BOGOTA – The governor of a southern Colombian state was found dead Tuesday less than 24 hours after being abducted by leftist rebels in the the first kidnapping of a major Colombian politician since 2002.
The body of Gov. Luis Francisco Cuellar of Caqueta state was found not far from Florencia, the state capital where the 69-year-old was kidnapped late Monday, security official Edilberto Ramon Endo told The Associated Press.
Cuellar's wife, Himeldo Galindo, was too distraught to talk about the discovery of the body. President Alvaro Uribe later went on national television to say Cuellar's throat had been slit.
Uribe said it wasn't clear when the governor was slain as 2,000 soldiers and police spread into the jungle highlands outside Florencia looking for the kidnappers.
The governor was abducted by eight to 10 men in military uniforms who arrived at his home late Monday in a pickup, killed a police guard and blasted open the door with explosives, Gen. Orlando Paez, operations chief for the national police, told the AP. Two other police guards suffered shrapnel wounds that were not life-threatening.
Cuellar was driven into the mountains that border Florencia, where the pickup was abandoned and found in flames, Paez said.
A furious Uribe, whose rancher father was killed by leftist rebels in a botched 1983 kidnapping, had ordered soldiers and police to rescue Cuellar, who was also a cattle rancher.
"We cannot continue to submit to the whims of the terrorists, of the terrorists who bathe this country in blood," Uribe told reporters in Bogota.
Defense Minister Gabriel Silva blamed the kidnapping on the elite "Teofilo Forero" unit of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and announced a $500,000 reward for information leading to Cuellar's rescue.
Cuellar already had been kidnapped for ransom four times since 1987. His wife told the AP before his body was discovered that he had been held from two to seven months in those abductions. She said she did not remember how much ransom they paid.
Caqueta has long been a FARC stronghold and is among Colombian states with the highest military presence, including an army division headquarters in Florencia.
It was in Caqueta where the FARC abducted French-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in 2002.
That was the last year in which the FARC registered a kidnapping of a major politician, also seizing state governors and congressmen.
After Uribe was elected that year to his first term, kidnappings that had been common in Colombia's countryside sharply diminished.
The conservative president launched a full frontal assault on the FARC that he called "Democratic Security," nearly doubling the size of Colombia's military and benefiting from $700 million in annual U.S. military aid.
The July 2008 rescue of Betancourt was a triumph of Uribe's determined campaign to decimate the rebels.
Nevertheless, Silva, the defense minister, said in a newspaper interview last weekend that Colombia's largest rebel army is "neither vanquished nor in its death throes" — though it has been reduced by desertions and killings to about 8,000 fighters, half its size in 2002.
The 45-year-old FARC did not immediately take responsibility for the kidnapping, but analysts had little doubt it was behind the bold, pre-Christmas action. The FARC has a history of staging attacks at this time of year.
On Dec. 21, 1997, the rebel group killed at least a dozen soldiers and captured several others in an attack on the remote highlands outpost of Patascoy. One of those captured, Cpl. Pablo Emilio Moncayo, is now among the longest-held of 24 soldiers and police the rebels hold as bargaining chips.
Through intermediaries, the FARC has in recent weeks been negotiating Moncayo's release.
The soldier's father, Gustavo Moncayo, said Tuesday he feared Uribe was putting his son's life in jeopardy by ordering the military search for Cuellar.
"This man doesn't care about the lives of the abducted. He doesn't care a thing about the lives of the soldiers and the police," Moncayo said in a telephone interview.
The rebels, who finance their insurgency chiefly from the cocaine trade, released the last of the high-profile politicians they held in February.