Colombian Rebel Commander ‘Jesús Santrich’ Said to Be Killed in Venezuela

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — A prominent former commander of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, who was known by the nom de guerre Jesús Santrich, has been killed in Venezuela, according to three Venezuelan government officials.

The officials did not say how he died. The armed group he ran confirmed his death in a message on its website, blaming the killing on Colombian officials, without providing any evidence. Colombian officials say they are still working to confirm his death, and did not immediately respond to the group’s allegation.

The rebel leader, whose real name was Seuxis Hernández Solarte, helped lead the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, before becoming one of the negotiators who struck a peace deal with the Colombian government in 2016, ending five decades of war.

He then turned against the deal, and returned to arms.

Mr. Hernández — recognizable throughout the country because he often wore dark glasses and a checkered scarf — was, in many ways, a symbol of the difficult balance Colombia has had to strike as it works to leave behind the bloody conflict that displaced millions, killed at least 220,000 and defined the nation for generations.

When the disarmed rebels created a political party and were granted seats in Congress as part of the peace agreement, one of the positions went to Mr. Hernández — but he never served, as authorities in Colombia and the United States accused him of returning to the drug trade, a violation of the accord.

Following his detention on those charges and eventual release from prison, he vanished from public view, only to reappear alongside another rebel leader, Luciano Marín, known by the alias Iván Márquez, in a 2019 video in which they issued a new call to arms, arguing the government had failed to uphold its end of the bargain.

That announcement by the two ex-leaders was a further blow to Colombians’ hopes for lasting peace, with the agreement having already been undercut by failures by both sides to comply with its terms. The country’s countryside is still the site of mass killings, forced displacement and the recruitment and killing of children.

Critics of the deal said Mr. Hernández was proof that the FARC would never give up fighting, or crime, while supporters of the agreement pointed out that a vast majority of former fighters have indeed given up arms — and claimed that the Colombian government’s failure to hold up its end of the deal was helping to push some people back to the jungle.

Colombian officials have claimed, without providing concrete evidence, that Mr. Hernández was hiding out in neighboring Venezuela, which has become a refuge for armed groups that oppose the Colombian government and have taken over drug smuggling routes and illegal mining in Venezuela.

Following the 2016 peace deal, about 13,000 FARC fighters laid down their arms. But a few refused to do so, and have formed new rebel groups known as the FARC dissidents. Mr. Hernández had become a leader of one of those groups, the Segunda Marquetalia.

Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert for the Washington Office on Latin America, said that the death of Mr. Hernández was a “symbolic blow” to the Segunda Marquetalia — and that the rebel leader’s presence in Venezuela shows how deeply the dissidents had penetrated the country.

In March, the Venezuelan military launched its biggest operation in decades to dislodge a dissident FARC faction known as the Tenth Front, breaking with years of de facto tolerance of Colombian guerrillas in its national territory.

The fighting has since ground to a stalemate, claiming the lives of more than 20 Venezuelan soldiers, the country’s biggest military loss in recent history, according to activists tracking the conflict.

Just before the death of Mr. Hernández, the Colombian Supreme Court had indicated it was in favor of extraditing him to the United States to answer to drug charges. U.S. officials accuse him of working to produce and distribute about 10 tons of cocaine to the United States

Julie Turkewitz reported from Bogotá and Anatoly Kurmanaev reported from Mexico City. Mariana Martínez contributed reporting from Caracas.

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