Tymoshenko felt a tingle in his chest that made him put his hand to his heart. The rest of what happened, he doesn’t remember. It was February 2015 and the leader of the FARC had just suffered a heart attack in the midst of peace negotiations in Havana. He was long dead, which really compromised the dialogue. While recovering, another of the historic guerrilla fighters, Iván Márquez, insisted that he tell him what he had seen during that time, where he had been. Márquez was a convinced spiritualist who sought advice from the liberator Simón Bolívar through a medium. Tymoshenko was skeptical, but he wanted to please his comrade: “I arrived and I met Marulanda (founder of the guerrillas) and he said to me, listen to me, what did you come to do here ? Do me a favor and come back. There’s too much to do.”
In the following months, thousands of fighters, who had taken up arms against the Colombian government for half a century, descended from the mountains. Tymoshenko has once again become Rodrigo Londoño, his real name, the one he abandoned when he left home at the age of 17 without saying goodbye to his parents. He now lives on a farm on the outskirts of the town where he was born, La Tebaida, with a girlfriend and their son. “Peace was the only way, the other was suicide. At this moment, an armed project has no future,” he reflects. However, this other alternative was the one Márquez opted for. In some from his conversations with the afterlife, he deduced that his destiny was to once again wield a gun in hiding.Nearly everyone who accompanied him on this absurd adventure was murdered, and the Secret Service is investigating whether Márquez himself died, after learning he had been seriously injured in Venezuela.Londoño heard the news while celebrating his son’s third birthday.
The 63-year-old ex-guerrilla limps through the streets of his city due to a calcium problem in his bones. In the jungle, he suffered from malaria and dengue fever, the classic illnesses of combatants. But it was during his return to civilian life that a fragile health appeared. He underwent open-heart surgery and six stents were placed. Later, he had gall bladder problems and suffered a stroke. Later, appendicitis. He lives under strict medical supervision. His compatriots see him from the front and there are some who cross the sidewalk. The crimes committed by the FARC, which have become the most powerful guerrillas in Latin America, have the face of their neighbour. Others, on the other hand, come to greet him.
“Dude, Rodrigue. I haven’t seen him since school.
—Germán, what a pleasure to welcome you. What happened to you?
—I became an accountant and then a painter. I saw you on TV…
The young Londoño disappeared from the city in the seventies. Many people haven’t known him for decades. His family also didn’t get much information. Over the years, he reappeared under the pseudonym of Tymoshenko and at the head of a front of the FARC, a peasant guerrilla with Marxist-Leninist ideology. He would end up being the youngest member to belong to the dome. With the death of leader Alfonso Cano in a bombardment during the first contacts with President Juan Manuel Santos to seek peace, he was left in charge. He had to complete a historic process that had failed many times before. A cardiac arrest was about to turn everything upside down. But he pulled himself together, and carried through to the end the idea of demobilizing his comrades in arms.
Without the ghost of the guerrillas, the political left has ceased to identify with violence. Colombia went for decades from one conservative government to another. The stigma of progressivism used to be very strong but this has changed in recent years and culminated in the election as President of Gustavo Petro, another former M-19 guerrilla who also participated in his group’s peace process and later rewrote a new, more progressive constitution. Many consider that without these measures it would have been impossible for someone like Petro to be in power in August.
“I insisted to my people that with peace, a revolutionary situation would arise. It was not the revolution of January 1, 1959 that arrived with guns and olive green uniforms. They are different processes, they are different times. But it’s a revolution,” says Londoño. During the election campaign, he wrote to the then candidate and his vice-president, Francia Márquez, in case they wanted to attend a meeting where he could show his vision for the country. “Petro was smart not to see me. I’m not sorry that this photo was not given. I would have stigmatized him a lot,” he adds.
The FARC became a party called Comunes. Society has not finished getting used to seeing guerrillas campaigning. His presence on the Colombian political scene is residual. Londoño is the president of the formation. Until 2026, they will have five senators guaranteed by the peace agreement. From there they will fly on their own, and the expectations are not encouraging at all. “We wouldn’t have gotten that representation at the polls. It’s the truth. The group committed atrocities, including 96,952 homicides (paramilitaries total 205,028). The ideals with which the armed struggle began have completely disappeared.
His kidnapping policy was brutal. They kept people chained to sticks for years, waiting for families to pay millionaire ransoms. When they didn’t have specific goals, they stood in the road and randomly stopped cars. They called it miraculous catches. Colombians stopped using regional highways. The inhabitants of the city have abandoned their homes in the countryside. Tymoshenko supported this form of financing. “I regret having done it. The debate arose. You can kidnap, but who? For a paramilitary who has capital and who is worth it, yes. But they are the ones who have never allowed themselves to be kidnapped. Then they got hold of the biggest jerk, the one who appeared with five cows and we thought he had money. It was an injustice.” The guerrillas were also able to keep so many fighters on their payroll due to the boom in drug trafficking, which originated in areas under their control.
The laying down of arms was accompanied by a process of seeking the truth in which the soldiers also participated. Londoño has held meetings with hundreds of victims behind closed doors and in public hearings. Hearing forgiveness from the guerrillas, who were immune to self-criticism and could justify any action under the pretext of waging war, was a cathartic moment for the victims and Colombian society in general. Londoño assures that his repentance is sincere: “I break down sometimes, although I make an effort not to cry. It’s not because of machismo, I’m afraid of making a fool of myself or that they think I’m pretending.”
A man crossing the street shouts at him:
—Long live the People’s Army!—, in reference to the FARC.
“Imagine,” he replies incredulously, adjusting his glasses.
Later, when paying for lunch, the restaurant owner will say, looking at him sternly, “I should charge you double.”
He faces very serious charges against him which will be tried in the coming years by a special court which seeks to clarify what happened, but he will not risk prison sentences as long as he cooperates. In the Catatumbo region, with one of the units he commanded, he killed 34 raspachines, as the coca pickers are called. Londoño says his men were on a mission to attack some paramilitaries, but they ended up grabbing those workers. They rounded them all up, about 90, and told them that if anyone tried to run away, they would be shot. One of them tried to run away. The guerrillas started shooting at close range. “They were miserably murdered people, without any justification. Talking to their mothers was painful. I remained in misery, ”he says.
He also met privately with the widow of Guillermo Gaviria Correa, a former governor of the Antioquia region who was kidnapped by the FARC in 2002 and later killed. The wife gave her the memories of her husband.
—I went home and spent two or three nights reading it. It was harder than the public itself. He was a man of peace, why did we do this? I underlined the book.
The demobilized combatants had no trouble reintegrating into normal life. Often they cannot find work and property owners do not want to rent to them. More than 300 of them were killed. He too saw death up close beyond a heart attack. The same Márquez who was interested in his experience of transitioning to the afterlife sent an elite commando two years ago to assassinate him. He called him a traitor. The police interrupted the plan and killed two of the guerrillas ready to finish off their former boss, Tymoshenko. They were going to kill a man who no longer existed. Londoño, on the patio of the house where he grew up, tells this story without passion, with a touch of sadness. He recruited Iván Márquez in 1982.
The last time he went to this house to see his parents, he had been in hiding for four years. In the front was a store run by his mother. When he came in, she was dealing with a policeman. Welcome, nephew, the woman told him, to fool the authorities. “My mother is a conspirator, she laughs. I was afraid that she would beg me to stay, not to return to combat.”
“What would you have answered?
– Same, I would have stayed at home.
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