Death of top rebel leader greeted with hope for peace

Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas known as Alfonso Cano. U.S. government photo

Colombians are expressing a mix of relief and optimism now that the leader of the country’s top terror group is dead.

Some Colombians took to the streets to celebrate after President Juan Manuel Santos went on television to announce Colombian forces had killed Alfonso Cano during a raid in the country’s southwestern Cauca region Friday.

Santos called Cano’s death the “biggest blow” against the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, known as the FARC, in the group’s history. He urged the leftist rebels to “demobilize” now that their leader is dead. The president said “violence is not the way.”

Images from government television showed the body of Cano without his signature glasses and heavy beard. But officials say fingerprints proved it was Cano. His real name was Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas and he was the son of Bogota intellectuals. The United States had up to a $5 million reward for his capture.

Military officials said troops also recovered several computers, memory sticks and cash.

Rebels have been at war with the Colombian government since the 1960s. While the number of rebels has dwindled over the years, analysts estimate the group retains as many as 9,000 fighters.

Newspapers quickly carried word of Cano’s death. Some residents in the capital of Bogota said the rebel leader’s death gave them a sense of security. Others said it was a sign that the country was on the path to a true peace.

Cano became the leader of the rebel group in 2008 after the death of its founder, Manuel Marulanda Velez. He is believed to have joined rebels in the 1970s after studying anthropology at Bogota’s national university.

Most of the group’s funding comes from cocaine trafficking and extortion, but the leftist rebels are believed to be holding an unknown number of people for ransom or political leverage.

The rebel group has been designated as a terrorist organization by Colombia, the United States and the European Union.

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