Colombia's police confirm death of rebel dissident leader in Venezuela

By Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's police on Tuesday confirmed the death in Venezuela of a top commander belonging to a group of former rebels who rearmed following a 2016 peace deal, saying he was killed during a drug trafficking dispute.

Hernan Dario Velasquez, known as El Paisa, is a former member of the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. He and several other well-known commanders said in 2019 they were rearming and forming a faction called Segunda Marquetalia.

Colombian media reported over the weekend that Velasquez was killed in the Venezuelan border state of Apure.

The location had been his base camp for more than two years, national police director General Jorge Luis Vargas told journalists.

"It was because of criminal disputes within the organization. Up to now what we have is confirmation of his death, it all indicates it was an issue of disputes over drug trafficking," Vargas said.

Intelligence sources have told the police thousands of dollars in drug trafficking profits were hidden at the camp where Velasquez died, Vargas added.

The police are also investigating rumors that another well-known Segunda Marquetalia commander, Henry Castellanos Garzon, who uses the alias Romana, was also recently killed, Vargas said.

Velasquez once led the FARC's feared Teofilo Forero unit and stood accused of massacres, kidnappings and large-scale attacks like the bombing of the exclusive El Nogal club in Bogota in 2003, when 39 people died and 200 were injured.

The government of Colombian President Ivan Duque accuses Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of sheltering and protecting FARC dissidents, but Caracas has repeatedly denied the accusations.

Another FARC dissident group, led by alias Gentil Duarte, battles with Segunda Marquetalia for control of drug trafficking routes and cocaine production areas, security sources say.

Dissident groups count some 2,400 fighters in their ranks, according to the Colombian government.

The Venezuelan government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta, additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Alistair Bell)