Bogota: Colombia`s military killed the No 2 leader and top military strategist of the country`s main rebel army in blistering bombardments of a major jungle camp, officials announced on Thursday, saying a rebel informant helped prepare the demoralising shock to an already weakened insurgency.
The death of Jorge Briceno, also known as Mono Jojoy, is a huge setback for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which has been reeling from years of pressure by an increasingly effective US-backed military.
President Juan Manuel Santos called the attack "the most crushing blow against the FARC in its entire history" — more important than the March 2008 bombing raid across the border with Ecuador that killed FARC foreign minister Raul Reyes or the bloodless ruse that July that freed former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three US contractors and 11 other hostages.
Santos, who was defence minister during both operations, got the news while jogging in New York City`s Central Park. He explained what Briceno`s death means to Colombians: "It is as if they told New Yorkers that Osama bin Laden had fallen."
Briceno, 57, joined the FARC as an illiterate teenager and spent the rest of his life in the jungle, becoming a feared and charismatic commander in a force that a decade ago controlled nearly half of Colombia. Analysts predicted his loss could lead many rebels to give up the fight and might nudge the FARC to seek peace in earnest.
Santos told reporters that at least 20 rebels were killed, including other senior insurgents whose identities were not disclosed pending fingerprint and DNA tests, in operations that began on Monday night with bombing raids involving at least 30 warplanes and 27 helicopters and ended with ground combat on Wednesday.
Air force chief Gen Julio Gonzalez said that Super Tucano and other warplanes dropped more than 50 bombs on the camp.
Commandos found Briceno`s body outside a concrete bunker in a camp laced with tunnels and recovered at least 14 laptop computers and 50 USB drives, officials said. They said the raid was six months in the making and benefited from radio spectrum surveillance.
Defence Minister Rodrigo Rivera highlighted "the collaboration of members of the FARC itself" and added that "the FARC is rotting inside”.
He did not offer specifics, though military officials said privately that they were discussing reward payments to collaborators.
An Army general said that a single FARC turncoat led military intelligence agents to Briceno and had been spirited out of the country. The general insisted on not being named because he was not authorised to talk to reporters.
The US State Department had offered a USD 5 million reward for Briceno. The biggest reward known to have been paid for fingering a FARC commander was USD 2.5 million to an informant who led authorities to Reyes` camp.
Briceno had been rotating for months among a series of camps in a rugged area of nearly 4,000 square miles (1 million-hectares) where the Andes mountains drop off into eastern plains that include La Macarena massif, a national park, said one senior government official.
Police and Navy intelligence agents succeeded in pinpointing his movements, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the subject`s sensitivity.
The area is the cradle of the FARC, which was co-founded in 1964 by Briceno`s mentor Manuel Marulanda, a legendary fighter who died in 2008 of an apparent heart attack in the same region.
Briceno, whose walrus moustache made him widely recognisable, had risen through the insurgency`s ranks to become its most powerful and respected field commander as well as a major drug trafficker.
His rise saw the rebels increasingly turn to cocaine production, evolving from taxing farmers who grew coca to producing the drug and selling it to exporters.