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Ballad of a Dead Man

Iván Rios was a remorseless killer and a sophisticate.

In February 2001, while I was doing research for my book on the forgotten wars, I met Iván Ríos, the FARC commander who was recently executed by his own security chief and bodyguard somewhere on the border between the Columbian provinces of Caldia and Antioquia.

This morning's newspapers say he was 40 years old at that time. In my memory he was a little older than that.

In any case, he was the youngest of the seven members of the general secretariat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

He was also the most cultivated of the group, perhaps the most intelligent, the only one to have studied at the university in Medellín. Before he went underground he was called Manuel Muñoz Ortiz, and his relationship with FARC supreme leader Manuel Marulanda Vélez, nicknamed "Tirofijo" ("Sureshot"), was very close. He was in Tirofijo's inner circle. As Osama bin Laden said of another brilliant intellectual, Omar Sheikh, he was a sort of adopted son.

I can see him now in his bunker in Los Pozos, in the middle of the Amazon jungle, laying out for me the series of events that led him, a young, learned Marxist who had grown up with Castroism and read in detail the French writers Louis Althusser and Charles Bettelheim, to join forces with one of the bloodiest guerilla movements on the planet.

I can see him: calm, composed, channeling Camus' "delicate murderer"; a man who had learned to overcome his qualms. He was like a Kaliayev whose years of solitude, of isolation in a jungle, whose paranoia and darkness of soul probably changed him into a wild, angry Stepan Fedorov: inhuman, devoid of scruples or doubts.

I can still see him, his emaciated silhouette, his coiffed hair, his impeccably maintained beard, speaking like a teacher analyzing an extremely complex equation, explaining without the slightest embarrassment the "profound fairness" of the FARC's targeted kidnappings--of Ingrid Betancourt, among others.

I remember him talking to me as we were walking toward the little country airport where Camilo Gomez, the Colombian president's high commissioner for peace, was expected to arrive. Ríos used all his dialectical skills to convince me that the culture of coca, the militarization of clandestine labs where it would be refined, the trafficking of cocaine and its massive commercialization in service of the metropolises of the American Empire, was all a form of resistance to oppression, a way for impoverished peasants broken by capitalists to defend themselves, a politically correct response to the deterioration of the terms of exchange between North and South set in place by American corporations.

Rarely in my life have I come up against rationality gone so mad.

Never had I come so close to this sort of ideological degeneration, turning into the glazed alibi of pure gangsterism.

Now the man is dead.

I looked at the photos published by the Colombian press today. All that remains of his face, where I sometimes glimpsed a furtive smile, a slightly crazed grin that slowly faded away, is his death mask protruding from the white plastic sheet in which his body was wrapped.

I remember his elegant gesture at the rough map tacked to the bunker wall, showing me the zones in the provinces of Huila and Putumayo where apparently the gringos had been spraying defoliants like the ones they once used in Vietnam.

His severed right hand was brought in by Pedro "Rojas" Montoya, the guerilla who killed him. Rojas also brought Ríos' passport and his personal computer to the commander of the San Mateo garrison that has surrounded the FARC for weeks.

In truth, I am wavering between two, no, three different feelings this morning.

First, a certain emotion (why not admit it?) remembering this misled mind, this bright intelligence, which, even on the day I heard him expounding on his intolerable sophisms, was darkly seductive.

Then a true satisfaction because the FARC, this gang, this mafia, is on a real losing streak now, the death of Ríos coming so soon after that of fellow secretariat member Raúl Reyes on March 1 meaning that perhaps the FARC's long-awaited surrender is approaching.

And lastly, the essential thought--no, more than the thought, the fear--regarding the fate of the hostages in general and of Ìngrid Betancourt in particular, in the hours and days to come. Who can say how these wild beasts, these dogs of war, will act when they sense that they have been cornered? And how--in spite of the horror, the crimes, the ineradicable errors of these years of blind terrorism--can we not pray for the beginning of a last, a very last dialogue: one that will spare the innocents.

French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy is the author, most recently, of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville and Ce Grand Cadavre a la Renverse. Translated from French by Sara Sugihara.