NEW: The FARC says his death does not spell the end of the guerrilla struggle
The FARC leader's family asks that his remains be treated with dignity
Alfonso Cano took over the FARC's top spot in 2008
President says security forces missed the leader by less than a day in July
The leader of Colombia’s main leftist rebel group – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – died in a military operation in the country’s southwest, President Juan Manuel Santos said Saturday.
“I confirm the death of Alfonso Cano. The No. 1 of FARC is dead,” Santos said. “This is the most overwhelming blow given to the FARC in all of Colombia’s history.”
The military operation that took place Friday in the state of Cauca also killed Cano’s communications chief, a female friend and members of his security team, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon told reporters. Cano’s chief of security was captured.
“The death of Alfonso Cano is the most important historical mark of our military forces and our national police in our fight against the FARC organization,” Pinzon said. “He was part of the organization for over 33 years. He was their ideologue, their political figure and most importantly, he was a despised terrorist ready to act in a radical way …”
Cano, an alias for Guillermo Leon Saenz, took over the FARC’s top spot in March 2008 after an apparent heart attack killed the former leader, Manuel Marulanda.
Cano’s family released a statement following his death, urging peace and asking the media to respect their privacy. They called on authorities in Colombia, and specifically on President Santos, to allow them the opportunity to give Cano a dignified burial.
“This is great news for all the Colombian people,” said Labor Minister Rafael Pardo. “This will help the peace process and it shows that armed conflict is no longer the way forward in Colombia.”
The FARC has been at war with the Colombian government since the 1960s. While severely weakened in recent years, the guerrilla group has continued to carry out kidnappings and attack security forces in the South American nation.
Following Cano’s death, the FARC released a statement in which its leaders said they would not end their guerrilla struggle.
“This is not the first time that the oppressed and exploited in Colombia are mourning one of its greatest leaders. Nor is it the first (time) that he will be replaced with the courage and absolute conviction of victory. Peace in Colombia will not be born in any guerrilla demobilization, but the abolition of the causes that give birth the upheaval,” they wrote.
Senior officials in the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama said that they believe Cano’s death will pose a serious challenge to the FARC going forward. There aren’t many people left to head the group and most of those who might, no longer live in Colombia, they said.
The FARC, which began as a revolutionary guerrilla group, has evolved into a narco-trafficking organization, the officials said. While it is no longer able to threaten the state, the FARC still has the potential to hurt a lot of people, they added.
The United States and European Union consider the FARC a terrorist organization.
“This is an important victory for Colombia and represents a major blow against the largest terrorist organization in this hemisphere,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Darla Jordan.
“We firmly support the efforts of the Colombian people, their security forces, and President Santos to combat the FARC,” she said.
In July, Santos said Cano escaped an attack by less than a day. At the time, security forces raided a remote camp believed to have been his hideout. After the raid, authorities found clothes they believe belonged to Cano.
CNN affiliate Caracol TV reported that authorities also found large quantities of the cigarettes the FARC leader is thought to smoke.
“We were very close,” the president told reporters at a military airport in Bogota.
He said security forces had acted on an intelligence tip from one of Cano’s “own people.”
CNN’s Claudia Dominguez, Luis Carlos Velez and Elise Labott contributed to this report.