Nearly a year after signing a peace deal with the Colombian government, marking the end of a bloody 53-year conflict, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) disarmed and entered democratic politics. In November, the European Union removed the FARC from its terrorist watchlist, heralding its transformation from a rebel guerrilla force into a legitimate political party. At the heart of this attempt to bring stability to a country ravaged by decades of civil strife is Rodrigo Londoño, more commonly known by his alias Timochenko. Throughout the peace agreement’s gestation, Timochenko was instrumental in keeping the FARC from abandoning a turbulent and uncertain peace process — a commitment he underscored in late October when the FARC, which now stands for the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, nominated him to run as its presidential candidate in Colombia’s 2018 elections.
He’s a former FARC guerrilla of mysterious origin, and there are few confirmed accounts of Timochenko’s early life. Born to a family of communist sympathizers in Colombia’s Quindío region, Reuters reported that Timochenko underwent training for guerrilla warfare and studied politics in Cuba and Russia, respectively; meanwhile, the nonprofit news site Colombia Reports claims that he studied medicine and cardiology at Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University. According to contrasting reports, he may have also received military training in former Yugoslavia. He joined the FARC in 1982, and just four years later he became a member of the FARC’s ruling body, the Secretariat.
By the time Timochenko surfaced on the radar of American law enforcement agencies, the FARC had become deeply implicated in the narcotics trade. In 2006, the U.S. Department of State placed a $5 million bounty on Timochenko’s head for controlling “the production, manufacture, and distribution of hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States and the world.” It was just a few years later, after commander Alfonso Cano was killed by the Colombian military in 2011, that Timochenko became the FARC’s leader. Just a short time later, in November 2012, he made the surprising announcement that the group would commence peace talks with the Colombian government.
Fighting among the FARC, right-wing paramilitary groups, and government forces had come at an immense price: In five decades of conflict, millions of people were displaced, and at least 250,000 were killed. The FARC’s brutal tactics — including assassinations, forced displacement, the recruitment of child soldiers, the use of antipersonnel landmines, and other war crimes — earned it the ire of many Colombians. Winning a lasting peace would mean overcoming the resentment of a substantial portion of the Colombian populace.
It took four years of negotiation with the government before a peace agreement was reached in 2016, which was then rejected by a thin majority in a referendum vote. But Timochenko did not abandon hope. Instead, together with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2016 for his commitment to reaching a peace agreement, he began working on a revised deal that would be more palatable to those who voted no. Timochenko’s diplomatic skills proved crucial to the success of the revised agreement inked on Nov. 24, 2016. The deal assures Colombian landowners that their property rights would be protected and requires that FARC guerrillas pay reparations with the money they obtained through kidnapping ransoms and the drug trade. In return, the FARC was able to secure its entry into mainstream Colombian politics.
But Colombia’s peace remains a tenuous affair, subject to political winds. “Any evidence that the government is going back on the deal strengthens the FARC’s hard-liners and weakens Timochenko,” says Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America. “This makes Timochenko a transitional figure, and that’s how he’ll be remembered: as the less ideologically rigid leader who guided the FARC to a ‘graceful exit’ at the negotiating table.”
Martin de Bourmont is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.