Is this the grisly end of Colombia's civil war?

With Farc's charismatic Marxist leader shot dead, the government claims final victory is near

After months of hunting the intellectual guerrilla leader Alfonso Cano through Colombia's rugged south-west, a bullet to the neck last Friday brought the government one of its biggest victories yet in the five-decade battle against Farc rebels.

Alfonso Cano – real name Guillermo Leon Saenz – had gone from the bourgeois suburbs of Bogota and the prestigious environs of the National University to the then-Soviet Union and returned to preach his fiery Marxist rhetoric in the jungles of the Farc heartland. He rose quickly among the ranks of the leftist rebels and become leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – better known by their Spanish acronym, Farc – in 2008 after the group's founder, Manuel Marulanda, died of a heart attack.

The 63-year-old Cano, his trademark beard shaved in an apparent attempt at disguise, was flushed out of a rebel encampment in Cauca province by an air bombardment. Elite commandos moved in and shot him dead, with the army releasing pictures of the bleeding guerrilla crumpled in the long grass.

Soon after Cano's death, President Juan Manuel Santos released a statement saying it signalled a "breaking point" for the Farc. But he cautioned: "This well-aimed blow will not be alone, and is no cause for triumphalism in the government or our military. The government continues its campaign to restore state authority across our territory."

Some Colombians celebrated the news. Miguel Martinez, 37, an architect, said he believed that Farc would never regain the territory they once had. "They're slowly going to all die in the jungle and leave our country to finally develop," he said.

Similar sentiments were echoed by a tour company operator, Juan, 46, who said he believed Cano's death marks the future of a new Colombia. "For a long time the Farc have destroyed areas of this country, I believe now Colombians will start to take back our land," he said. But the euphoria was tempered by caution, with the Farc almost immediately rejecting Mr Santos' calls for them to surrender and military experts warning that the Farc remained defiant and dedicated to their struggle. "It is just a political and media victory for Santos, who has been battling rising criticism for weak defence tactics against increased attacks by the Farc," Ariel Avila, from the think-thank Nuevo Arco Iris, said. "You can't destroy a five-decade peasant revolution by killing one leader; they are not just going to surrender in return for nothing."

There was also a fear that the assassination had killed any chance of a lasting, negotiated peace, because Cano was among the few people in the top of the Farc leadership with whom the government could have negotiated. "He repeatedly said in public he felt that the best way out of the conflict was through negotiations," Miguel Ortiga, a researcher at the Foundation for Ideas Towards Peace, said. "He was one of the last intellectual leaders."

Mr Ortiga said that the two leaders expected to take over, Ivan Marquez and Rodrigo Londono Echeverri, whose alias is Timochenko, are more radical then Cano, and will be not as keen to enter negotiations with the Colombian government. Also making negotiations less likely is a fragmentation of Farc factions allied to different commanders, after the army offensive split Farc territory.

"With increasing security risks from the government military, the Farc sections will become increasingly out of touch with each other," Mr Ortiga said. "The result is that autonomous Farc groups, trying to increase their income, will get closer to the criminal groups running the drug trade." Mr Ortiga believes the killing of Cano was a mistake because the Farc will not be negotiating as whole. Some may come to the negotiating table, but there will be no top leader to bring them all together.

"This is very dangerous for Colombia in the long term," he said. "The criminal groups have better weapons and training. This, mixed with a desire to fight the government, could be a bomb."

The government has taken a carrot-and-stick approach to the insurgency, which began in 1964 as a Marxist peasant movement to overthrow its rule. Although Farc claimed to serve as a bulwark against Colombia's ruling class, it has since been criticised for losing its original ideology and funding much of its operations with money from the drug trade. Rebels who lay down their arms have been offered amnesty and help to reintegrate with society, but those who fight on have faced a fierce military onslaught, with the armed forces accused of human-rights abuses.

In Mr Santos' recent address, he called on Farc to negotiate and demobilise, "because as we have said so many times and as we have proven, you will end up in jail or in a coffin".

While there are those who doubt whether Cano's death will be the final blow for the leftist movement, some experts say the military gains made over the years were now irreversible. "The army won the war against the Farc a few years ago, when they cut in half the amount of armed men and their presence in the territory," Alfredo Rangel, from the Foundation for Security and Democracy, said. "The army is in a position where it can reduce them to a critical point in which they'll have no option but to surrender or demobilise. Strategically, the war is already won."

Mr Rangel said he believed the Colombian military had become increasingly efficient in recent years in its fight against the Farc. This was due to modernisation, restructuring and the use of better intelligence, equipment and training, he said. "The Farc will be pushed into accepting the conditions the government offers for the demobilisation process," Mr Rangel said. "They're weak and keep getting weaker. It's not possible for them to regain the strength they had years ago."

Farc's future leaders

Ivan Marquez

The nom de guerre of Luciano Marin Arango, born in 1955. After a spell with the Communist Youth, he joined the left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) party in the 1980s. More than 3,000 members of the UP were killed in a brutal state campaign and Marquez fled to the jungle and took up arms. Washington has accused him of exporting thousands of tonnes of cocaine. Colombian intelligence suggests he has sheltered in Venezuela.


Real name Rodrigo Londono Echeverri. He has been in charge of Farc intelligence and promoted because of his military acumen. He was a medical student when he joined the rebels in March 1982. In May 2006 he was sentenced in absentia to 40 years in prison for the kidnapping of a former governor, defence minister and eight soldiers.