The recent deaths of two top left-wing guerrilla leaders in Colombia give new credence to reports that the tide may have turned in that country's long and bloody battle against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
If so, it's a major vindication for the billions of U.S. tax dollars that Congress has authorized for military support for Colombia, beginning almost a decade ago with Plan Colombia.
After more than 40 years of guerrilla warfare, in which none of the FARC's top leadership fell in combat, two of its seven-member directorate, Raul Reyes and Ivan Rios, died days apart this month.
These deaths come on top of heavy losses of mid- and lower-ranking rebels. Coupled with desertions, the estimated rebel fighting strength has fallen from a high of 17,000 a few years ago to around 9,000, U.S. and Colombian officials say.
Originally conceived as a strategy to stamp out illegal drug production, Plan Colombia has failed to reduce the flow of cocaine to the United States. But it has been far more successful in developing Colombia's military.
In less than a decade, U.S. military training and funding have helped transform the poorly organized and poorly equipped armed force into a more professional and increasingly deadly military machine.
In the late 1990s, the Colombian military could count on 12,000 to 15,000 professional soldiers. The rest were conscripts. Today there are 80,000 professional soldiers out of a total of 270,000.
Colombia's military now enjoys greater air mobility thanks to the supply of U.S.-made Black Hawk helicopters and night training for its pilots. Its airborne strike capability is also vastly improved with the purchase of AH-60 Arpia helicopter gunships and Brazilian-made Super Tucano attack planes.
Thanks to U.S. support, Colombia now has a network of intelligence monitoring stations around the country that intercept rebel communications daily. Colombia has been able to use this to go after the FARC's top commanders with a "decapitation" strategy led by a U.S.-funded elite commando battalion created in 2002. Last year it added a special forces brigade of 1,200 men.
One of the first successes was in October 2003, when a wily rebel troop commander, Marco Aurelio Buendia, was killed. A key female rebel commander, Omaira Rojas, alias "Sonia," who ran a large drug operation was captured early in 2004. That same year, another high-profile rebel, Simon Trinidad, was arrested.
Heralded as major blows at the time, they pale in comparison to the latest deaths of Reyes and Rios.
Reyes, one of the most vocal FARC commanders, died in a nighttime airstrike March 1 by Super Tucanos on a rebel camp across the Ecuadoran border. Rios was killed March 3 by his own security chief, thanks to an intelligence sting involving the collaboration of a FARC deserter.
Captured FARC computers have revealed that the rebels are being hit hard.
Rios reported that recruitment "has gone down in both fronts, they have lost their dynamic, there is no accounting for the losses and desertions."
Rios had apparently grown so paranoid that he executed 200 of his own fighters, believing them to be "infiltrated enemies." He banned his troops from lighting campfires for fear of detection.
"That suggests to me a level of military pressure we haven't seen before," said Gabriel Marcella, a Colombia expert at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania.
"But the FARC is not strategically defeated. The bad news is there's still a lot of bad guys out there."