BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia's largest guerrilla movement sowed a half-century of fear through kidnappings, bombings, extortion and killings. But in a new era of peace, the battled-scarred leftists are launching a charm offensive — trading their guns and fatigues for the soft-lit ads and sport coats of 21st-century politics.
The former fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, decommissioned the last of their weapons in recent weeks, under a historic accord ending Latin America's longest-running guerrilla war. Now the Marxist-Leninist guerrillas are taking a page from corporate playbooks and trying to rebrand themselves.
Near soaring bank towers and a busy Starbucks, fighters-turned-delegates gathered this week for what is effectively their first modern political convention. On the event’s inaugural day, a hip electronic beat pulsed through a vast hall before the introduction of two emcees — one of them a young man in a power suit with a telenovela smile.
The ensuing speeches touched on wealth distribution and inequality, but also health care, public housing, women’s rights, the fight against global warming, even the scourge of urban drug use. In the wings, ex-fighters took selfies and ogled stands selling mugs and key chains bearing a new FARC logo — two hands clasped in the shape of a heart.
There remain two camps within the FARC — one seeking a broader coalition of the left, the other more rooted in the group’s revolutionary past. In a nod to its roots, the FARC this week announced that rather than pick a substantially different name for its new political party, it will still be known by the acronym FARC — although it will now stand for Alternative Communal Revolutionary Force.
Yet there is no doubt the group is trying to carve out a new image. On Friday, for instance, a panel of blazer-wearing FARC leaders arrived at a news conference clutching red roses — a flower they hoped to convert into a symbol of their new party.
“When [people] see a red rose, we want them to think of the FARC,” said Ivan Marquez, the group’s chief negotiator during the peace process.
Former leftist guerrillas in other Latin American countries including Brazil and Uruguay have gone on to reach the highest offices in the land. Yet Colombia’s guerrilla wars were longer and far more violent, claiming an estimated 218,000 lives.
The FARC, though, may be making some political inroads. A recent Gallup poll showed the group with 15 percent support, compared with 10 percent in June of last year. The latest numbers were only a few percentage points lower than the approval rating of Colombia's congress.
That is precisely what is alarming the FARC’s many opponents here.
Under the peace deal, the FARC is guaranteed 10 seats in the 268-member congress — but it can get more in national elections next March. Most observers say that any serious political gains by the FARC are still likely to be years away.
Nevertheless, many Bogota residents called the scenes of former guerrillas openly politicking in the heart of Colombian capitalism this past week a jarring sign of the group’s emergence as a political force.
"You definitely feel a threat. We feel they are taking big, animal steps, like they are coming into our game," said Francisco Cabal, a Bogota lawyer who voted against the peace deal in a national referendum last year.
The FARC has brought on a team of political consultants and is taking advice from some who helped rehabilitate the left in Brazil — where ex-president Dilma Rousseff was once a member of the Marxist urban guerrillas who challenged a military dictatorship. In April, the former Colombian rebels placed political ads on the Internet, some punched with humor, others more serious. Rather than dealing with longtime issues of the FARC — such as rural land redistribution — the ads revolved around the problems of Colombian urbanites.
In one dramatic clip, an ambulance with a critically ill patient is rejected from hospital after hospital in a jab at the government’s shortcomings in delivering effective health care.
"They put out some sweeping commercials, very much classic political marketing, playing on themes such as health and corruption rather than speaking in dogmatic terms about the oligarchy," said Alex Fattal, a professor of media studies at Penn State University who has studied the FARC. "They are clearly looking for a national political platform."
The FARC's conversion to a political party is occurring as the peace process itself remains exceedingly delicate. The last time the FARC attempted a political transition, in the 1980s, paramilitary assassins carried out large-scale killings of FARC-aligned leaders and politicians. In recent months, there has been an echo of that era, with dozens of leftist community organizers slain, allegedly by successor right-wing paramilitary groups and mercenaries hired by large landowners.
The process of reintegrating ex-combatants into society through training and education is moving exceedingly slowly. Some candidates for next year’s presidential election — including Sen. Iván Duque of former president Álvaro Uribe’s Democratic Center Party — have denounced the fact that the FARC is selecting its candidates for the national elections before the launch of a tribunal set to probe war crimes.
“The tribunals will advance by next year, but these people could be elected before then,” Duque said. “No one accused of crimes against humanity should be allowed to run for office.”
Yet in other key ways, the peace process is moving forward. In August, FARC fighters participating in the peace deal finished handing over their weapons. In exchange, they've received government-issued Visa debit cards with initial payments worth $600. Those will be followed up with monthly stipends worth $200.
This past week, the FARC's political convention offered a sometimes-awkward window into its transformation.
The convention was a study in contrasts and freshman snafus. The sport coats its leaders wore clashed with the Che Guevara beards and occasional pair of combat boots worn by the rank and file.
With FARC logo mugs going for the equivalent of $6 each — more than four hours' work at Colombia's minimum wage — more foreign journalists than ex-fighters appeared to be scooping them up. The FARC's newness to the world of political conventions showed, with pregnant pauses as organizers sought to find speakers in the crowd.
But they also put on a show, with big digital screens and folk music bands that led delegates to break into impromptu jigs. Some ex-fighters fought back tears as they considered a simple remembrance to their fallen comrades, flowers planted in a series of rubber boots.
The FARC pledged to integrate women and minorities into its senior party structure, though it was still struggling to select a list of candidates for next year's election.
Diogenes Oquendo Londoño, a 38-year-old former combatant, said he was last in the capital at age 14. He marveled at the modern skyscrapers, calling them a testament to Colombia’s poor distribution of wealth.
Wearing stylish jeans and a white dress shirt that covered his Che chest tattoo and his scars from bullet wounds, he said the conference had left him determined to fight for peaceful change.
His hope now: to become a grass-roots organizer for the FARC’s new party.
“To take off the clothes of warriors is what we’ve always wanted,” he said. “We’ve been demonized, but we’re here to make the people understand that we are also about so much more.”
Wesley Tomaselli contributed to this report.