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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos waves to journalists after a press conference at a military base, in Popayan, Cauca department, Colombia, on Nov. 5, 2011. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images/Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos waves to journalists after a press conference at a military base, in Popayan, Cauca department, Colombia, on Nov. 5, 2011. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images/Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

Rebel leader's death boosts Colombian president, eases security fears Add to ...

The killing of Colombia’s top guerrilla boss will quiet criticism of President Juan Manuel Santos, whose popularity has taken a hit over perceptions the Andean country’s security gains were being reversed.

In one of the largest strikes against the guerrillas, Colombian forces killed 63-year-old FARC leader Alfonso Cano late Friday. But the insurgents vowed to fight on, dampening hopes that his death might bring the country closer to peace.

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Latin America’s No. 4 oil producer has pummelled leftist rebels since launching a U.S.-financed military crackdown in 2002, drawing in billions of dollars in foreign investment. But ambushes, bombings and combat still happen regularly.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by the Spanish acronym of its name) began as a Marxist-inspired peasant uprising but has come to rely increasingly on the cocaine trade to finance the region’s longest insurgency.

It is not immediately clear who will take over from Mr. Cano, but analysts have suggested rebel commanders Ivan Marquez or Timoleon Jimenez, known as Timochenko, could be candidates.

FARC forces are down to an estimated 9,000 fighters, from a peak of about 17,000, and have suffered devastating losses and desertions since February, 2008.

Mr. Santos came to power last year vowing to keep up the hard-line stance against rebels started by his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. But the President has seen his popularity in opinion polls drop, driven by the belief that insecurity was rising once again.

“The killing of Cano will give Santos a massive boost. For a good time it will end the debate about a deterioration in the security situation,” said Christian Voelkel, an analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank.

The scion of a wealthy Bogota family, Mr. Santos has been at the helm of some of the biggest blows to FARC rebels in their history, first as defence minister and then as president. He also took flak, however, for allegations of abuses by the army when he was Mr. Uribe’s defence minister that included massacres of innocent peasants.

Worries on the security front saw a change in the defence minister and military top command early this year, along with a vow by Mr. Santos to redesign security policy.

Mr. Cano’s death “renews confidence for the moment, but it’s not a guarantee that security will get better,” said independent security analyst Alfredo Rangel. “It doesn’t solve the underlying problems behind the deterioration in security.”

That may also play out with regard to neighbouring countries, because computer files recovered from Mr. Cano may – like previous ones from the death of former FARC leader Raul Reyes in 2008 – bring up uncomfortable questions about other countries’ role in the conflict.

The cross-border attack that killed Mr. Reyes in Ecuador triggered a diplomatic dispute among Mr. Uribe and counterparts in both Ecuador and Venezuela, which escalated when Mr. Uribe accused Venezuela of harbouring and supporting the rebels.

“No one wants to have a rerun of the mishandling of the Raul Reyes files. Santos will be very careful,” Mr. Voelkel said.

The Cano killing came days after Santos allies did well in regional elections, underlining his support among the vast majority of Colombia’s political parties.

Despite dominating the political landscape, however, the difficulties of handling a coalition of disparate parties will make it hard for Mr. Santos to push through much-needed reforms, including to the tax system and agriculture.

And in rural areas, continued violence by FARC, other rebel groups and heavily armed criminal gangs remains a huge challenge, as does dealing with one of the world’s largest internal refugee populations.

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