Yesterday, he sang for guerrillas. Today, he’s one town’s mayor.

Megan Janetsky
A supporter hugs ex-FARC guerrilla and newly elected mayor Guillermo Torres in Turbaco, Colombia on Jan. 19, 2020. Mr. Torres was elected mayor in October 2019.

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Guillermo Torres walks the sweltering streets here like a celebrity. He’s been famous for decades, known as “the singer” of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

But last October he made headlines for something new: He was elected mayor of Turbaco, becoming one of the first ex-FARC combatants to win an election by popular vote.

Why We Wrote This

Can the mayoral election of an ex-guerrilla combatant offer an example of how to move ahead with peace, when Colombia’s decades of conflict are still so unresolved?

Three years after a peace agreement, Colombia is still struggling to emerge from years of conflict. Mr. Torres is a symbol of the nation’s broader tensions as demobilized guerrillas seek to build a place for themselves in a society that still sees them as criminals let off easy. The peace accord made big promises, like reparations for victims and reduced sentences for ex-combatants who tell the truth.

As Mr. Torres takes office this month, his success could be a broader test for the nation. “I’m never going to leave the path of peace anymore,” he says. “I know the risks.”

Guillermo Torres walks the sweltering streets in this bustling northern Colombian town like a celebrity. Teenage boys ask for selfies, children hug him like family, and throngs of men and women earnestly shake his hand.

Mr. Torres has been famous for decades. Under the alias Julián Conrado and nickname “the singer of the FARC,” he was a key member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia for 30 years. The guerrilla group is accused of crimes ranging from kidnapping to drug-trafficking, and until a 2016 peace accord was locked in a bloody civil war with the Colombian government for half a century.

But last October, Mr. Torres made headlines for something new. He was elected mayor of Turbaco, becoming one of the first ex-FARC combatants to win an election by popular vote.

Why We Wrote This

Can the mayoral election of an ex-guerrilla combatant offer an example of how to move ahead with peace, when Colombia’s decades of conflict are still so unresolved?

As Colombia struggles to emerge from years of conflict, the vallenato singer is a symbol of these broader tensions as demobilized guerrillas seek to build a place for themselves in Colombian society. After decades of bloodshed, there are deep-seated stigmas surrounding ex-combatants like Mr. Torres. He faces accusations of violence from his involvement with the FARC – though he denies ever doing more than sing songs of peace for the rebel fighters.

As Mr. Torres assumes office this month, his political ascent poses a tough question for the country that’s ended war on paper but still struggles to feel at peace: Is it possible to move ahead when the decades of conflict are still unresolved?

The peace deal is meant to facilitate the reintegration of former combatants and pay reparations to nearly 8.8 million registered victims. It promises things like a special court for transitional justice, providing reduced sentences for ex-combatants who tell the truth about what happened during the conflict.

“I’m not a militant of the FARC anymore,” Mr. Torres says, sitting in a market in the heart of Turbaco on a late December morning. “I don’t want to be a militant of any party. I want to be a militant of my people.”

Megan Janetsky
Guillermo Torres walks around his hometown of Turbaco, Colombia on Jan. 19, 2020. The town suffers from mass unemployment, and many people rely on motorcycle taxi-ing to get by.

Lasting ‘stigma’ of the FARC

The 2016 peace agreement promised an end to 52 years of violence between Colombia’s government and guerrillas hiding away in the rural reaches of its jungles. Combatants set down their arms and a newly formed FARC political party was given seats in Congress. But an inherent distrust of the combatants still simmers.

When the FARC emerged in the 1960s, they referred to themselves as the “People’s Army,” set on countering violent military crackdowns. But the insurgents turned into something more destructive, relying on forced recruitment, extortion, and Colombia’s lucrative drug trade to fuel their war against the government.

“The FARC committed egregious crimes against humanity,” says Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis. “They raped, they killed, they kidnapped. ... It’s not like they have a bad reputation undeservedly.”

In 2018, President Iván Duque took office after campaigning heavily against the peace agreement, saying it created an environment of impunity. The conservative politician denounced “inhumane criminals who have killed, kidnapped, extorted, and recruited children, arriving to Congress.”

Under Mr. Duque, faith in the peace process has faltered, as the government fails to implement key facets of the agreement. Paramilitary-fueled violence in former FARC zones surged in the power vacuum left behind. Ex-combatants have been targeted and assassinated by other armed groups, and key FARC leaders made renewed calls to arms against the government. Mr. Torres received death threats during his campaign, and now walks around town with a bodyguard.

“The stigma of being an active part of the conflict is going to remain with them forever,” Mr. Guzmán says about former FARC members.

‘Armed with a guitar’

Mr. Torres was born in 1954 in the impoverished town of Turbaco, which sits just a stone’s throw away from the tourism hotspot of Cartagena. He claims he began singing in the womb.

