Wed, Jan 31, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Ex-guerrilla launches historic presidential bid in Colombia

Former FARC members are guaranteed 10 seats in congress as part of a peace deal, but many Colombians are not ready to forgive and forget

By Christine Armario  /  AP, BOGOTA

Illustration: Mountain people

Former guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londono was once one of Colombia’s most-wanted men. Now he is a presidential contender.

The graying, spectacled man best known by his alias, Timochenko, launched his bid on Saturday to lead the government he once battled from the jungle with a celebratory campaign launch featuring giant posters, colorful confetti and even a catchy jingle.

“I promise to lead a government that propels the birth of a new Colombia,” he said. “A government that at last represents the interests of the poor.”

Breaking with the traditional campaign launch from a five-star Bogota hotel, Timochenko initiated his presidential bid from one of the city’s poorest, most crime ridden neighborhoods in a clear nod to the underprivileged class whose votes the ex-combatants are hoping to win.

Hundreds gathered in the parking lot of a community center decorated with banners featuring a smiling Timochenko sporting a neatly trimmed beard, angular, thick-rimmed glasses and a crisp blue shirt.

“Timo president,” a new campaign song played from loudspeakers. “For the people.”

The campaign is another historic step in transforming the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) into a political party following the signing of a 2016 peace accord ending more than a half-century of conflict.

The nation’s once-largest rebel group is now known as the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, keeping its Spanish FARC acronym, and presenting a slate of former guerrillas as candidates.

Yet even as the ex-combatants ditch rebel green fatigues for simple white T-shirts emblazoned with the party’s red rose emblem there have been fresh reminders that the road to peace is filled with hazard.

Two ex-combatants were recently shot to death while campaigning for a FARC congressional candidate in northwestern Colombia. In total, 45 former FARC members or their relatives have been reported killed, according to a recent government report. Many fear a repeat of events in the 1980s, when scores of leftist politicians affiliated with the Patriotic Union party were gunned down.

On the same day as the FARC campaign’s inauguration at least four police officers were killed and 42 injured when a homemade bomb exploded outside a police station in the city of Barranquilla, underscoring security challenges that remain even after the peace signing.

“From here on is going to be a huge test of whether the FARC’s gamble is correct: that they can practice politics without fear of being killed,” Washington Office on Latin America analyst Adam Isacson said.

Like Timochenko, the candidates include former guerrillas who have been convicted in Colombian courts for their part in massacres and kidnappings, and whose new role as politicians has irked many Colombians.

The US Department of State has offered a US$5 million reward for anyone who helps secure Timochenko’s capture and accused him of directing the FARC’s cocaine trafficking and “the murders of hundreds of people.”

The budding politicians will still have to go before a special peace tribunal, but so long as they fully confess their crimes they are unlikely to serve any jail time.

Formed in the 1960s and inspired by Marxist principles, the ex-combatants are vowing to tackle Colombia’s entrenched inequalities, though their initial proposals have not been as radical as many of the country’s conservatives have warned. In community meetings and ads leading up to the launch, candidates have talked about creating a subway in Bogota and a basic monthly income, an idea currently being debated throughout Europe.

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