BOGOTA, Colombia-- A former commander of Colombia’s rebels, an accused cocaine trafficker who signed the country’s 2016 peace accord only to walk away from a Senate seat and declare war again on the country with which he had negotiated peace, was killed Tuesday.
The death of Jesús Santrich, who spent almost 30 years in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was confirmed Tuesday evening by the rebel splinter group he commanded in the border region of Venezuela.
In its announcement, the group, Segunda Marquetalia, blamed Colombian special forces which it said had crossed the border illegally into Venezuela to ambush Santrich’s security detail in the border department of Zulia. They killed him with grenades and small arms fire before removing his pinky finger and returning to Colombia in a yellow helicopter, the group said.
Colombian authorities have yet to confirm Santrich’s death, other than a statement by the Defense Minister that the government was trying to confirm rumors he had been killed during a confrontation between armed groups near the border.
The Venezuelan government has given no official statement on the incident.
Entry of Colombian commandos into Venezuelan territory would be a violation of Venezuelan sovereignty, and if the claim is true, represent a serious escalation in existing tensions between the two countries, which cut diplomatic relations in 2019.
Analysts said the killing could further destabilize the volatile mix in the border region of Colombian rebels, who mostly run criminal operations there, and security forces from both countries. The attack in March by Venezuelan armed forces against another ex-FARC splinter group in the department of Apure ended what had appeared to be Venezuela’s tolerance for the rebels’ presence on its territory.
“Without doubt, the clashes will intensify and possibly expand to other parts of the country,” said Juan Francisco García, a field researcher for Fundaredes, a Venezuelan NGO in the border region.
Along with another top FARC leader, known as Iván Márquez, “Santrich was the most visible face of the organisation,” said Jeremy McDermott, co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime, a think tank that studies organized crime in the Americas.
“His death is certainly a bitter blow for the Segunda Marquetalia faction of the ex-FARC Mafia.”
Santrich, 54, carried a $10 million dollar price on his head: a reward placed there by the United States, which is seeking his extradition to stand trial on drug charges.
In April 2018, a year after the peace deal went into effect, U.S. authorities charged him with conspiring to traffic cocaine to the United States, and he was arrested by Colombian security forces. But Santrich was released from jail before he could be extradited after Colombia’s peace tribunal (JEP) ruled that U.S. authorities had not presented enough evidence to hold him in Colombia.
Santrich abandoned the peace deal in 2019, accusing the government of failing to live up to its side of the agreement. He walked away from a 2018 Senate appointment negotiated as part of the accord, to return to the life he knew best as a rebel leader.
In August 2019, Santrich and Márquez, whose real name is Luciano Marín Arango, declared war on Colombia in a video announcement with other former FARC guerrillas that they posted on Youtube. At the time, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro welcomed them both to Venezuela.
Researchers and Colombian officials speculate that Santrich then took refuge in the violent border region as he led Segunda Marquetalia. U.S. and Colombian officials say the group is engaged in a host of illegal activities on both sides of the border, from cocaine smuggling, to extortion and illegal mining.
Andrei Serbin Pont, analyst and director of CRIES, a think tank on international conflict in Buenos Aires, said that Segunda Marquetalia’s version of Santrich’s death was only one possibility. Mercenaries going after the bounty might have killed him. Other plausible hypotheses include the Venezuelan military or even Segunda Marquetalia itself, he said.
Santrich, whose real name was Seuxis Hernández Solarte, is believed to have joined the FARC in 1991, at the height of the five-decade long Colombian civil war. His trademark look of checkered scarves and dark sunglasses -- he was blind since 2011, the result of a degenerative disease -- was a near daily image on the front pages of Colombian newspapers.