Colombia’s Ministry of Defense confirmed rumors last week that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (FARC-EP) maximum commander, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri had visited Cuba on two separate occasions to meet with his delegates negotiating a peace agreement with the Colombian government since 2012.
Born in central Colombia, in Calarcá, Quindío, in 1959, Londoño is known by the nom de guerre ‘Timoleón Jiménez’ or alias “Timochenko” and assumed the guerrilla’s highest rank after Guillermo León Sáenz, alias ‘Alfonso Cano’ was killed in 2011 during a raid in southern Cauca by the military. Trying to appease Colombians, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón stated during a press briefing from Bogotá, that “Timochenko” had traveled to Cuba at “different times” on non-commercial flights from neighboring Venezuela where it is believed he has been residing for years.
“Timochenko” is one of many FARC members believed to be living in Venezuela, despite communiqués which are sent out by the guerrilla chief which state to have be written “somewhere in the mountains of Colombia.” Before the FARC and government sat down at the negotiating table in Oslo, Norway, an image surfaced which showed FARC’s chief negotiator, Iván Márquez on a farm within Venezuela straddling an expensive motorbike. The image outraged many Colombians, who suspected that the administration of Hugo Chávez was so sympathetic to the guerrillas, that he offered them a safe haven, while back at home, their active fronts continued to kidnap and kill both civilians and security personnel.
Considered a strongman within FARC’s military faction, rather than an ideologue, ‘Timochenko” has maintained a silence during the two-year-long peace process, leaving his delegates in Havana to address the key issues of a five-point agenda.
The trip of the most senior FARC commander to Havana, raised concerns at the Ministry of Defense that orders to capture this country’s “most wanted” was sidetracked by an executive order from the presidency to appease concerns by FARC in Havana that communication between them and their leader “Timochenko,” was difficult, and was slowing down the process. Former president Alvaro Uribe Vélez was quick to slam the decision of his former Minister of Defense (Santos held the post during Vélez’s second term), tweeting that”Timochenko’s” trip to Cuba, “deceived the Armed Forces, while terrorism continued in the country.”
As Minister of Defense, Pinzón revealed details of the rebel’s trip to Cuba – and a decision which threw into question his support of the current peace process – former left-wing senator Piedad Cordoba stated that the minister would do well in avoiding “scandals in order to help those who are against the peace process.” And by allowing “Timochenko” to travel freely from a strategic regional nation, Santos had bypassed the legal route of having the Attorney General lift the many arrest warrants for such a senior commander of an organization still classified as “terrorist” by many nations, including the United States and European Union.
While many, during the course of these negotiations, have suspected that “Timochenko” was playing a backseat role and skeptical from the very beginning of a negotiated settlement with any administration, his presence in Cuba shows that he remains very much in control of a 12,000 person fighting force and that any enduing peace accord would have to be communicated by him to his rank-and-file combatants. The peace deal will also have to be approved by the Colombian people in a referendum.
By late last week, as the Minister of Defense managed the fall-out over “Timochencko,” U.S Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Colombia’s largest and most strategic military base Tolemaida, and praised this country’s advances in counterterrorism. The Defense Secretary also affirmed that the South American country could provide valuable training and peacekeeping assistance around the globe once its internal conflict winds down.
During his three-country trip to South America, Hagel, also remarked that Colombia is a key ally in fighting Islamic extremism and the global threat posed by ISIS, but that any decision to participate in that fight would be up to Colombia. “Threats today in the world know no boundaries, whether they come from climate change or terrorism or transnational criminal networks.” The Defense Secretary went on the state: “To have countries like Colombia stepping up and showing the kind of leadership that Colombia has shown, with the kind of capacity, capabilities, training that they have, is a huge asset to the world, to the United Nations and would be very important to American interests around the world.”
After meeting with President Santos and touring Tolemaida, where much of the military hardware of ‘Plan Colombia’ is based, Hagel, stressed that the U.S remains “absolutely committed” to its special strategic partnership with Colombia, as well as a “strong and continued support” for the ongoing campaign to defeat FARC.
While reports surfaced that the leader of Colombia’s oldest guerrilla insurgency had been granted travel documents by Santos to meet his Havana delegates, Santos, remarked that his U.S counterpart, President Obama, continues to “fully support” the peace negotiations in Cuba, and a process, which includes a transition phase for the military in a post-conflict scenario.
Opinions are running deep on the reasons “Timochenko” traveled to Cuba. While, those on the left believe it to be an act of good will (listening to his negotiators,), others are far more skeptical and unconvinced that this military strongman is eager to end the 50 year-old conflict. Columnist Salud Hernández Mora, in a Sunday El Tiempo piece, wrote: “If the FARC were not skilled at killing, then the government wouldn’t be sitting down with them.”
Regardless if “Timochenko” traveled more than twice to Cuba, there is outrage at the role of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro in providing safe passage for a FARC leader, while at the same time clamping down on his own opposition; and above all, the vague complicity of President Santos in allowing Maduro to have “the final word” with a rogue warlord.