Colombia's FARC rebels choose hardliner 'Timochenko' to lead

FARC's move to put Timoleon Jimenez, also known as 'Timochenko,' in charge could prove a major obstacle to Colombia's hopes for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

In this undated video image broadcast by the Venezuela-based Telesur network, Timoleon Jimenez, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reads a statement in an unknown location in Colombia. The ruling junta of Colombia's main rebel group designated him the new chief on Nov. 5, a day after the top guerrilla commander Alfonso Cano was killed in southwestern Colombia.

Colombia's hopes for a peaceful solution to the 47-year civil conflict may have suffered a setback after the FARC opted for a military, rather than a political leader, as their new commander-in-chief.

The seven-man ruling body of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Secretariat, has voted Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, alias "Timoleon Jimenez" or "Timochenko," to be the new rebel supreme commander. Timochenko was the senior of the two candidates for the top position in the guerrilla army. His competitor, and according to many analysts (including InSight Crime), the better qualified, was Luciano Marin Arango, alias "Ivan Marquez."

"We wish to inform you that the comrade Timoleon Jimenez, with the unanimous vote of his companions of the Secretariat, was designated on 5 November, the new commander of the FARC-EP," read the guerrilla communiqué.

Timochenko is one of the least known members of the FARC Secretariat. He has granted almost no interviews to the media and did not take part in any of the peace talks between the FARC and the government in the 1980s or 1990s.

He joined the FARC in 1982, becoming part of the 9th Front in the department of Antioquia. He was promoted very quickly, and just four years later, in 1986, became the fifth member of what was to become the seven-man Secretariat. When the FARC created its system of 'blocs' or fighting divisions, Timochenko was given that of the Magdalena Medio, a complex and strategic area in the northeast of the country.

Sources close to the FARC have said that Timochenko represents the traditional and hard line of the FARC. He was very close to the FARC founder and supreme commander Pedro Marin, better known by his alias "Manuel Marulanda," who died of natural causes in 2008. Those who took part in peace negotiations with the FARC said that Manuel Marulanda, and his protégés Timochenko and Jorge Suarez, alias "Mono Jojoy," (killed in an aerial bombardment in September 2010) had little interest in pursuing a political solution to the conflict. They were committed to the military struggle to take power. Those described as most interested in serious political negotiation were Guillermo Leon Saenz, alias "Alfonso Cano," the previous FARC commander-in-chief, killed by the army on November 4, and Ivan Marquez.

Part of Timochenko's radicalism can perhaps be explained by his experiences in the FARC. In the 1980s and 1990s, when the right-wing paramilitaries, initially funded by the Medellin drug cartel and supported by elements of the security forces, began killing left-wing sympathizers, the violence was most pronounced in Antioquia and the Magdalena Medio region, where Timochenko had his FARC beginnings. The paramilitary army of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the FARC's most bitter enemy, was born in Antioquia and put down its strongest roots around Magdalena Medio, conducting massacres of suspected rebels, while the security forces in many cases either cooperated or looked the other way.

After the killing of Alfonso Cano last week, President Juan Manuel Santos insisted that the leadership of the FARC would "fall like a house of cards." This is most unlikely, as Timochenko, with almost 30 years in the FARC, has widespread respect among the rank-and-file, particularly the hardliners that form the core of the rural fighters.

Timochenko is also likely to present a far more difficult target for the Colombian security forces then his predecessor Alfonso Cano. First of all, he is known to move freely in Venezuelan territory. This is an insurmountable obstacle for the Colombian government, as after the Colombian air force bombed a FARC camp in Ecuador in March 2008, killing Secretariat member Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias "Raul Reyes," President Hugo Chavez stated that any such aggression in Venezuelan territory would lead to war.

The files seized from the computers of Raul Reyes show that Timochenko has strong links to elements in the Chavez regime, both political and military. The files suggest that he provided training for Chavista irregulars. There are also messages by Timochenko talking about elements of the Venezuelan Armed Forces and intelligence helping with the movement of personnel, money, and drugs. There is also mention the Venezuelan security forces providing ammunition, weapons, and medical supplies. While the word "cocaine" never appears in the Reyes files, with the rebels preferring to use non-existent words like "maracachafas," the meaning is clear. Indeed, Timochenko, along with his second-in-command of the Magdalena Medio Bloc, Felix Antonio Muñoz Lascarro, alias "Pastor Alape," are wanted by the US on drug trafficking charges. The US has placed a $5 million bounty on the head of Timochenko, making him one of the US's most wanted.

Timochenko has also been the FARC's head of intelligence and counterintelligence, and is known to be cautious, bordering on paranoid. He prefers to stay on the move, seldom spending more than one night in the same place, and not using guerrilla camps, instead sleeping in peasant huts or in small lean-to's built in the jungle. Intelligence sources told InSight Crime that Timochenko spends his time moving between the Colombian department of Norte De Santander and the Venezuelan state of Zulia, which sits across the border. There have recently been reports of Timochenko up in the Serrania de Perija, a mountain range further to the north which forms the frontier between Colombia and Venezuela.

Timochenko has up to 250 fighters of the Magdalena Medio Bloc as his personal bodyguard, and is known to have a web of militiamen and informants in Norte De Santander, who give him advance warning of security force movements. There is also evidence that Timochenko handles highly placed spies within the security forces and government institutions. He is credited with warning the Secretariat in 1990 of the imminent attack on the FARC's home base of Casa Verde in the department of Meta, allowing Manuel Marulanda, Alfonso Cano, and other rebel leaders to escape the army trap to capture and kill them.

There is unlikely to be any marked change in guerrilla strategy of tactics under Timochenko. To be sure, the FARC communiqué stated that with his election, "The continuity of the Strategic Plan for the taking of power by the people is guaranteed."

The Colombian interior minister, German Vargas Lleras, stated that Timochenko had now become the government's priority target. Having seen Alfonso Cano killed just three years after assuming the leadership of the FARC, Timochenko will need all of his military skills, intelligence-gathering capabilities, and paranoia to stay alive and keep the FARC together.

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