In what President Juan Manuel Santos called the most important strike ever against the FARC, top military commander Jorge Briceño, alias "Mono Jojoy," died after a military operation Wednesday night.
He was killed in the southeastern department of Meta, in an area that Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera called the "strategic heartland" of the guerrillas. According to reports, at least 20 other guerrillas were killed during Operation Sodoma, a joint operation between the marines, army, police and air force. The security forces attacked "the mother of all guerrilla camps," Rivera said in a morning press conference, a site 300 meters long and surrounded by minefields. The camp reportedly had a concrete bunker for Briceño, as well as escape tunnels. There were nine firefights throughout the night, leaving five members of the security forces injured, said Rivera, and there was one casualty: an anti-explosives dog. Santos had approved the operation Monday before leaving to a United Nations conference in New York, the defense minister added.
This is a serious blow to the FARC and Santos have been right when he said it is more significant than the death of top commander, Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias "Raul Reyes," in 2008. However as emphasized by Rivera again and again during his press conference, this is not a moment for the government to be "triumphant." The death of Devia, as well as the death of FARC founder Pedro Marín, alias "Manuel Marulanda," that same year, caused many authorities to declare that the FARC was on its last legs. Instead the guerrilla proved they were capable of evolving under new Secretariat leader Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas, alias "Alfonso Cano." It makes sense now that the Santos administration is more cautious about declaring victory. But Jojoy's death is still a major coup for the security forces. Capturing or killing the top brass of the Secretariat is the number one priority under the "Democratic Security" doctrine, and with Briceño dead that leaves León Sáenz as the main target.
Briceño was the head of the FARC's Eastern Bloc and a member of the guerrillas since 1975. He had long been under pressure from the security forces, which made it increasingly difficult for him to secure the insulin needed to treat his diabetes. Notably he was killed in La Macarena, in Meta, one of the most important strategic locations for the guerrilla. Controlling this territory gives the FARC access to a strategic corridor towards Bogotá, and thus securing the Sierra de la Macarena mountain range has been a focal point both for the guerrillas and the security forces. That Briceño was again based in La Macarena when he was killed, as opposed to the jungles of Caquetá and Guaviare (another one of his presumed hideouts), indicates again how hard the FARC were pushing to retake Meta.
Briceño was one of the FARC's most effective field commanders and previously had been considered the likely successor to Pedro Marín, commander of the Secretariat until his death of natural causes in March 2008. But as opposed to the more intellectual León Sáenz, Briceño was a warmonger, believed to be responsible for promoting mass kidnapping and the recruitment of minors into FARC ranks. A hard-line military strategist, Briceño was also among the most uncompromising of the guerrilla commanders. Does his death increase the likelihood of peace negotiations? It will surely impulse a new wave of desertions. León Sáenz is the FARC's ideologue, more intent on getting the guerrillas to reconnect with potential sympathizers in urban areas, rather than rack up military victories in the countryside. But he is no peace-lover and it is uncertain whether that will change with Briceño's death. However there is no denying the dynamics of the Colombian conflict have changed profoundly after this day.