BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Alfonso Cano, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), died during a counter-guerrilla operation by the military on Nov. 4, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in a televised speech.
Santos said Cano’s death was “the strongest blow sustained by the guerrilla group in all of its history.”
“Politically, they are defeated,” Santos said on Nov. 5 during a speech in the city of Popayán, 650 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of Bogotá. “Over 95% of the population rejects them, and also militarily they are increasingly weakened.”
A year of intelligence gathering preceded the military operation, he added.
The Colombian military launched strikes Nov. 4 on an area occupied by FARC rebels in the department of Cauca, followed by a ground offensive to surround the area, cutting off escape routes.
Authorities said between 800 and 1,000 troops participated in the raid.
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said the military had been searching for the FARC leader for months, initially believing he was hiding in the Tolima, Valle or Huila departments.
At first, Cano evaded authorities, moving south to be protected by FARC fronts in Cauca.
Finally, a seven-hour firefight erupted when the soldiers caught up with Cano, 63, and his personal security detail.
Soldiers found the body of Cano, who had been wearing fatigues and had shaved his trademark beard.
“The forensic process of his identification has already been completed,” Pinzón said.
Nine bodyguards of Cano’s security detail, as well as his personal nurse, also died during the gunfight, Colombian media reported.
Cano’s body was taken to Popayán for further examination on Nov. 5. Roberto Sáenz, Cano’s brother, is expected to claim the body, Colombian daily El Tiempo reported.
In a strong message to the FARC, Santos said “demobilize or you will end up in prison or in a grave.”
Pinzón added that after Cano’s demise, FARC members must “use this moment to reflect and take historic actions that will take Colombia to prosperity.”
Former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana agreed with Pinzón.
“This is a key moment for the FARC,” he told reporters. “Those in its leadership who remain alive should think very seriously about starting peace negotiations in order to end this war, for the benefit of all Colombians.”
Cano, whose real name was Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas, assumed the direction of the FARC in March 2008 after the death of its founder, Manuel “Tirofijo” Marulanda Vélez.
Cano, who studied law and anthropology at the National University in Bogotá, grew up in a middle-class family, as his father was an agronomist and his mother a teacher.
He began his rise to power in the Communist Party and joined the FARC in the 1970s, quickly rising through the ranks to become the group’s chief ideologist.
His legacy as an ideologue, however, had become tainted with the FARC’s immersion in the illicit narcotics industry, a campaign of terrorism against everyday people, and a sad record of environmental damage.