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Colombia touts rebel leader's surrender

May 20, 2008|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — A high-ranking Colombian rebel leader has given herself up, the latest defection that suggests the government's efforts to strike at the group's leadership is succeeding.

Analysts said the surrender of Nelly Avila Moreno, alias Karina, is a blow to the morale of the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in whose ranks she fought for 24 years, earning a reputation as a fierce, resourceful and ruthless leader.

Moreno's surrender Sunday in southern Antioquia state brings to six the number of commanders who have surrendered, been killed or been captured in the last year. Her partner, Abelardo Montes, alias Michin, and a daughter also surrendered to undercover Colombian police.

Moreno, 40, was one of the bloodiest and most feared FARC commanders, and officials suspect her of having orchestrated mass murders and summary executions. The half a dozen criminal charges pending against her include murder, terrorism, drug trafficking and human rights abuses.

There was no indication Monday whether the Colombian government offered to drop some or all of the charges in exchange for her surrender. Government sources did say that Moreno negotiated her surrender over the course of two weeks.

At a news conference in Medellin, Moreno said she surrendered because of increasing Colombian army pressure, the deterioration of rebel forces and her fear she might be killed by her own troops for the $900,000 bounty on her head.

"You may have a lot of fighters at your side, but you never have an idea of what they are really thinking," Moreno told reporters at an army base. She said the leftist group was "crumbling" and she had not had any direct communication with the top FARC leadership in two years.

In March, two members of the seven-person FARC secretariat, known by their aliases Raul Reyes and Ivan Rios, were killed. Reyes died in a Colombian raid in Ecuador, and Rios was shot to death in southwestern Colombia by his bodyguard, who later sought a $2.5-million reward. Moreno was not part of the secretariat but led a unit of up to 300 fighters.

Moreno had earned notoriety by enforcing rebel control with an iron hand over drug trafficking in Caldas and Antioquia states. Peasants had started growing coca there after FARC promises of big profits, but those who later became disenchanted found that they were not allowed to quit.

Farmers in a village near the town of Pensilvania told The Times in 2006 that Moreno gave those who tried to give up coca a day to leave their farms. Those who tried to sell coca paste to non-FARC-approved buyers were killed.

"She was a woman who rose in the ranks because of her audacity and cruelty," Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said in a statement Monday.

On Sunday, a humbled Moreno walked with her partner and child to a meeting point to give herself up after the weeks of private negotiations with police. President Alvaro Uribe had made an unusual public plea for her surrender.

Since Uribe took office in 2002, the Colombian armed forces have dramatically reduced the territory under FARC control. Defections and attrition have reduced the group's ranks to between 8,000 and 12,000 from as many as 18,000 in 2002, according to military analysts' estimates.

Colombian officials say 1,181 rebels have turned themselves in this year for "reinsertion" into Colombian society, an 8% increase from the 1,098 who surrendered over the same period last year.

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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