By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 11:48 PM
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - Fighter-bombers have reportedly killed the legendary military strategist of Colombia's main rebel group, a strike that President Juan Manuel Santos on Thursday called the biggest yet against a guerrilla organization that has been fighting the state since the 1960s.
The commander known as Jorge Briceno, 57, was killed Wednesday morning when Colombian aircraft bombed a large rebel base operated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in the country's remote south. Colombian commandos later recovered the body, and the military confirmed the identity of the rebel chief Thursday, Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera told reporters in Bogota.
Santos, a former defense minister who has close ties to the Obama administration, called the guerrilla's death a "historic moment for Colombia" in comments at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
"This is the most important blow ever against the FARC," Santos, who took office last month, told Colombians in remarks carried on national television. "He was a symbol of terror who had done so much damage to our country."
Briceno was an alias. To Colombians, the strapping, fair-skinned commander, with his trademark black beret and bushy mustache, was better known as El Mono Jojoy, a reference to a pale worm found on Colombia's vast southern plains. The military said his real name was Victor Julio Suarez.
As field marshal of the guerrilla group, Briceno oversaw armed strikes against large military bases in the 1990s in which hundreds of policemen and soldiers were taken prisoner. His capture has been a priority for years, not just for Colombia but for the United States, which has spent billions of dollars to help the military here weaken the FARC and paralyze its drug-trafficking capabilities.
"He was really the military mastermind of the FARC, so for the past 25 years he has been extremely important in the military gains of the FARC," said Aldo Civico, co-director of the conflict resolution center at Rutgers University. "He was a true warrior."
Briceno was also known as a rigid hard-liner who favored the use of kidnapping to apply pressure on the government. Among those held hostage by fighters under his command were three U.S. Defense Department contractors whose intelligence-gathering aircraft crashed in rebel territory in 2003. Colombian commandos liberated them in a daring 2008 operation.
"He'd caused a lot of harm to a lot of people, and it never seemed to bother him," said Thomas Howes, one of the three rescued Americans, who met with Briceno three or four times. "There was never any remorse."
A farm boy, Briceno had gravitated to the FARC as a teenager and joined the group in 1975. He later led the Eastern Bloc, the group's most potent military force, which at its height a few years ago had some 7,000 fighters. Its successful assaults on army and police bases in the late 1990s prompted then-President Bill Clinton to push through a multibillion aid package to keep the FARC from taking power.
But in recent years, employing better intelligence, better-trained troops and aircraft equipped with smart bombs, the military had reduced the Eastern Bloc's strength to about 3,400 rebels. In rebel videos confiscated by the military, Briceno had lost his swagger and appeared gaunt, apparently a consequence of diabetes.
A senior government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that bombs launched by Brazilian-made Super Toucan airplanes had killed Briceno. The field marshal and more than 20 other rebels who died with him had been holed up in what Rivera, the defense minister, called "the mother of all FARC camps," featuring a concrete bunker and escape tunnels.
The senior government official said that police and navy intelligence had determined Briceno's movements of late, as he shifted from a stretch of jungle in La Macarena national park out into the eastern plains and back. "He would plan meticulously how to go from one to the other, using advance troops to make sure things were safe," the official said.
With Briceno's death, the FARC has lost four commanders from its elite upper echelon since 2008, when Santos headed the Defense Ministry. The group's supreme chief, Guillermo Saenz (accent on the a) Vargas, better known by the alias Alfonso Cano, is on the run in the country's central Andean mountain range.
Although the FARC remains a potent force, with about 8,000 fighters, some observers say Briceno's death may prompt its leaders to consider negotiations.
"I think the ball is now in the FARC's court," said Civico, the Rutgers researcher. "If this is a game changer, it really depends on the FARC."