The announcement of the death of Manuel Marulanda by Colombia's Minister of Defence, Juan Manuel Santos, marks another blow to that country's main guerilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).The loss of the long-time leader, known as "Tirofijo" ("Sureshot"), the oldest guerilla leader anywhere, follows that of his deputy, Raúl Reyes, on March 2 in Ecuador, and the defection in mid-May of Karina, one of its t op women leaders, who turned herself in at Antioquía.

The longest-running guerilla movement in the Americas, launched as it was in 1964, the FARC has managed to survive for almost half a century in the thick of the Colombian jungle. Until Reyes' death no member of the FARC Secretariat had ever fallen victim to the Colombian military. This fact had led to their developing a reputation for invincibility - that will now be difficult to sustain.

The very manner in which Marulanda's death was announced was curious: it was slipped in by Santos into a routine interview with Colombia's leading weekly, Semana. President Alvaro Uribe, who has led the fight against the FARC (and whose father was killed by it in the early 1980s) did not refer to it. And a subsequent press announcement was read out by Admiral René Moreno, a senior, but not the top, military officer. Although the date was given as March 26, the exact circumstances of Marulanda's death are not known. Some say he died of a heart failure; others say the end came following bombings by the Colombian military of the FARC's headquarters.

Marulanda's death has been announced many times in the past, so much so that there is a book titled The Deaths of Manuel Marulanda. But this time it is for real, and the FARC itself confirmed it on Sunday to Telesur, a TV station based in Venezuela.

Marulanda's life itself, clouded in mystery (his exact age is not known, though he was assumed to be in his late 70s) is the stuff of legend. Born in Genova, a small town in central-western Colombia, as Pedro Antonio Marín, he started out as a modest peasant and woodsman during the period when Colombia was rocked by "La Violencia," the nation-wide killings that followed the murder of the Liberal leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitán in 1948. This transformed Colombia from a peaceful nation into one of the most violent countries.

Originally a Liberal, Marulanda started his own armed group along with 14 of his cousins in 1949, joined forces with the Communists, and took up the armed struggle against the Colombian state that has lasted to this day. In 1964, surrounded by 14,000 troops of the Colombian Army, and with only a ragtag band of 17 men with himself in Alto de Trilleras, he miraculously managed to escape. Shortly thereafter, the FARC was established. During the Easter of 1965, it undertook the first armed action, taking the town of Inza in Cauca, and killing four policemen and three nuns. Colombia has never been the same again.

Guerilla warfare in Latin America is closely associated with the Cuban Revolution. The victorious entry of Fidel Castro and his forces into Havana in January 1959 marked a high point for those who thought the road to power for the Left in the region would come from the barrel of the gun. Cuba's quick, if involuntary, distancing from the United States, added to the heroic aura around the bearded, fatigues-clad Cubans, who were able to stand their own against Uncle Sam. This was something no other Latin American government had been able to do and live to tell the tale. To do so hardly 90 miles from Miami seemed exhilarating.

In Venezuela, Central America, and Colombia itself, guerilla groups of various kinds sprang into action. Later, in the Southern Cone, urban guerilla movements like the Montoneros in Argentina and the Tupamaros in Uruguay took on the military dictatorships that ruled them. In Havana, Fidel Castro set up the Tricontinental as a world revolutionary headquarters for the armed struggles of peoples in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Its regional arm was the Organisation of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS), chaired by Salvador Allende.

Ernesto ‘Che' Guevara, the Argentine physician who had joined Fidel Castro and his Cuban associates in their Mexican exile first and the Sierra Maestra later, got bored in his high-ranking government jobs (including, improbably, a stint as president of Cuba's Central Bank) and decamped to Africa in the mid-1960s to spread the revolution. After a brief, if unrewarding, experience in the Congo with Laurent Kabila, who was later to become its President, Bolivia became his next destination.

From his medical training Che Guevara had derived his own theory of guerilla warfare, that of the foco guerrillero. Its key notion was that guerillas would act like an infectious disease, spreading out from the initial locus of armed action to the rest of the body politic. One reason he picked Bolivia was that, in addition to the considerable inequities of one the poorest and most unequal societies in the region, it is located in the very heart of South America, bordering Peru, Chile, Brazil and Argentina. This would thus presumably facilitate the spreading of the guerilla virus throughout the subcontinent, and trigger, in his phrase, "two, three, many Vietnams." Regis Debray, the French intellectual and later adviser to President Francois Mitterrand, joined him there for a while (even spending time in prison for it) and systematised this approach to revolutionary politics even further, now with the patina of French philosophy.

What happened to Che Guevara is well known: things did not exactly work out as planned. Throughout the region much the same thing happened. But there were two exceptions: Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas overthrew Anastasio Somoza in 1979; and Colombia, where the FARC, now joined by other guerilla movements like the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), which, if they did not succeed in their struggle against the Colombian state at least held their own. One of the oldest principles of guerilla warfare is that, as long as they do not lose, the guerillas win.

One reason the FARC has survived so long is that it is financially self-sufficient. With Colombia generating between 80 and 90 per cent of the cocaine produced in the world, protection money for the drug cartels in Cali and Medellín has generated enough capital to allow them to go on, just on the interest, for a very long time.

What will happen now, after Marulanda's death ?

Most observers believe that he would be succeeded by "Alfonso Cano," the nom de guerre of Guillermo Sáez. This 60-year old, bearded, bespectacled anthropologist member of the FARC secretariat has been its ideologue for some time. Many consider him to belong to the political arm of the FARC, thus being more prone to initiating a dialogue with the government. Recent setbacks that the FARC faced, and the many defections from the rank and file, would seem to back this view. The passing of Marulanda, long seen as a hardliner, would buttress this optimism. As often happens in such groups, it is only after their founding leaders leave the scene that they can break away from established behaviour and think and act outside the box.

But broader forces may be at work. Latin America in the first decade of the 21st century is a very different place from what it was in the 1960s, when Marulanda founded the FARC. The Left, far from being on the outside looking in, is now in power in much of the region. Not the armed struggle, but patient, on-the-ground organisational work on the factory floor and in housing developments, as well as in the countryside, has shown to be a much more effective tool in reaching power - than guns and bombs.

A trade union leader like Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is now into the middle of his second term as President of Brazil, with popularity ratings of 60 per cent. Argentina and Chile are ruled by women leaders of the Left, Cristina Fernandez and Michelle Bachelet, both of whom cut their political teeth in the struggle against military rule in the 1970s. Bolivia's Evo Morales is the first elected Aboriginal President in the region. Even Paraguay has finally broken away from Colorado party rule, one of the longest in the world, to elect as President a few months ago a former bishop, Fernando Lugo. He was once closely identified with liberation theology.

For President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, now into his second term, the passing of Marulanda may be as welcome a piece of news as news that Osama Bin Laden's remains were found in the caves of Tora Borait would be for George Bush. It also offers the opportunity for one of the largest and most prosperous countries in South America, well known for the sophistication and resilience of its people, to leave behind its tragic history of 60 years of violence that started with the murder of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán in 1948.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.