Latin America's largest guerrilla army has suffered a devastating setback with the combat death of its leader, who was discovered and felled by three bullets after his camp was bombed, officials said Saturday.
Friday's killing of Alfonso Cano, a bookish 63-year-old from Bogota's middle class, was celebrated by President Juan Manuel Santos as "the hardest blow to this organization in its entire history."
"I want to send a message to each and every member of this organization: demobilize. Because if you don't, as we've said so many times and as we've shown, you will end up in jail or in a tomb," Santos said in a brief televised address late Friday.
The killing, however does not finish off the nearly half-century-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials, FARC.
Financed mostly by drug trafficking, it is comprised largely of peasants with few other opportunities in a country where land ownership is highly concentrated in the hands of a few.
Cano was killed in a remote area of the southwestern state of Cauca along with three other rebels, two men and a woman, hours after his hideout in forested hills was bombed, officials said. They had initially said four other guerrillas were killed.
After government forces bombed the jungle hideout, troops rappelled down from helicopters to search the area, killing Cano in a gun battle a short time later.
Cano was found unarmed, said Maritza Gonzalez, director of the chief prosecutor's office's investigative unit. Her agents positively identified the body by fingerprints. He had shaved off his trademark beard.
The rebel leader had spent all day in hiding after the morning bombing raid and was killed in combat that broke out when, from a house in a clearing several hundred years (meters) from the camp, he went to a stream and was sighted by soldiers, said Gonzalez.
Gen. Gabriel Rey, chief of the army's aviation arm, said the small group of guerrillas guarding the FARC chief fired back with homemade mortars, wounding one soldier.
Authorities released a photograph of Cano's head in which his face did not appear disfigured.
Cano had been the top target of Colombia's armed forces authorities since September 2010, when they killed the insurgency's military chief, Jorge Briceno, in a bombing raid in the southern Macarena massif.
'Losing the war'
Former President Andres Pastrana, who knew Cano from failed 1998-2002 peace negotiations with the rebels, said the death "has to make the FARC think it's losing the war."
Troops recovered seven computers and 39 thumb drives belonging to Cano as well as a stash of cash in currencies including U.S. dollars, euros and Colombian pesos, said Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon.
Cano's body was taken to Popayan, the Cauca state capital, where Santos and the entire military high command flew on Saturday.
The death of Cano, whose real name was Guillermo Leon Saenz, does not signal the imminent demise of Latin America's last remaining major leftist rebel army, analysts said.
"This is a blow to the FARC's morale," said Victor Ricardo, Pastrana's peace commissioner during the failed peace talks. "But by no means can people imagine that this can bring an end to the FARC."
The FARC, which is believed to number about 9,000, has a disciplined military hierarchy and someone is always in line to advance, he said.
Ricardo said the next leader could be rebels known as Ivan Marquez or Timochenko. Both are members of the FARC's ruling seven-member secretariat.
The rebels' leadership has suffered a series of withering blows beginning in March 2008, when the FARC's foreign minister, Raul Reyes, was killed in a bombing raid on a rebel camp across the border in Ecuador. That raid yielded authorities a treasure trove of information from computers and digital storage.
That same month, the FARC's revered co-founder, Manuel Marulanda, died in a mountain hideout of a heart attack. Cano, the rebels' chief ideologist, was named to succeed him.
Several other senior commanders were subsequently killed and rebel desertions, including of midlevel cadres, reached record levels.
And in July 2008, commandos posing as international aid workers rescued former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors and 11 others in an elaborate and bloodless ruse.
That all happened when Santos was defense minister under Alvaro Uribe. The two built military success on billions of dollars of U.S. aid, including training and close intelligence-sharing.
Santos took office as president in August 2010 and was buoyed by the death of Briceno, who was better known by his nickname Mono Jojoy. Santos also began tightening the noose on Cano; several times reports emerged that Cano had nearly been caught.
The FARC nevertheless has been regrouping in recent months, and rural violence has been increasing.
Ironically, Cano had issued a New Year's message praising the president for an initiative that later became law to redress and return stolen land to some 4 million victims of Colombia's long-running conflict.
Most of those had been victims of far-right militias known as paramilitaries that were created in the 1980s to counter kidnapping and extortion by the FARC, which was formed in 1964.
The paramilitaries ended up evolving into criminal gangs who murdered suspected rebel sympathizers and trade unionists and have been blamed for most deaths in Colombia's dirty war.
Cano released a number of video messages after Santos took office in which he urged the president to engage in dialogue with the rebels.
But Santos insisted Cano needed to make a peace gesture, such as halting all kidnappings. The FARC has not done so, and its fighters were blamed for two attacks last month that killed more than 20 soldiers.
The group also holds an unknown number of kidnap victims, apparently including four Chinese oil workers seized in June.