BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — President Juan Manuel Santos on Saturday called on fighters of Latin America's only major rebel force to accept the killing of their top leader as proof the movement is doomed and to surrender.
"This is the moment to decide to lay down your arms because, as we've said many times, the alternative is prison or a tomb," Santos told combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia a day after troops killed their 63-year-old chief.
But analysts don't believe Cano's death will lead the drug-funded rebels, known by their Spanish initials FARC, to crumble. While it's a body blow to the insurgents, the rebels remain potent. They have depth in their leadership and resilience steeled in a half century of armed revolt.
Santos expressed satisfaction but said it's "not a moment for triumphalism" after meeting Saturday with the military high command behind closed doors in Popayan, the southwestern provincial capital where Cano's body was taken.
He said Cano's ranks were infiltrated by rebel defectors, but refused to discuss details.
Santos added that "my eyes moistened" at the news of Cano's death, "a few tears of emotion."
The rebels, estimated at 9,000 fighters, have suffered devastating losses and record desertions since February 2008. Cano was the fourth member of the FARC's ruling seven-man secretariat, a Politburo of sorts, to die a violent death in the interim.
He was the first FARC commander to be tracked down and killed.
Nearly a decade of U.S military and intelligence assistance and training have hamstrung the FARC's communications abilities, undermining its ability to coordinate attacks and mesh strategy among its widely dispersed units.
Yet the rebels continue to sting the military with hit-and-run attacks, killing hundreds of security force members a year. Just last month, FARC attacks claimed the lives of 20 soldiers in two separate ambushes.
The FARC's backbone of support is among peasants with few other opportunities in a country of deep inequality where land ownership is concentrated in few hands. It is unlikely to disappear unless the government seriously addresses the underlying social issues.
Cano, a bookish anthropologist with a middle-class Bogota upbringing, said in an interview published in July by a Spanish newspaper that the FARC arose in 1964 to fight a "violent oligarchy" of big landholders and remained intent on attaining social justice.
Santos, a military hawk but social liberal, is addressing that issue. A law enacted this year seeks to redress wrongs suffered by about 4 million victims of Colombia's conflict, including peasants whose land was stolen by militias working on behalf of land barons.
Even Cano praised Santos's initiative in a New Year's message.
It will take about a decade to carry out, however, and cost billions.
There has been considerable speculation that Santos has sought secret exploratory talks with the FARC, with whom peace talks have failed in each of the last three decades.
Asked about the subject in an August interview with The Associated Press, Santos was cagey.
"If there were, I wouldn't tell you," he said, smiling.
In a statement published on the website of sympathetic news agency Anncol, the FARC acknowledged Cano's death and said peace will come when the issues that led to the rebellion are addressed.
"Peace in Colombia will not be born with a guerrilla demobilization but with the definitive abolition of the causes that gave birth to the uprising," the statement said. "There is a policy drawn up and it will be continued."
Most victims in Colombia's internal conflict have been killed or dispossessed in a dirty war by far-right militias known as paramilitaries, who were created in the 1980s to counter kidnapping and extortion by the FARC.
Now that Cano is dead, the insurgency will name a new commander, a process bound to take time. It is also apt to try to prove it is anything but defeated.
"The FARC aren't done. The FARC are going to react in some way because it's important for them to show that the death of a leader doesn't mean a process of desertion or surrender," said Camilo Gomez, who was peace commissioner under President Andres Pastrana and took part in failed negotiations with FARC from 1998-2002.
"The middle-ranking commanders are not going to negotiate over the cadaver of Cano," said Ariel Avila, an analyst with the Nuevo Arco Iris think tank. "Their peace intentions are going to be paralyzed for a time. There's no lack of unity in the FARC's interior."
Analysts mention two potential leaders, veteran rebels known as Ivan Marquez and Timochenko. Both belong to the secretariat and Colombian military officials say both have been living recently in Venezuela.
Cano was felled by three bullets in a remote area of Cauca state along with three other rebels, two men and a woman, after his hideout in forested hills was bombed, officials said Saturday.
He was found unarmed, said Maritza Gonzalez, director of the chief prosecutor's office's investigative unit, wearing black pants and a blue shirt. Her agents positively identified the body by fingerprints.
Cano had shaved off his trademark beard.
The rebel leader had spent all day Friday in hiding after the morning bombing raid and was killed in combat after being sighted by soldiers at night, said Gonzalez. Air Force commander Gen. Tito Pinilla said the military used night vision goggles in the operation.
Gen. Gabriel Rey, chief of the army's aviation arm, said the small group of guerrillas guarding the FARC chief fired back with homemade mortars, wounding one soldier.
A senior security official, speaking on condition he not be further identified, said Cano was caught trying to break through a security cordon.
Cano's body arrived in Bogota on Saturday.
Troops recovered seven computers and 39 thumb drives belonging to Cano as well as a stash of cash in currencies including U.S. dollars, euros and Colombian pesos, said Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon.
Cano, whose real name was Guillermo Leon Saenz, had been the top target of Colombia's armed forces authorities since September 2010, when they killed the insurgency's military chief, Jorge Briceno, in a bombing raid in the southern Macarena massif.
Cano had always declared his readiness to negotiate a resolution to the conflict, something Santos and his predecessor Alvaro Uribe have rejected that as long as the FARC continues hostilities including ransom kidnappings.
Santos reiterated the stance on Saturday.
"We need clear signals and we need terrorism to cease," he said. "The door to dialogue is not locked."
Among kidnap victims the rebels are believed to currently hold are four Chinese oil workers seized in June.
Alfredo Molano, an analyst who knew Cano as a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, said he doesn't expect the FARC to do much in the near term but dig in.
It's important to understand, he said, that its senior leadership, composed of about 20 top rebels, will collectively set the movement's course for now.
And that could mean months of indecision.
Cano's death, he said, "if indeed it is a military triumph, could be a political error."
Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera in Bogota and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.