Colombia’s guerrilla leader swaps battle fatigues for bedtime stories

He has enough enemies to fill a telephone directory and the US once put a $5m bounty on his head. But Rodrigo Londoño, leader of what was Latin America’s biggest guerrilla army, claims to enjoy his new life as a father and politician.

“Only the other day I went for lunch in a restaurant near here and a man who was eating got up, asked for a photo and thanked me for what we’re doing,” a smiling Mr Londoño told the Financial Times during an interview at his Bogotá office this year.

The omens were hardly encouraging when the man better known by the nom de guerre Timochenko and his Marxist comrades from the feared Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) force laid down their arms after a peace deal with Colombia’s government in 2016.

Prominent Farc figures had tried political careers before only to be hunted down, often by paramilitary death squads. A former rebel assassinated last month was the 214th such victim since the accords were signed, Farc said. 

The deaths reflect the controversial nature of the peace process. While praised abroad, the 2016 agreement was hard to stomach for the many Colombians caught up in the five-decade insurgency that cost more than 250,000 lives.

Ivan Marquez, left, Farc’s lead negotiator, shakes hands with the Colombian government’s chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle, right, while Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez looks on after the 2016 peace deal was signed © Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters
A Farc supporter holds a paper dove bearing the name of a deceased rebel during a vigil in Bogotá earlier this year © Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters

Yet Mr Londoño has survived, against the odds. Now 61, he has swapped a life in jungle camps planning ambushes and kidnappings for a new routine of bedtime story-reading to his infant son, shared via Instagram.

“I’m 100 per cent optimistic,” he said. “We’re on the right side of history. It’s a tough challenge, yes, but we have a peace process . . . which is winning more support, especially among the youth.”

The peace deal won the president who negotiated it, Juan Manuel Santos, a Nobel Peace Prize but implementation under his more sceptical successor, Iván Duque, has been slow. A Notre Dame university study last month found only 6 per cent of the accords were implemented in the year to November. A small dissident Farc faction took up arms again in 2019.

Emilio Archila, Mr Duque’s peace process adviser, said the government was fully committed to implementing the plan despite the coronavirus crisis. “Amid these daunting challenges, Colombia has doubled protections for ex-Farc combatants,” he wrote in the Miami Herald last week.

One of three men to command the Farc during its 52-year insurgency, Mr Londoño is the only one alive.

He remains leader of the Farc but the initials now stand for Alternative Revolutionary Force of the People and its logo has sprouted a red rose reminiscent of those used by European socialists. The peace agreement guarantees the Farc five seats in both houses of congress, although its share of the vote in the last election was well below 1 per cent. 

Protesters throw stones during a demonstration against a campaign rally held for Mr Londoño in Yumbo, Colombia, in 2018 © Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty
Mr Londoño, centre, takes part in a nationwide strike called by students, unions and indigenous groups in November 2019 © Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty

“It’s complicated,” he said of his electoral efforts. “We’re building a party which starts with a positive burden and a negative burden. It’s a very hard task to neutralise the negative burden.”

The negative burden is summed up by a US state department “wanted” notice from the early 2000s accusing Mr Londoño of sending “hundreds of tonnes of cocaine to the US and the world” to finance his guerrillas and of ordering “the murder of hundreds of people who violated or interfered with the Farc’s cocaine policies”.

Mr Londoño’s emphasis is different. The son of illiterate peasants who sympathised with communism, he listened to Radio Havana in his childhood and decided to fight for a revolution. “I started to realise the differences there were, children coming to school without breakfast or lunch,” he recalled.

Aged 17 he joined the Farc and began to climb its ranks. He insisted that most of his career was dedicated to training and organisation. “I have always liked teaching,” he said, waving away suggestions that he masterminded dozens of bloody rebel assaults on remote towns and villages.

During the 1990s, some Farc kidnappings gained notoriety for the practice of secretly killing the hostage before starting ransom negotiations. Once the money was paid, the victim’s family was told of the death and ordered to pay extra to recover the body.

Once feared across Colombia, Mr Londoño these days cultivates an avuncular image. He shares a nom de guerre with Semyon Timoshenko, one of Joseph Stalin’s top generals, but denies studying in the Soviet Union, or that the Farc ever received arms from Moscow. “I wish!” he said. “That was one of our dreams . . . that we could get international help.”

By 2000, the Farc and its 20,000 combatants were at the gates of Bogotá. The guerrillas believed they could topple the government. “That was the dream,” Mr Londoño said.

Farc troops stand guard in south-west Colombia in May 1999 © Pedro Ugarte AFP/Getty
The aftermath of an attack attributed to Farc on a police station in Granada, Antioquia province, in December 2000 © Reuters

But the US had different ideas. President Bill Clinton’s administration intervened, spending millions of dollars re-equipping the Colombian army, giving Bogotá cutting-edge technology to wage war on the Marxists.

Suddenly, the guerrillas were being hit by precise aerial bombardments, Mr Londoño recalled. By 2011, when he took over after his predecessor was killed in a raid, the Farc was on the back foot and secretly negotiating with Mr Santos.

Mr Santos left power in 2018 but the two men still talk. “He has been very responsible . . . My respect for him has grown,” the former president said of Mr Londoño.

Yet violence remains widespread in parts of rural Colombia. As the Farc left the mountains and jungles, organised crime moved in. Cocaine production is still rising and Colombia is by far the world’s biggest source of the drug.

At times, Mr Londoño’s health seems as fragile as the peace process. He had a heart attack in 2015 and underwent major surgery in 2018 after making a fleeting bid for Colombia’s presidency. A plot to assassinate him was thwarted in January.

Despite the setbacks, the Farc leader said there was no going back. 

“This conflict went on for too long and generated very deep wounds in Colombian society — on both sides,” Mr Londoño said. “One of the toughest battles is to heal those wounds.”