In a telling footnote, the guerrilla commander died in a rugged region of southwest Colombia that was far from the area where he normally operated, with the state’s intelligence apparatus pinpointing his whereabouts with the help of informers within his own rebel group, military officials said.
The rebel leader, widely known to Colombians by the alias Alfonso Cano, was apparently shot three times outside a small house hours after an aerial bombardment had flushed him from a guerrilla encampment, the military reported. His death leaves the other six members of the group’s ruling circle, the secretariat, with the challenge of choosing a leader who can both command respect and unite a waning fighting force accused of trafficking cocaine to the United States.
Since 2008, aerial bombardments have killed two members of the secretariat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, dozens of guerrillas have been deserting every month, and the group’s ability to hold territory has been sharply diminished.
“This is a major blow, the most important against the FARC because of the importance that Alfonso Cano had within the rest of the secretariat,” President Juan Manuel Santos told reporters Saturday afternoon at the scene of the military operation. “What many analysts had said was if Alfonso Cano were killed he would be irreplaceable.”
In urging FARC members to join a government-run disarmament program, the president noted that Cano could not be saved by several rings of rebel security specialists. “This can serve as a warning: No member of the FARC can be safe in any corner of the country,” Santos said.
Analysts said Cano’s sudden departure from conflict, which began in 1964 with the FARC’s birth, poses a difficult test for a rebel group with national pretensions. Some observers who have closely tracked the FARC believe Cano’s death could in time lead to a fragmentation within the group’s many units.
“This is the beginning of them being less of a national organization,” Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, said by phone from northern Colombia. “There’s going to be tremendous centrifugal forces inside the FARC, with the units that are the biggest and with the most money looking for ways to distance themselves.”
Rodrigo Rojas, who worked to disarm smaller rebel groups in the past, said Cano had not fully consolidated himself because he had only been commander since 2008, when the rebel’s founder, Manuel Marulanda, died of a heart attack. Cano, meanwhile, has been more focused in recent months on just “trying to keep from getting himself killed,” said Rojas, who works with rural communities in war zones with the Catholic group Pax Christi Netherlands.