Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas, alias Alfonso Cano, was the supreme commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the hemisphere’s oldest and deadliest insurgency. He was killed on November 4, 2011.
Alfonso Cano became the commander of the FARC after the rebels’ long time leader, alias “Manuel Marulanda,” died of natural causes in 2008. Cano had been in the FARC since 1982, where he spent most of his time as the political leader of the Western Bloc (Bloque Occidental). He was well known within the organization for his communist ideals and hard revolutionary line, although many of his cohorts scoffed at his scant military experience. After assuming the leadership of the FARC, he spent millions of dollars on weapons and tried to shift the guerrillas’ tactics in response to the government’s military offensive that has pushed the FARC to the fringes of the country and into neighboring states. This has resulted in the use of more landmines to keep the military at bay and car bombs to keep them off-guard.
Alfonso Cano was more political ideologue than military tactician. An anthropologist who studied at the National University in Bogota, Cano began his FARC career in the early 1980s as an emissary of the Communist Party. From the beginning he had close ties with the rebels’ then political commander, Luis Morantes, alias “Jacobo Arenas,” who fast-tracked him to the guerrillas’ central command, the Secretariat. Following Morantes’ death in 1990, Cano became the FARC’s top political emissary. In 2000, he launched the Bolivarian Movement for a New Colombia (Movimiento Bolivariano por la Nueva Colombia), a clandestine political party. He was also in charge of the Colombian Clandestine Communist Party (Partido Comunista Clandestino Colombiano – PC3).
Alfonso Cano Factbox
DOB: July 22, 1948
Criminal Activities: Drug trafficking, kidnapping
Status: Killed in November 2011
Area of Operation: Colombia’s Cauca, Huila, and Tolima provinces
Alfonso Cano’s emergence as the maximum FARC commander helped give credence to the notion that the guerrillas were open to a negotiated settlement. He participated as a political representative of the FARC in the 1991 Caracas peace negotiations and in the Tlaxcala Peace Dialogues in 1992. During the Caguan Peace Dialogues with Andres Pastrana’s government between 1999-2002, however, he had a lower profile and actively looked for members for the Bolivarian Movement. After the negotiations failed in 2002, Cano led an operation in which 12 Valle del Cauca politicians were kidnapped. The guerrillas later executed most of the politicians.
Alfonso Cano also became known as a hardliner inside the guerrillas. He has been accused of executing some 40 rebel soldiers for insubordination. He was also accused of murdering Guillermo Gaviria, a former governor of Antioquia along with former minister Gilberto Echeverri and eight members of the military in 2003, when the army tried to rescue the two politicians who had been kidnapped.
Despite his lack of military credentials, the FARC leader successfully implemented an aggressive strategy that emphasized hit-and-run ambushes, known as the “Rebirth Plan” (Plan Renacer) and the near exclusive targeting of the security forces, known as “Plan Pistola.” In 2009 and 2010, this allowed the FARC to inflict nearly as many military and police casualties as seen at the height of their power. Under Alfonso Cano’s watch, the FARC also increased their overall number of actions, carrying out some 1,600 attacks in 2010, according to think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris. At the beginning of 2011, Cano vowed to “double” the FARC’s attacks in a video released to the media.
Cano was wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges, and the US State Department had offered $5 million for his capture. He was also involved in high-profile kidnappings and was allegedly responsible for the execution of some kidnapping victims.
Cano served as the political leader of the FARC’s Western Bloc and operated mainly in the Tolima, Huila and Cauca provinces.
Allies and Enemies
The FARC have alliances with both the National Liberation Army (ELN) and criminal groups known as BACRIM (from the Spanish for “criminal bands”). The FARC have engaged in joint military operations with the ELN and some FARC fronts collaborate with BACRIM in the drug trade.
The FARC made an apparent gesture of political goodwill when they released five political hostages early in 2011, but accompanying the release was a wave of bombings and ambushes, just as Alfonso Cano had promised. President Juan Manuel Santos then made it clear that the government’s top priority was killing the FARC’s top commander, when he announced in February 2011 that the armed forces were “breathing down his neck.” The army created a new joint task force dedicated to pressuring Cano in the mountainous Tolima, Huila and Cauca provinces. The strategy led to an intensification of the conflict in these regions, especially Cauca, as guerrilla fronts launched bold attacks against the security forces, partly to distract the army’s attention from Cano’s movements.
After the deaths of two of his top security officials, it became clear that the circle around Cano was tightening. He narrowly avoided capture in July 2011, and began traveling in a small group of just 12 bodyguards. He was finally killed on November 4, 2011.