(Reuters) – Colombian forces killed top FARC rebel leader Alfonso Cano on Friday in the biggest blow yet to Latin America’s longest insurgency and a triumph for President Juan Manuel Santos, the Defense Ministry said.
While unlikely to bring a swift end to nearly five decades of war in the Andean nation, his death will further damage the rebels’ ability to regroup and coordinate the high profile attacks that have brought it worldwide notoriety.
There were few immediate details of the killing, which occurred during combat, according to a ministry official.
“It’s true he’s dead,” he told Reuters.
Even prior to its decapitation, the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, had been battered by a U.S.-backed military campaign that began in 2002, and the waning insurgency has lost several other key commanders in the past four years.
“This brings us closer to victory and peace so that we can stop killing each other,” said Jorge Cordero, a 19-year-old soldier in the north of Bogota
The death of Cano, 63, who took over leadership of the rebels after their founder died in 2008, was a major strategic victory for Santos, who came to office last year promising to keep up a hard-line stance against the guerrillas.
The government had offered up to $3.7 million for information that would lead to his capture.
The death of the bespectacled and bearded rebel commander, a former student activist and communist youth member, followed the killing late last year of one of his main henchmen, Mono Jojoy, in a bombardment and assault on his camp.
REBELS WEAKEST IN DECADES
“It’s going to be more and more hard for them to get through the next years,” said Alfredo Rangel, an independent security analyst.
“There’s no leader with the intensity that Cano has and it will be hard to get someone to replace him. In the short term there will be a lack of leadership. The end won’t be automatic or immediate but we are coming to the end of the FARC.”
Cano went from being a middle-class youth in the capital Bogota to the top FARC leader after taking part in peace talks in neighboring Venezuela and Mexico during the 1990s.
The strike that killed him underscored how Colombia’s military can now attack rebel leaders deep in the mountains and jungles. Once a powerful force controlling large swaths of Colombia, the FARC is at its weakest in decades.
Violence, bombings and kidnapping from the conflict have eased sharply as Colombian troops use better intelligence, U.S. training and technology to take the fight to the rebels.
Foreign investment in Colombia has surged since the military crackdown began in 2002, especially in oil and mining. But the FARC and other armed groups have continued to pose a threat in rural areas where the state’s presence is weak and cocaine trafficking lets the rebels finance their operations.
Desertions and military operations have whittled down rebel ranks to about 7,000 fighters, but the FARC has survived for more than 40 years, and still has a cadre of experienced mid-level commanders. Rebels rely increasingly on hit-and-run tactics and ambushes in rural areas.
The FARC, whose rebels have made incursions into Venezuela and Ecuador at times to elude Colombia’s army, are on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.