One of the most senior leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been killed, say reports. Jorge Briceno, also known as Mono Jojoy, died in a military air strike in the Macarena region, known to be a Farc stronghold, local media said. President Jose Manuel Santos said Jojoy’s death was “the hardest blow” in the history of the rebel movement, but as John Otis reports from southern Colombia, even a weakened FARC is likely to plague parts of the country. Download MP3
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LISA MULLINS: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Colombia’s military says it has killed the second-in-command of the FARC rebel group. The man known as Mono Jojoy was the FARC’s military leader. Speaking in New York today, Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos called the news a crushing blow to the guerillas. It’s the latest in a string of military victories. As John Otis reports from Colombia, the FARC has been battered, but it is far from defeated. He recently spent time with the military in southern Colombia and sent this report.
JOHN OTIS: Here at Larandia military base, police and army soldiers offer a boisterous welcome to President Juan Manuel Santos. The base is a staging ground for the war against the FARC. Santos, a former soldier and defense minister, is here to rally the troops.
OTIS: Even with some high-profile victories against the FARC, rebels have staged 5 deadly ambushes this month, including an attack not far from this base that killed 14 policemen. The rebels doused their bodies with gasoline and set them on fire. Santos called it a cowardly act of terrorism.
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: The FARC is a mouse that uses terrorism to try to roar like a lion. We are going to keep chasing that mouse until it no longer breathes.
OTIS: The carnage rekindled grim memories from a decade ago when the FARC kidnapped thousands and overran towns and army bases. That prompted a long US-backed military campaign that cut the rebel ranks in half to about 8,000 fighters. But although today’s FARC is much weaker, the guerrillas have adapted. Instead of military confrontation, they’re using snipers and explosives.
OTIS: This army lieutenant hasn’t been in a firefight in 3 years but constantly worries about stepping on rebel land mines.
OTIS: “The guerrillas are still alive,” he says. “They might be in their last days but that’s when the snake is most dangerous.” Besides army operations, President Santos is promoting a plan to build roads and schools in former rebel strongholds. He also wants to offer farmers alternatives to growing coca, the raw material for cocaine, to bring them over to the government’s side. With patriotic songs blaring, Santos took this message to San Vicente del Caguan. He chose this southern town because, until a few years ago, it was firmly in the hands of the FARC.
OTIS: Santos told the crowd his dream is to eliminate displacement, poverty and massacres and bring prosperity and peace to southern Colombia. There’s a lot of support here for the president’s plans. But as Americans found out in Iraq and Afghanistan, nation building can be more complicated than war. After all, even a smaller FARC, without some of its top leaders like Mono Jojoy, can be a menacing presence.
OTIS: That’s town councilman Eduardo Cedeño. He says the guerrillas blackmail local businesses and threaten politicians. Indeed, Cedeño survived two rebel assassination attempts in 2007 and has been assigned a police bodyguard. In addition, many residents of San Vicente and other southern towns have brothers, uncles and cousins in the FARC. That means they’re unlikely to cooperate with the army and police.
OTIS: At the town hall meeting, Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera said it would have taken the FARC a lot of time and effort to carry out this month’s ambush that killed the 14 policemen. Local residents, he added, likely knew what was going on. But they remained silent. For The World, I’m John Otis, San Vicente del Caguán, Colombia.
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