Alfonso Cano, leader of Colombia's FARC, killed in army operation

BOGOTA — In a stunning blow to Latin America’s oldest guerrilla group, the leader of Colombia’s FARC rebels was killed Friday.

Guillermo León Sáenz, better known as Alfonso Cano, was tracked down in the southern department of Cauca, said Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón. Cano had been on the run for months and the government had a $5 million bounty on his head.

“This is the biggest blow the organization has seen in its history,” President Juan Manuel Santos said at an impromptu speech in Cartagena. He also called on the FARC’s members to put down their arms. “If you don’tyou will end up in jail or in a grave.”

Pinzón said soldiers started bombing Cano’s rural camp at about 8:30 am. Friday and then landed troops in the area. Once on the ground, authorities knew they were on Cano’s trail because they found his glasses and wallet.

Soldiers managed to surround Cano and a group of his closest followers. As the day wore on, his chief of security was captured and Cano’s “sentimental partner” was killed in the operation, Pinzón said.

Authorities showed a picture of Cano’s body - uncharacteristically clean-shaven - and said it had been positively identified and taken to the city of Popayan.

Troops also recovered seven computers, some 30 memory sticks and more than $107,000 in cash.

Operation Odyssey, as it was called, is just the latest in a string of high-profile attacks on the group. The FARC’s second-in-command, Raul Reyes, was killed in 2008 during a cross-border raid on his camp in Ecuador. The FARC’s top military commander, Jorge “Mono Jojoy” Briceño, was gunned down by authorities in September 2010.

Cano took the helm of the rebel group in 2008, after FARC founder Manuel “Sure Shot” Marulanda died of heart failure.

Usually bearded and bespectacled, Cano became one of the most iconic members of the rebel group. He studied anthropology in Bogotá, and joined the FARC in the 1980s where he became one of its political and ideological leaders. He rose to prominence as he headed failed peace talks in 1991 and 1992.

His death comes amid fears that the FARC was seeing a resurgence.

During the last three years, rebel attacks have been on the rise, as the guerrillas have adopted a strategy of forming smaller, more mobile groups, analysts said.

During the first half of 2011, there were 1,115 FARC attacks – that’s up 10 percent versus last year, according to Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a think-tank that studies Colombia’s civil conflict.

Due in part to those concerns, President Juan Manuel Santos replaced the entire military high command earlier and named Pinzon minister of defense in August.

Just last month, however, in the run-up to contentious municipal elections, the FARC killed 20 soldiers within a 48 hour period.

Analysts said Cano’s death could bring a new bout of violence as the group tries to prove it’s still viable. Started in 1964 with Marxist underpinnings, the FARC now relies heavily on drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion to stay afloat. By some counts, the FARC has less than 9,000 members, down from about 17,000 in 2002.

Pinzón said that Cano had been a guerrilla for more than 33 years and that his death proves that no rebel is beyond the government’s reach.

“Today, the armed forces and the national police have destroyed a myth,” he said.