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The hunt for Colombia's most-wanted insurgent

The FARC's leader is believed to be hiding among the mountains of central Colombia.

Colombia military, FARC, Colombia war
Colombian soldiers, members of a special force that combats guerrillas, stand in formation, June 17, 2010. (Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images)

IBAGUE, Colombia — Somewhere between canyon and crag, between rushing rivers and clouds that hide the sky, between 12,000 feet of mountains, Colombia's most-wanted rebel is believed to be hiding.

A special military force 5,000-strong, supported by thousands more, is tasked with finding the leader of Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Guillermo Leon Saenz, who goes by Alfonso Cano, has long been an elusive target for the military. So was the FARC’s No. 2 commander, known as “Mono Jojoy,” until he was killed last month in an air raid over his jungle hide-out.

Jojoy was thought of as untouchable. His death has raised expectations for what many hope will be the next military victory: Cano’s fall.

“Now is the moment,” said Col. Julio Prieto, commander of the Sixth Brigade in the central department of Tolima. Though the FARC quickly announced a replacement for Jojoy, analysts and military officials expect his death to trigger a degree of disarray and restructuring. The military hopes to exploit that to further debilitate the rebel group.

The challenges, however, are daunting. “You can not compare looking for Cano to looking for Mono Jojoy just because of the terrain itself,” Prieto said.

Cano is believed to be hiding in the Canon de las Hermosas, where the wild terrain poses myriad challenges for the military. Bringing in food and supplies can be complicated. Helicopters often can’t fly because of fog that never seems to lift. The huge changes in altitude impose great physical demands on troops, and up high, some of them succumb to hypothermia. The greatest hazards of all, however, are the countless improvised explosives the FARC has planted in the mountainsides.

These have long been the stomping grounds of the FARC’s Central Bloc, whose fronts extend across Tolima and neighboring departments.

To chip away at Cano’s ability to wage war while in hiding, army troops are going after the various fronts of the Central Bloc. “We are making many consistent efforts to take down the structures that, one way or another, are offering him security,” said Prieto, who has 12,000 troops covering Tolima.

In the last year, seven of the Central Bloc’s 12 leaders have been killed. The loss of guerrillas to air bombings, capture or desertion further weakens the rebels. Two weeks ago, the last seven members of the 50th front, 110-members strong in 2003, turned themselves in to join a government program that provides benefits to demobilizing guerrillas. Many of them provide information — such as the location of guerrilla camps and caches of explosives — that have become key to military efforts.