Page last updated at 15:40 GMT, Sunday, 25 May 2008 16:40 UK

Obituary: Manuel Marulanda

Manuel Marulanda,
Marulanda is rumoured to have never set foot in Colombia's capital

Pedro Marin, better known by his nom de guerre, Manuel Marulanda, led Colombia's biggest rebel movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) since its inception in 1964.

Over more than four decades, he turned a few dozen armed farmers into a thousands-strong organisation that has staged South America's longest-running and largest insurgency.

Rarely seen in public, and rumoured to have died on numerous occasions, Marulanda was an elusive enemy of the Bogota government.

Yet time ran out for the legendary revolutionary leader in May 2008, when the movement confirmed he was dead, claiming he had died of a heart attack in March.

Military mastermind

Marulanda was born - around 1930 - into a poor peasant family in Genova, a coffee growing town in western Colombia.

He was radicalised as a teenager, after several relatives died in the vicious Colombian civil wars in the middle of the last century.

He fled to the mountains to oppose the conservative government, later embracing Marxism, and earning the nickname Tirofijo, or Sureshot, for his deadly aim in combat.

Farc was born in May 1964, when Marulanda's group of 48 armed farmers came under attack from the military in the enclave of Marquetalia, in southern Colombia.

Over the years Farc grew to include some 15,000 fighters, although the Colombian government believes it is now about 9,000-strong. The rebels currently hold hundreds of people hostage and traffic drugs to fund their insurgency.

Marulanda always remained Farc's political and military mastermind. An avid student of military history, he was considered a master of guerrilla warfare.

Notoriously reclusive - hardly surprising for a most-wanted revolutionary - he is said to have never set foot in Colombia's capital or to have left the country, giving just a handful of interviews over the course of his life.

His official biographer, Arturo Alape, has described him as a reserved and serene man, who speaks with a deliberate and paternal tone. The guerrilla fighter is said to have fathered seven children, though he never married.

Inspirational figure

Marulanda gained wider fame in the late 1990s, when the Colombian government withdrew troops from a Switzerland-size area of the country for peace talks.

After several years, negotiations collapsed. Farc was blamed for hijacking a commercial airliner and kidnapping two passengers.

With the election of President Alvaro Uribe three months later, the drive to eradicate Farc moved to the top of the administration's priority list.

Marulanda has long been an inspirational figure for the guerrillas, and correspondents say that his death could ultimately lead to a break-up of Farc.

Yet some envisage his successor - a political leader of the rebel movement known as Alfonso Cano - may bring much needed change to Farc and seek to end the series of defeats that the rebels have suffered for the last five years.

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