POPAYAN, Colombia (Reuters) - Colombians rejoiced at the killing of top FARC rebel leader Alfonso Cano and hoped the biggest blow yet against Latin America’s longest insurgency could herald an end to nearly five decades of war.
In a triumph for President Juan Manuel Santos’ hardline security policy, officials said forces bombed a FARC jungle hideout in the mountainous southwestern Cauca region.
Troops then rappelled down from helicopters to search the area, killing the widely hated Marxist rebel boss, his girlfriend and several other rebels in a gun battle on Friday.
Pictures of his dead body showed him without his trademark beard, eyes open and his thick glasses dangling from his neck.
The death of Cano, 63, who had a $3.7 million bounty on his head, is unlikely to spell a quick end to a war that has killed tens of thousands in the Andean nation.
But it will further damage the drug trade-funded rebels’ ability to coordinate high profile bombings, ambushes and kidnappings that have brought them worldwide notoriety.
“It is the most devastating blow this group has suffered in its history,” Santos said, speaking at a military base in Popayan, a mountain town close to where Cano was killed.
“I want to send a message to each and every member of that organization: ‘demobilize’ ... or otherwise you will end up in a prison or in a tomb. We will achieve peace.”
Some Colombians spilled into the street overnight, dancing and chanting with joy: “Cano is dead!” Local media splashed photos of Cano across their front pages.
While still supported in some hard left-wing circles due to the FARC’s roots as a peasant insurgency, most Colombians saw Cano as a thug funded by the cocaine trade. As well as the deaths, high-profile kidnappings have traumatized the nation and tarnished its global reputation time-and-time again.
The former student-activist took over leadership of the rebels after the founder of the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, died of a heart attack in 2008.
“This is brilliant news, it’s just one more of those delinquents dead and a step closer to peace,” said Horacio Londono, 53, buying cigarettes at a Bogota coffee stand.
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. The waning insurgency has lost several other key commanders in the past few years.
Cano’s death came after intelligence from a former rebel.
Six laptops were found along with 39 memory sticks, cellphones and cash in pesos, dollars and euros.
Cano’s death was a massive strategic victory for Santos, who came to office last year vowing to keep up a hard-line security stance.
It will ease the pressure on the president, who has been criticized over a recent upsurge in small-scale attacks, and it will reassure investors in the booming oil and mining sectors.
Foreign investment in Colombia has surged since the military crackdown began in 2002. But the FARC and other armed groups still pose a threat in rural areas where state presence is weak and cocaine trafficking finances their operations.
Many FARC fighters, demoralized by the military offensive that has cut them off from supplies of food, weapons and clothing, have begun to turn themselves in, rat on the leadership and question the basis of the struggle.
Bogota has hobbled the FARC’s once sophisticated communications, which until a few years ago were possible across vast swathes of jungle and mountains using radios.
Spy planes and listening technology have now left the FARC reliant on cellphone text messages and foot couriers.
It was not immediately clear who would take over from Cano, though analysts suggested FARC commanders Ivan Marquez or Timoleon Jimenez, known as Timochenko, could be candidates.
“There’s no leader with the intensity that Cano has and it will be hard to get someone to replace him,” said Alfredo Rangel, an independent security analyst. “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 communist youth activist in Bogota to become the top FARC leader after taking part in peace talks in Venezuela and Mexico during the 1990s.
The strike that killed him underscored how Colombia’s military can now attack rebel leaders in the country’s most remote regions. Once a powerful force controlling large swaths of Colombia, the FARC is at its weakest in decades.
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 are relying increasingly on hit-and-run tactics and ambushes in rural areas.
Though most Colombians profess hatred for the FARC, there is still some residual support, including universities where pro-rebel graffiti sometimes appears.
“The death of Alfonso Cano does not mean the end of the FARC,” said Robert Munks of IHS Jane’s think tank.
“President Santos will now be well-placed to promote a peace process involving a negotiated solution to the insurgency at the same time as maintaining military pressure.”
Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta, Jack Kimball Helen Murphy, Nelson Bocanegra and Julia Cobb; Writing by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Jackie Frank