Posted with permission from The Washington Times

BUENOS AIRES - Rising through the ranks of Colombia's feared guerrilla rebels, Rodrigo Londono Echeverri repeatedly insisted that the leftist terrorist movement was the only option against "Washington and the oligarchy."

But not even a year after he turned in his Kalashnikov, he wants to replace it with a presidential sash.

Mr. Londono's bid to run in next year's elections, announced last week, marks a major milestone in the political integration of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which terrorized the country for more than a half-century as the implacable force behind the Western Hemisphere's longest-running civil war.

It also marks a remarkable personal transformation for the man known by his nom de guerre "Timochenko," a 58-year-old rebel commander who, after training in Cuba, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, spent decades dodging bullets from government forces in some of Colombia's most remote regions. During four decades in the jungle, Mr. Londono accumulated 178 years of combined prison sentences. To this day, the U.S. government offers a $5 million reward for his capture.

For some still bearing the scars of Colombia's violent past, it's all too soon.

The quick pace of the FARC's political rehabilitation and Mr. Londono's presidential bid have infuriated representatives of victims of the guerrilla group's reign of terror, which produced an estimated civilian death toll of more than 177,000.

"It's a direct affront [Mr. Londono] makes to us FARC victims, whose families they have killed, whose children they have killed, whose properties they have taken away," said Fernando Vargas, who leads the Committee for Victims of the Guerrillas and who lost his grandfather in the conflict.

But ever since Mr. Londono and President Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace deal last year to end Colombia's civil war, the ex-guerrilla has shown himself to be a shrewd political operator. He quickly transformed the FARC organization into a political party and rebranded it as the "Common Alternative Revolutionary Force" - thus managing to preserve the storied Spanish acronym.

Although even his backers concede that the 58-year-old trained physician stands virtually no chance of moving into the Casa de Narino, Bogota's version of the White House, there is little doubt his party will wield considerable influence after legislative elections in March, two months before the presidential vote.

"The popularity of the FARC is almost nonexistent at the national level; nevertheless, in areas where they traditionally have had a presence, I don't think it's impossible for them to capture high vote tallies," said Hernando Zuleta of Bogota's University of the Andes. "What does that mean? That they probably will have political power at the local level."

The FARC will also field candidates for the national House of Representatives and Senate and won't be shut out. The peace deal guarantees the ex-guerrilla movement at least five seats in each chamber.

Soaring drug production

Such local influence would be disconcerting because of the impact it might have on the fight against drug production, which six months after the peace deal surged to the highest level in two decades, according to a March White House report. Conservative critics of Mr. Santos' peace deal, both in Bogota and Washington, point to the surging cocaine production as one of the major failings of the accord.

"The local power of the FARC could make the coca-producing communities stronger in their resistance to forced eradication [of crops] and more demanding when it comes to signing restitution agreements," said Mr. Zuleta, who heads his university's Research Center on Drugs and Security.

Worse yet, splinter groups of former FARC fighters who have not turned in their weapons - the "dissidents" - have seen a windfall since the end of the civil war between government troops and their narcotics-financed guerrilla movement.

"My diagnosis is that those who saw or see in drugs a source of wealth have been feeding the dissident groups, [which] are pretty big today," Mr. Zuleta said. "And that is the great challenge for the FARC: Those who haven't joined the dissidents will work for their political project rather than their personal wealth, [but] those who work for their personal wealth clearly are trying to have the cultivation never end."

Critics of the concessions made in the peace accords, which won Mr. Santos the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, believe the lines between FARC "politicians" and "dissidents" cannot be drawn so neatly.

"I have a problem with the use of that term because that's assuming that the 'FARC dissidents' aren't actually still associated with the demobilized FARC, [and] I don't believe that for a second," said Christine Balling, a senior fellow for Latin American affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council.

In fact, Ms. Balling said, their relationship is mutually beneficial.

"Your average 'campesino' is not going to distinguish between the FARC dissidents who are still terrorizing the village and so-called legitimate, demobilized FARC political candidates," she said. "I have no doubt that, even though it is highly illegal, the FARC political party will either proactively or passively benefit from what the dissidents continue to do in the country."

But backers of the peace process say such predictions are overblown.

"Nobody expected the peace process to [end] drug trafficking," said Daniel Rico, a researcher at the Bogota-based Ideas for Peace Foundation. "The peace process [only] established the conditions to take on drug trafficking."

But Mr. Rico, too, noted that Mr. Santos' anti-narcotics policies have not exactly faced smooth sailing.

"The government has demonstrated a lack of capacity to implement [them] in a timely manner, and the FARC have found it very difficult to control their structures to permanently leave the business," he said. "Today, we see a lot of drug trafficking - but with little violence."

While improvements on the drug front have been slow, the FARC's integration into Colombia's political landscape proceeded at record pace, something Mr. Rico called inevitable to achieve a peace deal he said has already made his country "a better place to live."

"I believe the FARC would have never demobilized if they hadn't been given a political alternative," he said. "Nobody can deny that they were a drug-trafficking organization, a terrorist organization. [But] unlike other criminal structures, the FARC also had a solid, important agenda of transformation and rural vindication."

Immunity fight

Adding insult to injury for Mr. Londono's critics is the fact that holding political office might help former fighters avoid prison time because of the transitional justice system set up in last year's deal, Mr. Vargas of the FARC victims group noted.

"Under 'transitional justice,' they will be able to pay for their atrocious crimes - crimes against humanity or war crimes - with community service, and community service is understood to [include] being a member of the Colombia's Congress, a mayor, a representative," he said. "In this way, the FARC leadership is guaranteed total impunity."

All victims are asking for, Mr. Vargas insisted, is that former guerrilla fighters be held responsible for their actions.

"Of course, [a criminal] can recover all of his political rights. So they could enter politics and recover their political and civil rights, but only after paying their debts to the victims and to justice," he said. "What happened in the so-called peace accords was the implementation of 'non-justice.' That's incredible, an impressive vulgarity."

Backers of the deal, though, warn not to exaggerate the importance of Mr. Londono's bid.

"It won't be the first nor the last time that we have a presidential candidate with ties to drug trafficking and organized crime," Mr. Rico said. "Really, in Colombia, the control to access the political game has very low ethical and legal standards."

Considering the guerrilla leader's minimal chances, his participation could even be seen in a positive light, Mr. Zuleta said.

"Curiously, the fact that Timochenko is a presidential candidate is bad news to many people," he said. "To me, it's excellent news [as] it strengthens the [peace] process."

But at least in Washington, between record-setting cocaine trafficking levels and a State Department still trying to fashion a foreign policy for the region under President Trump, the near certainty that Mr. Londono will not be inaugurated next year cannot count as good news alone, Ms. Balling said.

"He won't win, but it's just another few more steps forward to give FARC the political power they were seeking all along," she said. "This is just evidence how the peace deal, as written, as signed, was a victory for the FARC and not for the Colombian people."

The FARC's status as "outsider, underdog [and] revolutionaries with their stick-it-to-the-man" attitude might attract skeptical Colombian voters in the long run - especially if the newly formed party continues to form alliances with other leftist forces, as it recently has.

The newly constituted political FARC "doesn't have the history of political corruption every single other Colombian party has. I know it's goofy to say that, but it's absolutely true - and that message will absolutely resonate," Ms. Balling said.

As if on cue, Mr. Londono, who is recovering in Cuba from a stroke he suffered this year, took yet another page from the 21st-century politician's playbook this month and released a slickly produced TV spot as his featured Twitter post.

"FARC: Peace with social justice," its slogan proclaimed. "And without corruption."