BOGOTA, Colombia — 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.