When he was shot dead on the morning of Nov. 4, in the jungle of southwestern Colombia, guerrilla leader Alfonso Cano was almost unrecognizable. Gone were the unkempt beard, the pistol under his shoulder, and the camouflage shirt he wore over his slight paunch. In his haste to flee, he had dropped his owlish horn rims, his wallet, and false teeth. The corpse that security forces bundled into a body bag was clad in sweatpants and a work shirt.
It was a shabby and fitting end for the former supreme leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the feared armed band that has terrorized the country for as long as almost anyone can remember. Even the normally understated President Juan Manuel Santos barely suppressed his elation. “The FARC and their absurd record of violence stretching over half a century has reached a breaking point,” he announced on nationwide television. “Martín Caballero, Negro Acácio, Martín Sombra, Raúl Reyes, Iván Rios, [Mono] Jojoy ...” One by one, he ticked off the noms de guerre of the rebel leaders killed in action. “And today,” he said, “we come to tell of the fall of [the FARC’s] No. 1, Alfonso Cano.”
No one familiar with Colombia is saying the bloody conflict that has roiled this Andean nation for three generations has ended. Security experts speculate that the guerrillas, though all but decapitated, may yet regroup and strike back, as they have done in the face of setbacks before. But the death of Cano, the fifth FARC supreme commander to fall in combat, is a watershed in the fight to restore peace and order to this country of 45 million that has known little of either in the last half century.
It is also emblematic of a tectonic shift in politics and perceptions that has hoisted Colombia from the verge of failed nationhood to rising star of Latin America. A little more than a decade ago, Colombia was a nation on its knees. The Stalinist FARC and a handful of rival insurgents were on a roll, nourished by corruption at home and money, weapons, and empathy from fellow travelers and rogue nations overseas. By the late ’90s, the insurgents had grown to 20,000 strong and controlled a third of Colombia. Bogotá’s political elite generated only white noise, and murder, mayhem, and high-profile kidnappings were rife.
“The killing … comes at just the right time for Santos, just as the government was under fire for losing ground in the war against crime,” says security expert Alfredo Rangel.
The counteroffensive began in 2002, under hardline President Álvaro Uribe, a pugnacious and unrelenting politician who ruled out negotiations with the rebels, whom he branded terrorists, and flouted the Latin taboo against Tío Sam by accepting weapons and aid from Washington. Over the next eight years he hammered the rebels, hunting them down at home and occasionally across the border with Venezuela, to where the insurgents repaired—often with a wink and a nod from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, the leader of the so-called Bolivarian revolution for “21st-century socialism.”
In the battle for Colombia, innocents often paid the price, most scandalously in the mid-2000s, when security forces were caught dressing up murdered peasants in rebel garb to inflate the enemy body count. Yet, battle by battle, the FARC bled and retreated. Santos, as Uribe’s defense minister, led the charge. While civic and labor unions scorned Uribe’s clouded human-rights record, Colombians applauded. Peace brought prosperity. Once a sinkhole for business, Colombia is set to reap $11.4 billion in foreign investment this year. The World Bank recently named it “one of the 10 most improved countries in the world” to do business in. Today building cranes rival the condor as Colombia’s national bird.
Success breeds ambition, but when the Colombian courts rejected Uribe’s bid to change the Constitution and run for a third consecutive term, he settled for the role of kingmaker. Quiet and wonkish, Santos, a U.S.-trained economist, nonetheless won by a landslide in 2010.
Since then, relations between godfather and disciple have gone bad, and the buzz in Bogotá is that the two have not spoken for months. Part of the row is over policy. While Uribe boasted of his special relationship with the U.S. and rarely missed a chance to spar with the cantankerous Chávez, Santos cooled slightly to Washington, openly courted China, and reached out to Venezuela.
The new tactic made sense. The cold war with Venezuela had gutted the once vibrant $3.2 billion binational trade. And for all the gringos’ good will, the U.S. Congress hadn’t bothered (until last month) to ratify a free-trade agreement that Uribe had clamored for, year after frustrating year.
An especially sore point between the two political chieftains was Santos’s initiative to reclassify the campaign against the FARC as “an internal armed conflict,” scrapping Uribe’s “war on terrorism.” Then came the Reparations Act to reimburse victims for losses at the hands of outlaw groups but also of rogue government (read: Uribista) forces. Worse, a nasty spike in crime and guerrilla assaults had Colombians jumping at shadows again. Under Alfonso Cano, who took command in 2008, the FARC regrouped, pulling off assaults and bombings in the country and the city. One brazen ambush last month killed 20 soldiers.
But for those who imagined Santos as going soft on crime, the raid against Cano was a forceful reply. “The killing of Alfonso Cano comes at just the right time for Santos, just as the government was under fire for losing ground in the war against crime,” says Colombian security expert Alfredo Rangel. The battle against Latin America’s most intractable outlaws is far from over. But the fact that it has come this far is already a victory for Colombia. The rest is political white noise.