BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Camilo Torres was more talented with the Eucharist than he was with a rifle. In his first firefight after joining Colombia's National Liberation Army in the 1960s, the Roman Catholic priest turned leftist rebel was shot and killed.
On Monday's 50th anniversary of his death, some Colombians are reviving the memory in the hopes that Torres' journey from scion of an elite Bogota family to outspoken advocate for the poor can lead to an eventual reintegration of thousands of leftist rebels who may disarm under a government-brokered peace deal.
Torres' remains have never been found. But last month, President Juan Manuel Santos ordered the removal and DNA testing of unmarked remains from a military cemetery in northern Colombia. The rebel priest was believed to have been secretly buried there by battlefield opponents who feared his final resting place would become a pilgrimage site.
Santos' move was in response to a call by the Marxist-inspired rebel group known as the ELN for a Christian burial for Torres. Its leaders have said the gesture could lead the group to join the three-year-old peace talks taking place in Cuba with Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Educated at the best schools in Bogota and Belgium, Torres turned his back on his elite upbringing to embrace Catholic liberation theology in vogue following the 1959 triumph of Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba.
Before joining the ELN in 1965, he traveled across Colombia filling plazas with speeches in support of workers comparable to those of mid-century firebrand Jorge Eliecer Gaitain, whose 1948 assassination triggered Colombia's descent into decades of political violence.
The search for Torres' remains recalls the 1997 discovery in Bolivia of the remains of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who was killed 30 years earlier trying to spread revolution to South America.
But unlike Guevara, who has been lionized by the Cuban government, praise for Torres until recently was largely taboo and restricted to Colombia's far left.
The ELN over the weekend announced it would intensify military actions this week to commemorate Torres' death. On Monday, a rebel unit killed two police cadets in southern Colombia and carried out a half-dozen attacks and acts of vandalism on buses and energy infrastructure in several parts of the country.
Now the country's high-ranking Catholic clergy, inspired by Pope Francis' message in favor of the poor, and even Santos, who knew the priest in his youth, are suggesting that Colombians take a second look at his life.
But right-wing opponents of Santos' peace effort still vilify Torres. Residents of the town where Torres was killed heckled Senator Ivan Cepeda as part of a protest Sunday to block access to the site by a caravan of leftists who wanted to pay homage to the fallen priest.
Jacobo Garcia is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jacobogg . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/jacobo-garcia .
Joshua Goodman is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjoshgoodman . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/joshua-goodman .