BOGOTA, Colombia The legendary leader of Latin America's most powerful insurgency, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, died of a heart attack in March, a senior guerrilla commander said Sunday.
Marulanda, believed to be 78, died "in the arms of his companion, surrounded by bodyguards and all the units who comprised his security," rebel commander Timoleon Jimenez said in a video broadcast by the Venezuela-based Telesur network. He said Marulanda's death followed a short illness, which he did not describe.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is now led by its chief ideologist, Alfonso Cano, Jimenez added.
"A great leader has marched on," said Jimenez, who is also known as "Timochenko." Marulanda died on March 26, he said, without specifying where. Colombia's Defense Ministry, which first reported the death on Saturday, gave the same date.
Military officials said Marulanda's death had coincided with a series of bombings in the southern jungles where he was believed to be holed up.
Marulanda led the peasant-based FARC since its 1964 inception, and was "one of the figures who did most damage to Colombia, who caused so many deaths," Interior Minister Carlos Holguin said, urging the nation to take comfort in his passing.
His death is a major blow to the FARC the latest in a series of setbacks for the communist insurgents, whose defeat has been President Alvaro Uribe's main goal.
In March, guerrilla commander Raul Reyes and another member of the rebels' seven-man ruling Secretariat were killed, and last weekend a female leader well-regarded inside the group defected.
Colombia's army has for months said that it has Cano, Marulanda's replacement, cornered in the southwest Colombian jungle, insisting his death or capture is imminent. FARC statements have denied Cano is in the area.
According to the government, the FARC currently holds 700 hostages, including three U.S. military contractors and French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, who was running for president when the rebels kidnapped her in 2002.
Born to a poor peasant family, Marulanda was radicalized by the vicious civil wars that ravaged Colombia in the middle of the last century, pitting Liberals against Conservatives.
He and other survivors of a 1964 army attack on a peasant community escaped to the mountains and formed the FARC, which grew over the decades to include some 15,000 fighters. The defense ministry now estimates the FARC's strength at around 9,000.
The guerrillas remain strong in many parts of Colombia's countryside, but many Colombians believe they have abandoned their ideology as they have come to rely on drug trafficking as their main funding source.
Marulanda's deadly aim in ambushes on army patrols earned him the name "Sureshot."
Notoriously reclusive, he is said to have never set foot in Colombia's capital or to have left the country, giving just a handful of interviews over the course of his life.
Even senior commanders within the FARC speak of Marulanda with awe, and he is known to have had the final word over any major decision taken by the FARC.