BOGOTA, Colombia.- Colombia’s military killed the field marshal and No. 2 commander of the country’s main leftist rebel group on Thursday in the country’s eastern plains, authorities said.
The death of Jorge Briceno, 57, is a huge setback for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — at least the biggest since mid-2008, when its foreign minister was killed and soldiers rescued 15 hostages including Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. contractors without firing a shot.
President Juan Manuel Santos told a news conference in New York that the loss of Briceno was even more important than the March 2008 bombing raid across the border with Ecuador that killed FARC foreign minister Raul Reyes.
“This is the most crushing blow against the FARC in its entire history,” Santos said.
The hemisphere’s last remaining large rebel army, whose numbers authorities estimate at about 8,000, has been badly weakened over the last decade by a military that has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
Briceno died in an operation in the rebel stronghold of La Macarena that began Wednesday night and involved special forces, air force and police intelligence, said Alvaro Balcazar, the civilian coordinator of a government counterinsurgency plan in the region.
“I think this is a devastating blow,” he said.
Balcazar said medical examiners had the body and were checking its fingerprints to confirm Briceno’s identity.
It was no immediately known how many casualties were suffered by the rebels, “but I imagine there must be a lot because he had a very tight security cordon,” said Balcazar.
Santos was defense minister from 2006-2009, when Washington’s biggest ally in Latin America struck its biggest blows against the FARC.