Image: Manuel Marulanda
Ricardo Mazalan  /  AP file
Manuel Marulanda, center, the founder and top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is shown in a Feb. 9, 2001, photo. Colombia Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told a magazine that Marulanda may have died in March.
msnbc.com news services
updated 5/24/2008 10:07:46 PM ET 2008-05-25T02:07:46

The legendary leader of Latin America's largest guerrilla army has died after more than 40 years fighting the state from jungle and mountain camps, the Colombian government said on Saturday.

The death of Manuel Marulanda, known as Sureshot, who organized the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrilla force in the 1960s, would be the heaviest blow suffered by Latin America's oldest surviving insurgency, already weakened by a serious of military setbacks.

"Through military intelligence, we learned Pedro Antonio Marin, alias Manuel Marulanda or Sureshot, the principal chief of the FARC, is dead," the Defense Ministry said in a statement. "The cause of death is still to be confirmed."

Rumors that Marulanda had died or fallen seriously ill have surfaced before, but they have never been confirmed. He was believed to be about 80 and has not been seen in public since failed peace talks more than five years ago.

Colombia's government has announced his death various times over the past 15 years, but each time proof that he was alive cropped up months later.

"If (the FARC) are going to say that the information we have is not true, they should show him," said the statement, which was read by the military's chief of staff, Adm. David Moreno. It said Marulanda has been replaced as FARC leader by a rebel ideologue known as Alfonso Cano.

The army has for months said it has Cano cornered in the southwest Colombian jungle and that his death or capture is imminent. FARC statements have denied Cano is in the area.

Severe setbacks for rebels
The FARC has suffered the worst setbacks in its history this year, including the killing of its chief spokesman and a senior commander and the defection of a female leader well regarded inside the rebel group.

Marulanda either died of a heart attack, according to rebel information, or during military bombardments in late March in the southern jungles where he spent much of guerrilla life, the ministry said.

Born to a poor peasant family as Pedro Antonio Marin, Marulanda took up arms in a left-wing insurgency fighting for social justice in the 1960s. He and other survivors of a 1964 army attack on a peasant community escaped to the mountains and formed the FARC.

Marulanda's deadly aim in combat against the army earned him the name "Sureshot."

Notoriously reclusive, 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.

With little popular support, Marulanda's rebels have been driven into remote jungles and mountains, but remain a potent force in some areas, bolstered by money from drug smuggling. U.S. and E.U. officials list the FARC as terrorists.

U.S.-backed campaign takes toll
Violence from the conflict has eased as President Alvaro Uribe, backed by billions in U.S. military aid, has sent troops to retake areas once under guerrilla control. Often using homemade landmines and mortars, the FARC is still battling security forces.

But several top FARC commanders have been killed or captured recently as the rebels struggle against increasing military pressure and growing desertions from their ranks.

Experts said Marulanda's authority had been a cohesive element in the FARC, which during its peak had 17,000 fighters but is now closer to 9,000 combatants.

"The FARC is like a dying giant, dying slowly, but this is the beginning of the end," Pablo Casas, an analyst at Bogota think tank Security and Democracy. "I don't see any factor they can use to keep a strong structure. It will start collapsing."

Scores of hostages still held
The FARC's No. 2, Raul Reyes, was killed in March when Colombian troops raided his base inside Ecuador, in an operation that triggered a regional crisis with Venezuela and Ecuador briefly ordering troops to Colombia's frontier.

Colombian and U.S. officials say files found on Reyes' computer indicate Venezuela's President Hugh Chavez and Ecuadorean leader Rafael Correa provided financial support or backing to the rebels. Both leaders deny those charges.

While Marulanda's death may be a blow to the FARC's structure, questions linger over the fate of scores of hostages the guerrillas have held for years, including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans.

Attempts to broker a deal to free kidnap victims are deadlocked over rebel demands that Uribe demilitarize a rural zone for negotiations. He refuses, saying that would allow the FARC to rearm and regroup in a strategic region.

This report includes information from Reuters and The Associated Press.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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