As a young man, his ballads turned political as he noticed the corruption permeating coastal governments like Turbaco’s. He became what he called “the people’s singer,” crooning about injustices facing his town in coastal rhythms of vallenato.

“I sing because the people need their singers,” he says. “It’s how the people express their joy. It’s how the people express their sadness. It’s how the people express their desires, their will, their dreams.”

Megan Janetsky
Guillermo Torres, "The Singer of the FARC" and newly elected mayor, sings a vallenato ballad in his hometown of Turbaco, Colombia on Jan. 19, 2020.

Singing about injustice was a dangerous proposition at a time when anyone speaking out against the government was lumped in with leftist guerrillas. Mr. Torres started to see a violent backlash against his political activism in the early 1980s. When paramilitaries killed his friend Julián Conrado, a doctor and fellow singer, 29-year-old Mr. Torres fled to the jungle-cloaked Sierra Nevada mountains and joined the FARC.

“Many Colombians didn’t have any other options to save our own lives,” Mr. Torres says, noting that many joined the FARC or the military simply to not be caught in the crossfire. “It was a decision I made forced by circumstance.”

He gave himself the alias Julián Conrado to honor his friend. When he joined, Mr. Torres hoped to someday leave the fighters and return home.

In the FARC, Torres became a troubadour for the guerrillas. “I am a guerrilla, but you know what has been my weapon for all my life? My singing,” Torres says. “I was always armed with a guitar.”

Escaping his past?

Some observers say he was armed with more lethal weapons. While Mr. Torres’ electoral victory was historic, his past is front and center for many critics as he assumes office.

Before Mr. Torres demobilized in 2016, the singer was wanted by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency for alleged crimes including drug trafficking and conspiracy. There were numerous warrants out for his arrest in Colombia, including for homicide and kidnapping. While he was actively a part of the FARC, the U.S. government offered up to $2.5 million as a reward for information leading to his arrest.

Former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos dubbed Mr. Torres a “narco-terrorist” in 2011 when he was captured and imprisoned for three years in Venezuela. He was released to join peace negotiations with the Colombian government in Havana.

Mr. Torres denies all allegations against him, saying he was associated with the actions of FARC leaders because he played music at key events.

“I’m not a man of war, I’ve never been a man of war,” Mr. Torres says. “I spent a lot of my childhood under the bed because I was scared of fireworks.”

The now-65-year-old mayor says he tried to demobilize with other guerrillas after a few years in the FARC, forming the leftist political party Patriotic Union. But when party members became targeted by paramilitaries, drug lords, and security forces, Mr. Torres says he returned once again to the jungles.

‘Tired of war’ – and the FARC

Colombia’s October 2019 local elections were the first in which the FARC political party participated in a popular vote. It served as a referendum on the guerrillas’ popularity and ability to integrate into a society that still fears what the fighters once represented, says Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes director of the Washington Office on Latin America.

Mr. Torres says that in an attempt to leave the stigma of the FARC behind, he ran for office under the leftist party Colombia Humana – not the rose banner of the FARC party.

His anti-corruption message won 50.7% of the vote, nearly 20% more than his closest competitor.

While the FARC party ran more than 300 candidates for thousands of open mayoral and council seats, only two were elected. Two other ex-combatants also won mayoral seats under the helm of other parties.

The elections offered the party an opportunity to show they had been redeemed in the eyes of the public, Ms. Sánchez-Garzoli says. But in practice, the results were the opposite.

It shows “that Colombian society was tired of war, but they were also tired of the FARC,” Ms. Sánchez-Garzoli says. Though a relative outlier, Mr. Torres’ coastal town may offer an alternative path forward.

“People need second chances,” says Luis Montalbon, a moto-taxi driver here. “He’s done bad, but now the people are choosing him because he is leading against the bad things that have been happening in this town.”

Mr. Montalbon, a father of two in his late 30s, lived nearly his entire life with the FARC and Colombian government at war. Leaning on his motorcycle – the scorching coastal sun beating down on his sweat-speckled face – he talks about the rampant corruption and soaring levels of poverty and unemployment he believes is holding Colombia back.

“In Turbaco there isn’t anything,” he says. Mr. Torres’ promises for change presented a sliver of hope, he explains, though people still whisper about the mayor’s past.

Despite the outpouring of support in his hometown, Torres may have a “rude awakening” as he faces the rest of the country as a public official, Mr. Guzmán says. Mr. Torres still must present himself before the country’s transitional justice court, Special Jurisdiction for Peace, after being listed among 31 FARC leaders allegedly involved in FARC kidnapping policies.

And any ex-FARC member holding office will have to collaborate with a national government that repeatedly rails against the peace process for being too lenient.

Mr. Torres, however, isn’t too concerned about his political longevity.

“If I have to pay whatever price for the peace of my country, I’m ready to pay that,” he says. “But I’m never going to leave the path of peace anymore. I know the risks that I run.”

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