BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — 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 Thursday, saying rebel informants helped prepare the demoralizing shock to an already weakened insurgency.
The death of Jorge Briceno is a huge setback for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which has been reeling from a decade of pressure by the U.S.-backed military.
President Juan Manuel Santos said the attack is "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 rescue that July that freed former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. contractors and 11 other hostages without firing a shot.
Santos, who was defense minister during both operations, got the news while jogging in New York City's Central Park. He explained to The Associated Press 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 a force that a decade ago controlled nearly half of Colombia. Analysts prediced his loss could lead many rebels to give up the fight and might nudge the FARC to seek renewed talks.
Santos told reporters that at least 20 rebels were killed, including other senior insurgents, in operations that began 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 told the AP that Super Toucan and other warplanes dropped more than 50 bombs.
But the key to the operation's success was intelligence, including "the collaboration of members of the FARC itself," said Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera. "The FARC is rotting inside."
He did not offer specifics, though other officials told the AP they were discussing reward payments to collaborators. The U.S. State Department had offered a $5 million reward for Briceno. The biggest reward known to have been paid for fingering a FARC commander was $2.5 million to an unknown 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 Colombian 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 mustache made him widely recognizable, 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.
"He was at the heart of the FARC's military effort and of its morale," said Sergio Jaramillo, Santos' national security adviser.
Military analyst Alfredo Rangel said Briceno's death could lead to many more desertions, including midlevel and even front commanders. Former Interior Minister Fernando Londono said Briceno was the only "irreplaceable" FARC commander.
Rivera said Briceno was caught at "the mother of all FARC camps," a complex some 300 yards (meters) from end to end that included tunnels and a concrete bunker where the commander "took refuge." He said troops engaged rebels in ground combat on Wednesday and were only able to confirm Briceno's death on Thursday morning. Rivera said five troops were injured but the only government death was an explosives-sniffing dog.
Briceno belonged to the FARC's seven-member ruling Secretariat. Like most insurgents from a humble background, he was a fighter for most of his life, joining as a youth and even learning how to read as a rebel.
The group's main leader, Alfonso Cano, remains at large and is believed to be in the mountains of central Colombia. Military commanders claim they've been closing the noose on him as well.
Colombian officials say other Secretariat members are hiding out in neighboring Venezuela.
The hemisphere's last remaining large rebel army, whose numbers authorities estimate at about 8,000 — half its strength of a decade ago — the FARC has been badly weakened since 2002 by Washington's strongest ally in Latin America. Colombia has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid, including Blackhawk helicopters and training by Green Berets.
Many Colombians believe Briceno was a key obstacle to efforts to renew peace talks. However, he was less rigidly dogmatic than Cano, a Bogota-bred intellectual.
Analyst Leon Valencia of the left-leaning think tank Nuevo Arco Iris said Briceno's death marked the end of the FARC's Eastern Bloc, which had been its strongest.
He said he expected the FARC would now seek to negotiate.
Santos has rejected a peace dialogue unless the FARC puts an end to kidnapping and halts attacks that have claimed the lives of more than 30 police officers since he took office Aug. 7.
"This is the 'Welcome Operation' that we have been promising the FARC," said Santos, who was elected on a promise to continue former President Alvaro Uribe's withering military campaign against the FARC. It comes less than a week after Colombia's military killed at least 22 FARC fighters in bombing a rebel camp near Ecuador.
U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who follows Colombia closely, called on Cano to initiate a cease-fire and release all remaining hostages. An estimated 18 still fester in Colombian jungles.
"Now is the time to open genuine negotiations and bring this long conflict to an end," he said in a statement.
However critics say the root cause of Colombia's conflict — a still-widening gulf between its richest and poorest — remains to be seriously addressed.
Briceno, born Victor Julio Suarez Rojas in the town of Cabrera southeast of Bogota, became well-known internationally during failed 1999-2002 peace talks in a Switzerland-sized swath of southern Colombia that included the La Macarena region.
A swaggering figure with a wry sense of humor and easy laughter, Briceno would hold court with reporters and top Colombian officials in a safe haven granted for those talks, arriving on rutted dirt roads in stolen late-model SUVs with a dozen or so female bodyguards.
Photographs of him more recently show a gaunt man who authorities say suffered from diabetes.
Rebel deserters have described him as tough, decisive and often cruel — a strict disciplinarian. One said he once ordered a female guerrilla who was seven months pregnant to abort.
The FARC increasingly turned to drug trafficking in the late 1990s, when it was at the height of its military power, as a means of financial support.
It has also used ransom kidnappings and extortion as a revenue source, though less so in recent years as it became increasingly difficult for the insurgents to hide their captives.
Associated Press writers Libardo Cardona, Cesar Garcia and Carlos Gonzalez contributed to this report.