BOGOTA—Colombia's army killed the military leader of the country's
communist guerrillas in a two-day battle that involved airstrikes
against his jungle bunker, dealing a major blow to the four-decade
insurgency, officials said Thursday.
Victor Suárez, 57 years old, nicknamed "Mono Jojoy," was the second
in command and top field marshal of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, or FARC, Latin America's biggest and oldest guerrilla group.
To many ordinary Colombians, his thick moustache and Che Guevara-style
black beret were synonymous with the FARC.
"Mono Jojoy is dead," Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told
reporters in New York, where he is attending the United Nations General
Assembly. "This is the most devastating blow ever dealt to the FARC."
The strike was a big boost for Mr.
Santos, who took office in August. He dubbed the military mission, which
involved more than 30 aircraft, "Operation Welcome." In his role as
defense minister under Colombia's previous president, Álvaro Uribe, Mr.
Santos oversaw some notable blows against the FARC.
The death of Mr. Suárez, also known by
his nom de guerre Jorge Briceño, could cripple the FARC's so-called
eastern block, its most powerful fighting force based in the country's
southeastern plains. Analysts said it could nudge the guerrillas, who
number between 6,000 and 7,000 fighters, toward seeking peace.
Mr. Suárez, who reputedly joined the
guerrillas at age 12, had a reputation for brutality. He was linked to a
2003 car bombing in Bogota that left scores dead and to the 2002
kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who was
freed in a military operation two years ago. The U.S. offered a $5
million reward for his capture.
His death is the latest in a string of
devastating blows to the FARC, which once threatened to overrun the
country and has increasingly turned to drug trafficking to fund its
In 2008, Raul Reyes, then
second-in-command of the FARC, was killed in a controversial crossborder
raid in Ecuador that caused Quito to protest its sovereignty had been
violated. Shortly after, the FARC's founder, Manuel Marulanda, known as
"Tirofijo" or "Sure Shot," died from an apparent heart attack.
U.S. officials praised the operation
against the FARC, considered a terrorist group by Washington and Europe.
"This is an important victory for
Colombia," said National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Mr. Santos on Friday in
New York to discuss this and other developments, said Mr. Hammer.
Soldiers identified Mr. Suárez's body
after two days of combat earlier this week against what Colombian
officials described as the rebels' military nerve center. Mr. Suárez's
headquarters had a concrete bunker complete with escape tunnels, Defense
Minister Rodrigo Rivera told a news conference.
About 20 guerrillas who guarded Mr.
Suárez were killed, Mr. Santos said. Five soldiers were wounded. Mr.
Rivera said the only government fatality was a bomb-sniffing dog named
The operation was helped by undercover
intelligence gathered from close associates of Mr. Suárez. Such
intelligence operations are becoming a hallmark of Colombia's armed
forces, which have received billions of dollars in U.S. aid. In 2008,
Colombian forces released Ms. Betancourt and other hostages by posing as
members of nongovernmental peace groups.
Mr. Rivera, the defense minister, renewed a call to FARC leaders to
turn themselves in. "Surrender and we will guarantee your lives," he
The FARC has been fighting successive
Colombian governments since 1964. In the late 1990s, the FARC numbered
around 18,000 fighters and threatened to encircle Bogota. Former
President Uribe made the fight against the guerrillas his central aim,
and put them on the run.
After Mr. Santos took power, the
FARC's top commander, Alfonso Cano, issued a communiqué asking for
international mediators to negotiate peace. But at the same time, the
guerrillas embarked on a military offensive ambushing soldiers and
police in remote coca-growing areas of Colombia, and allegedly planting a
bomb in Bogota.
Mr. Santos was beginning to feel
political heat, as Colombians wondered whether he would be able to
maintain the gains made by Mr. Uribe. On Thursday, Mr. Santos vowed to
continue the campaign against the guerrillas. "This was Operation
Welcome," he said in New York. "To the rest of the FARC—We are going
Mr. Suárez's death is likely to
further demoralize the FARC, whose ranks in recent years have been
decimated by desertions.
"This will leave a huge gap in the top
levels of the guerrilla leadership…and may well force Cano to consider
seriously the negotiation option," said Bruce Bagley, a Colombia expert
at the University of Miami.
The group could stage attacks in the
coming weeks, however.
"They will try to show that they are
viable, but it won't be major," said Jay Cope, senior research fellow at
the U.S.'s Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington.
Colombian officials said they were
also on the trail of Mr. Cano, the leader of the FARC's seven-man
Unlike Mr. Cano, a bearded and
bespectacled former communist student leader, Mr. Suárez came from a
peasant background and rose through the ranks. It is believed his mother
was also a guerrilla, and a cook for Jacobo Arenas, one of the FARC's
founders. Through Mr. Suárez's career, he developed a reputation for
imparting harsh discipline to guerrillas who broke regulations.
"He was the epitome of the drug-fueled
fighting FARC," said a Colombian official.
At the time of his death, Mr. Suárez
had been indicted on drug charges in the U.S. and had warrants
outstanding and convictions in absentia in Colombia for crimes including
murder, kidnapping, drug trafficking and terrorism.
A businessman as well as a fighter,
Mr. Suárez is believed by analysts to have amassed a herd of 30,000
cattle in Caqueta state, in southeastern Colombia.