BOGOTA, Colombia — In a major victory for Colombia’s new government, military officials announced Thursday that Jorge Briceno, the No. 2 leader of the country’s largest guerrilla group, has been killed.
Better known as Mono Jojoy, Briceno, 57, was responsible for hundreds of kidnappings and a series of devastating attacks pulled off by the of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. During the bloodiest years of the war, Briceno was for average Colombians the most feared of the FARC comandantes.
“Mono Jojoy was a symbol of terror,” President Juan Manuel Santos, who was sworn-in last month, said Thursday. He called Briceno’s death “the most devastating blow against the FARC in the history of the rebel organization,” which has been fighting since the 1960s.
Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera said Colombian air force planes on Wednesday dropped about 50 bombs on Briceno´s immense jungle camp, which was outfitted with concrete bunkers and escape tunnels. Later, Colombian special forces engaged in fierce combat with the rebels, killing at least 20 more FARC fighters.
“This is a day of joy and glory for all of Colombia,” Rivera told a Bogota news conference.
The U.S.-backed Colombian army has over the past eight years delivered a series of blows to the FARC, which has seen its numbers drop from 17,000 foot soldiers to about 8,000.
Colombian troops had been pursuing Briceno for years but, with a better grasp of the jungle, he always managed to escape. Rivera said informants within Briceno´s inner circle provided vital information about his location, which opened the door to Wednesday’s raid.
His death is yet another calamity for the FARC’s seven-man ruling secretariat, which has now lost four members in the past two years.
In March 2008, FARC founder and supreme commander Manuel Marulanda died of a heart attack at age 78. That same month FARC spokesman Raul Reyes was killed in a military bombardment and Ivan Rios, who led rebel units in western Colombia, was executed by one of his bodyguards.
But analysts said the loss of Briceno could have an even bigger impact.
For starters, he was one of the FARC’s longest serving members. Briceno´s mother cooked for a top FARC commander in the 1960s, thus he grew up in the rebel army. Briceno was close to FARC leader Marulanda and was eventually named commander of the group’s Eastern bloc, which fielded thousands of fighters.
He was also a cunning military strategist. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Briceno planned a string of attacks on poorly defended southern towns and military bases in which the guerrillas killed and captured hundreds of government troops.
“Mono Jojoy’s death will demoralize the FARC due to his stature as a warrior and the respect from the troops that he commanded,” said Alan Jara, a former state governor who was held hostage by the FARC for nearly eight years.
“He’s irreplaceable,” added Bogota political analyst Armando Borrero.
Briceno was also a driving force behind the FARC’s decision to kidnap Colombian politicians in an effort to swap them for imprisoned guerrillas. In 2001, Briceno was filmed inspecting scores of hostages who were penned up in a jungle concentration camps surrounded by barbed wire.
Referring to the way the burly, mustachioed Briceno lorded over his prisoners, Keith Stansell, one of three U.S. military contractors kidnapped by the FARC, referred to him sarcastically as “the great and magnificent Mono Jojoy.”
Former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was also one of his victims.
The former politician, who has just released a book about her kidnapping, got to know Briceno during her six years in FARC captivity. When informed of his death, Betancourt said: “Hopefully, this will be the end of a long night for Colombia and a long nightmare for me.”
The military operation should provide a huge boost to President Santos, a former defense minister who was elected on a pledge to keep military pressure on the FARC. In recent weeks, the FARC had pulled off five ambushes, killing 40 government troops and sparking concern that the rebels might be making a comeback.
Instead, the death of Briceno could cause the guerrilla army to unravel even further.
Fernando Araujo, a former FARC hostage who later served as foreign minister, said it could lead to a wave of desertions. It could also throw the remaining FARC leadership into crisis.
Its commanders are already spread-out and often incommunicado. Alfonso Cano, who replaced Marulanda as supreme leader, is said to be in hiding in the mountains of western Colombia while two other members of the secretariat are living in Venezuela, according to military officials in Bogota.
But even though the Colombian military is on a roll, analysts warn it will be extremely difficult to defeat the rebels, who earn millions from the illegal drug trade and remain a menace in many rural areas.
“Now is the time to open genuine negotiations and bring this long conflict to an end,” U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass) said in a statement. “It is time to end the killing.”
Neither side, however, has expressed much interest in a new round of peace talks.