The top commander of Latin America’s oldest rebel army said Friday he hopes that President-elect Donald Trump will continue strong U.S support for ending Colombia’s half-century conflict that past administrations helped fuel. Rodrigo Londono spoke to foreign journalists a day after signing an accord for the second time in two months to end fighting between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
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Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, slammed successive U.S. presidents since the 1960s for backing efforts to defeat the rebels militarily through billions in aid and involvement on the battlefield. But he said that President Barack Obama had helped turn a page toward reconciliation by naming a special envoy to take part in the peace talks.
“Now there’s a new president and he should continue the U.S. connection to the process. That’s the call we’re making,” said Londono, who surprised many by congratulating Trump on his electoral victory during a speech at Thursday’s signing ceremony.
Colombia was barely mentioned in the U.S. presidential campaign, but the peace process has a lot riding on the next presidency.
FARC leaders such as Timochenko still face potential arrest when they travel outside Colombia because of U.S. arrest warrants on drug-trafficking charges. The U.S. government also still classifies the FARC a terrorist organization alongside al-Qaida and Islamic State group, making it illegal for Americans to engage with them.
The rebels are also demanding Washington release a major FARC leader, Ricardo Palmera, better known by his alias Simon Trindad, who was convicted in 2007 of conspiracy to kidnap three American defense contractors and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Over three trials, he beat more serious charges of hostage-taking, drug trafficking and terrorism.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has expressed support for Palmera’s release but the Obama administration has insisted the issue wasn’t part of negotiations and said there was no effort to commute his sentence or transfer him to Colombia so he could serve his time in jail there. Asked if Obama should commute Palmera’s sentence before leaving office, Londono demurred: “We’re waiting for an answer.”
It was Londono’s first encounter with journalists since arriving to Colombia’s capital, where he last stepped foot, briefly, in 2000 en route to peace talks in southern Colombia. He held back a cough he said was product of the Andean capital’s cold, damp weather — a far cry from the sweltering jungles where he’s spent most of his adult life.
He tried to project a conciliatory image that contrasts with hostile view most Colombians have of the FARC, an image that led a slim majority to reject the original accord in a referendum.
While expressing optimism about the FARC’s efforts to rebrand itself as a political movement, Londono warned that he and other guerrillas face risks to their lives as they return to civilian life. Thousands of leftist activists and former guerrillas were slain following a peace process in the 1980s that collapsed in bloodshed.
While that fear has ebbed since the darker days of Colombia’s conflict, about 70 leftist activists and human rights defenders have been killed this year in areas dominated by the FARC, and two rebels were slain by security forces two weeks ago despite a bilateral cease-fire.
“Many of us, perhaps, will be left by the wayside,” he said, adding that possibility of an unnatural death has been a constant since he joined the rebels nearly 40 years ago.
He suggested that the rebels should form a single coalition with pro-peace parties to compete in the 2018 presidential election against what’s expected to be a formidable rival loyal to former President Alvaro Uribe, who led the campaign for a “no” vote in last month’s referendum.
The goal will be to create what he called a “transitional government” to implement the peace accord.
“Right now in Colombia there’s a battle going on between the forces that want the war, because they got rich on it, and those that want peace,” he said. “I hope we don’t have to say one day that the cost of peace was X number of lives lost.”