Saturday, 5 November 2011

Colombia leftist guerrilla leader Alfonso Cano killed

Alfonso Cano, the top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, was killed by Colombian troops during an anti-guerrilla operation, a local governor announced.

"The military has thus achieve
d one of its most important goals," Alberto Gonzalez Mosquera, governor of Cauca department, told local radio.
Elite Colombian forces had been hunting Alfonso Cano, 63, for three years since he had ascended to the top of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, following the death in 2008 from a heart attack of Manuel Marulanda, the guerrillas’ legendary leader. Earlier that same year, Colombian forces killed FARC’s second-in-command, Raúl Reyes, in a raid carried out on Ecuadorean soil.

The setbacks suffered by FARC, which also included the killing last year of their field marshal known as Mono Jojoy, form part of a broad weakening of the rebel group during the past decade, with hundreds of its combatants deserting in recent years and its ranks thinning considerably from a peak of an estimated 17,000.

The military operation by some 1,000 soldiers that killed Mr. Cano, a hard-liner who joined FARC after dabbling in university politics in Bogotá, the capital, was code-named “Odyssey,” a word that could also describe Colombia’s long, meandering struggle against FARC, a Marxist-inspired group which has financed itself from the cocaine trade and abductions.

The killing of Mr. Cano in Cauca, a region in southwest Colombia, allowed some in the country to ponder whether FARC was finally being marginalized as a security threat. “No one else can keep the group together like he did,” said Marta Lucia Ramírez, a former Colombian defense minister, speaking of Mr. Cano.

“They’ve stopped being a threat for Colombian democracy,” said Ms. Ramírez, “but they continue being a threat to the citizenry.”

FARC still has the capacity to carry out deadly attacks on Colombia’s security forces. In the space of a few days last month, one attack attributed to the group killed 10 soldiers in the southern province, of Nariño and killed 10 more soldiers in Arauca, near the border with Venezuela.

Mr. Cano, a bespectacled, bearded former anthropologist, had adopted his nom de guerre after joining FARC. He grew up in Bogotá’s middle class; his real name was Guillermo Saenz. With his bookish appearance, Mr. Cano differed from others with rougher origins in FARC’s high command.

Juan Carlos Pinzón, Colombia’s defense minister, said Mr. Cano was clean-shaven when he was killed in a firefight after fleeing a bombing raid. He said the operation killed four other guerrillas, while five others were captured, which would be a surprisingly small amount of men accompanying FARC’s top commander.

“His wallet, glasses and weapons were recovered,” Mr. Pinzón told journalists in Bogotá. Mr. Cano’s body was taken to the city of Popayán, and a photograph was distributed to Colombian media. He declined to comment on whether the United States, the top provider of military aid to Colombia, had assisted in the operation.

Ariel Ávila, a conflict analyst with the Colombian think tank Arco Iris, said that Mr. Cano’s killing dealt a political blow to FARC, since he symbolized the group’s small amount of support in urban areas, as well as a military blow, since Mr. Cano had overseen a more aggressive strategy of holding ground against advances by Colombia’s army.

“The military forces can take a deep breath” Mr. Ávila said Saturday from Bogotá. “But this isn’t the end of the guerrillas; they still have some time left.”

Indeed, despite the killings of prominent FARC leaders, Colombia’s war against that and other armed groups has entered a complicated new phase. Advances against FARC and the National Liberation Army, or E.L.N., a smaller guerrilla group, have squeezed the insurgents into border areas with Venezuela and Ecuador.

Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, has improved relations with both countries, and Venezuela and Ecuador seem to be cooperating more with the capture of some midlevel guerrillas. But once the rebels cross Colombia’s borders and onto neighboring soil, they still face much less pressure from well-trained Colombian forces which have pursued them for years.

Two FARC commanders who have operated along Colombia’s border with Venezuela, Iván Márquez and José Benito Cabrera (who uses the alias Timochenko), are thought to be contenders to take Mr. Cano’s place. But analysts of Colombia’s war against FARC say Mr. Cano’s successor will face challenges in maintaining unity among the group’s various factions.

FARC’s weakening has also raised the possibility that a new top commander might engage in talks with Colombia’s government to seek an end to the long guerrilla war. Of the options left to FARC, Gustavo Petro, the newly elected mayor of Bogotá and himself a former guerrilla with the M-19 group, said, “Dialogue is the only way

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