Exclusive glimpse into FARC camp shows proactive but under-funded social services.
The commander of the Colombian rebel group FARC has narrowly escaped capture, according to the country’s president.
Juan Manuel Santos’s admission on Sunday ended speculation that Alfonso Cano, 63, had possibly been killed in a military raid.
“Cano did not die [on] Thursday, but he will soon,” Santos said.
Colombian military sources had previously said they were almost certain they had killed Cano.
The raid was part of a three-day offensive launched last week on a jungle hideout of the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in a rural region between the provinces of Huila and Cauca.
Santos, who spoke after his return from an inspection of the area, said it was the third time that Cano had eluded seizure – this time, by “mere hours”.
“We’ve verified that the night before Alfonso Cano slept at that camp,” he said.
The fact that the initial tip-off came from a FARC insider signals divisions within the FARC camps, Santos said.
The army has been on manhunt for Cano since he assumed leadership of the FARC in March 2008 when Pedro “Tirofijo” Antonio Marin, the group’s founder, died of a heart attack.
Cano, born Guillermo Leon Saenz, was also a youth leader in Bogota.
Dogs and cigarettes
According to Colombian television, the military bombed the FARC camp and sent in troops to seize its occupants but instead found some of Cano’s personal effects, his two dogs and large quantities his favourite cigarettes.
El Tiempo, the country’s largest newspaper, said the military were trying to identify the bodies of those killed in the operation.
FARC, the continent’s largest anti-government group, has come under much pressure in recent years by Colombia’s military.
The US along the European Union and Canada view the militia as a terrorist organisation.
The group is essentially a peasant army which has proclaimed itself to be an anti-imperialist Marxist-Leninist organisation of Bolivarian inspiration.
It claims to represent the rural poor in a struggle against Colombia’s wealthier classes.
Recently Al Jazeera’s Karl Penhaul tracked down one of FARC’s fighting units and spent 10 days among the group to learn more about their motivations, goals and tactics.
FARC also opposes US influence in Colombia and the monopolisation of natural resources by multinational corporations.
Forced underground, FARC reportedly funds itself through ransom kidnappings, gold mining and taxation of the illegal drug trade.
With a reported 18,000 members, they are spread throughout the country’s south eastern region that includes jungles and plains at the base of the Andes Mountains.
The 50 years of guerrilla warfare had been believed to be coming to an end after government troops killed several of FARC’s leaders in recent years.
But the group has proven far from defeated, staying in mountainous and jungle regions and using guerrilla styles reminiscent of Che Guevara’s.