July 25, 1999
By Andres Cala
A small man wearing military fatigues and a twisted old cap paced the gravel road on a ranch near San Vincente del Caguan, about 300 kilometers southeast of Bogota, Colombia.
Elderly but fit, he had a stoic bearing and smiled at passersby, an unthreatening smile, more of a kindly, rumpled grandfather than a legendary guerrilla leader.
Yet, as the political-military crisis grows in Colombia, Manuel Marulanda Velez may become the unlikely leader -- or at least the personal symbol -- of the first leftist guerrilla movement to achieve success in the post-Cold War era.
Despite some sputtering attempts at peace talks, U.S. military experts see the political-military situation slipping beyond the control of Colombia's government and in favor of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known at the FARC, the country's most powerful guerrilla force.
The FARC boasts an army of more than 15,000 men and women in 60 battalions. It controls an estimated one-third of the nation and has a presence virtually everywhere. The government has ceded FARC de facto control of four counties in south-central Colombia.
The Pentagon avoids public statements that could undercut the government of President Andres Pastrana. But U.S. military officials have begun concentrating more on quarantining FARC's influence to Colombia than in anticipating a clear-cut government victory or even a satisfactory negotiated settlement.
Privately, U.S. officials have expressed fears that Colombia, a nation of 35 million people and three times the size of California, could rattle the political stability throughout the northwest quadrant of South America.
There is even talk of a "Balkanization" of the region, the prospect of a messy Yugoslavian-style conflict spreading to Colombia's neighbors, including oil-rich Venezuela and Panama which will soon take control of the Panama Canal.
At the political epicenter of these fears is the surprising figure of Marulanda, who has been fighting the Colombian government for 50 years and founded the FARC 35 years ago. Now 69, Marulanda somehow has survived as one of the longest-living guerrilla fighters in history.
To this day, Marulanda -- often known as "Tirofijo" for "sharp shot" -- is regarded as the supreme leader of the FARC, approving all major decisions. He will likely decide how far the organization will compromise in peace negotiations or whether the FARC simply will press ahead militarily.
But some U.S. observers suggest that Marulanda's influence might be in decline, with some of the younger commanders assuming greater power though affording Marulanda respect as FARC's founder and longtime guiding hand.