpse, still wearing pyjamas, was presented to the Colombian media as a trophy.

Reyes — born Luis Edgar Devia Silva on September 30, 1948 — began his revolutionary activities as a member of the youth organisation of the Colombian Communist Party, where he became an organiser.

Reyes became a union militant, working at a Nestle plant, until 1980, when he, along with many other unionists, was kidnapped and tortured by the army.

Seeing few alternatives, he moved to the mountains to join the FARC, which was waging an armed struggle against the Colombian dictatorship. Reyes' transformation — from union activist to guerrilla — reflects the tragic reality of politics in Colombia, which holds the macabre record of the highest rate of killings of trade unionists in the world.

By 1984, Reyes was on the seven-member FARC secretariat and, as their chief international spokesperson, became the best-known face of the FARC.

The current armed conflict in Colombia dates back more than five decades, to "La Violencia", the 10-year civil war between the Conservative and Liberal parties of the Colombian oligarchy that caused at least 200,000 deaths from 1948-'58.

Many workers and peasants fled the violence, creating independent "peace communities" in the country's south. When the government attacked these communities, residents formed self-defence organisations with the assistance of the communist party. Out of these groups, the FARC was formed in 1964.

Since John F. Kennedy's administration, the US government has funded and supported the Colombian government in its brutal counter-insurgency war and state repression against the Colombian people — more than half of whom live in abject poverty.

After a truce was negotiated in 1984, the FARC helped form the Patriotic Union (UP), which participated in elections and won a number of senators and hundreds of local councillors. A wave of terror was unleashed in the year following the elections that resulted in 4000 UP activists being murdered.

Faced with this mass slaughter, the FARC withdrew back to the jungle, where they now control around a third of Colombian territory.

In the late '90s, the FARC took part in peace negotiations with President Andres Pastrana's government. They were again betrayed. Under the cover of a truce, the Colombian government prepared for an escalation of its war.

The US and Colombian government's devised Plan Colombia, whereby the US provides Colombia with around US$600 million in military aid each year.

Ostensibly part of the "war on drugs", Plan Colombia actually focused on the part of the country controlled by the guerrillas, while ignoring areas controlled by the right-wing terrorist paramilitaries of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

Despite claims from the US and Colombian governments, the FARC denies it is involved in drug trafficking, insisting its involvement extends only as far as refusing to forcibly eradicate the coca plants that are the only source of income for impoverished peasants in territories that it control. The FARC calls for alternative crops to be provided for peasants to grow.

A 2002 Colombian government report admitted that the FARC garners only 2.5% of the profits of the cocaine industry, through taxes imposed on the areas it controls. By contrast, the AUC (linked to the Colombian state) receives 40% of drug profits, and is connected to the large cocaine cartels.

Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe is himself linked to both the paramilitaries and the illicit drug trade. Uribe's father was a drug trafficker killed by the FARC in 1983. Uribe was close friends with notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. In 1991, the US Defense Intelligence Agency listed Uribe as one of Colombia's top 100 drug lords.

As governor of Antioquia province, Uribe was also an architect of the Convivirs, the immediate predecessors of the AUC. When the Convivirs were outlawed in 1997, they were simply transformed into the then-legal AUC. The AUC are responsible for the murder over 800 people every year, including trade unionists, peasant leaders and peace activists, and claim to control 35% of the Colombia's Congress.

It was in the struggle against this system — of state-sponsored terror, controlled by drug lords, and terrible poverty — that Reyes gave his life. At the time of his assassination, the FARC were again negotiating for prisoner exchanges with the Colombian government.

Reyes was centrally involved in these negotiations — which was torpedoed by Uribe in November. He was the key negotiator with the French government over negotiations for the release of French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, who is being held by the FARC.

Reyes insisted that the FARC "is struggling for a new Colombia, hand in hand with the Colombian people. The FARC is part of the people. It is struggling for political power so that there are no exploiters or exploited, so that we can have a just society."

Uribe's brutal murder of Reyes and other FARC fighters was aimed at destroying this goal.