REPORTING FROM BOGOTA, COLOMBIA AND CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- When the presidents of Colombia and Venezuela meet on Monday for one-on-one talks on the sidelines of a Latin America summit, one topic of conversation is sure to be: Where is Timochenko?
Timochenko is the nickname for Rodrigo Londono Echeverry, the new leader of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. He has taken refuge in Venezuela in the past to escape the Colombian army, and some intelligence sources believe that he is there now. So might be Ivan Marquez, the alias of another member of the FARC’s seven-person secretariat.
Although the Colombian government has not claimed officially that the two guerrilla leaders have taken shelter in the neighboring country, President Juan Manuel Santos said Monday that he has an agreement with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: The Venezuelan military will capture any rebel chief whose presence there can be pinpointed.
"If Timochenko is in Venezuela, Chavez will help us capture him," Santos said. "If we have proof of the presence of commanders there and we give him the coordinates, [Chavez] will act immediately."
Colombian officials in former President Alvaro Uribe's administration made little effort to hide their suspicions that Chavez was either actively harboring FARC rebels or turning a blind eye, allegations which the Venezuelan leader consistently denied -- even as he expressed sympathy for the rebels' cause.
Santos, who took office in August 2010, has tried to improve relations and has refrained from alleging that Venezuela harbors the insurgents.
A native of the coffee-growing Quindio province, Timochenko was named on Nov. 16 by FARC to replace his predecessor, alias Alfonso Cano, who was shot to death 12 days earlier in southwest Colombia by commandos equipped with night-vision weapons.
Cano was the fourth member of top FARC leadership to die violently in less than four years, a sign of increased military pressure partly financed by billions of dollars in U.S. aid under Plan Colombia. The FARC ranks now number less than 8,000, down from 20,000 a decade ago, according to some estimates, though the insurgents are far from finished as a fighting force.
Financed by an estimated $300 million to $500 million a year in drug-trafficking profits, the rebels continue to cause mayhem. Lost in the coverage of the high-tech military operation that ended in Cano's death was the fact the FARC had killed two dozen or more police officers and soldiers in ambushes and bombings in recent weeks.
Taking his alias from a Soviet minister of defense under Joseph Stalin, Timochenko, 52, is a former member of a communist youth organization. He spent time in Moscow and the former Yugoslavia, where he is thought to have studied medicine and received military training. A member of the secretariat for 25 years, he is a specialist in intelligence and has been commander of the Mid-Magdalena Block of the FARC.
Intelligence sources have told The Times that they believe he and Marquez cross frequently into Venezuela. The wild Perija Mountains east of the Colombian city of Valledupar and west of the Venezuelan city of Machiques are thought to be a possible sanctuary. Another suspected redoubt in Venezuela is farther to the south, opposite the Colombian state of Arauca.
Timochenko’s past presence in Venezuela was confirmed for many when the Venezuelan state TV station Telesur in 2008 broadcast a video message from Timochenko confirming the death by natural causes of FARC founder Manuel Marulanda. Marquez was photographed visiting Chavez at the Miraflores presidential palace in 2007 when Chavez briefly mediated peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC.
On Tuesday, Santos reiterated that he was willing to negotiate peace with the FARC, after earlier warning Timochenko that he faced the same fate as Cano unless he and other rebels demobilized.
In a defiant open letter this week, his first as FARC commander, Timochenko criticized Santos' tone and the military's display of the corpses of Cano and other dead guerrillas. He insisted that the rebels would continue their struggle.
"This way of showing off power and brutality doesn't win the sympathies of anyone," Timochenko wrote in the letter dated Nov. 19.
The summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders, scheduled for Dec. 1 and 2 in Caracas, was to have been held there in July. It was postponed while Chavez recovered from surgery for cancer.
-- Chris Kraul and Jenny Carolina Gonzalez in Bogota and Mery Mogollon in Caracas.
Photo: Rodrigo Londono Echeverry, a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia known as Timochenko, is seen at a camp at Villa Colombia near San Vicente del Caguan in this image taken from video on Nov. 17. Credit: RCN TV / Reuters