BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Former combatants with Colombia's once largest rebel group are suspending their political campaign activities amid mounting security concerns.
Flanked by armed police officers, leaders with the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force political party announced Friday they will halt campaign events until their safety can be sufficiently assured.
"We call on the government to ensure the right to political participation," former guerrilla leader Jorge Torres, known by his alias Pablo Catatumbo, said.
Since launching their campaigns less than two weeks ago, the ex-combatants have encountered angry mobs and protests, underscoring the challenges of reconciliation that remain in Colombia after the signing of a 2016 peace agreement to end Latin America's longest-running conflict.
On three occasions, demonstrators have hurled eggs and rocks and yelled "Murderer!" at former guerrilla commander and presidential contender Rodrigo Londono, alias Timochenko. Protesters outside a campaign rally for senate candidate Luciano Marin, alias Ivan Marquez, burned the group's new white flag. Other candidates have been followed and threatened.
The new politicos contend that factions of extreme-right groups, some affiliated with the political party founded by former President Alvaro Uribe, a vocal peace deal critic, are responsible for the unrest. They want authorities to hold perpetrators responsible and take steps to prevent clashes, like establishing a wider security cordon.
"One thing is the right to protest," Marquez told The Associated Press. "Another thing is to commit a crime."
Since signing the peace accord, the former rebels have turned over their weapons, formed their political party and begun new lives as civilians. Yet even while reaching those key milestones, the peace deal remains contentious among Colombians who are hesitant to turn a page. The five-decade long conflict between leftist rebels, paramilitary groups and government troops left at least 250,000 people dead, another 60,000 missing and 7 million displaced.
Polls show many in Colombia believe the rebels should be required to confess their crimes in front of a special peace jurisdiction before being allowed to run for office. But the judicial system is not yet hearing cases and the peace deal guarantees ex-combatants 10 seats in congress.
That means the former rebels will be elected in March congressional elections before having testified. Under the generous terms of the peace accord, guerrillas who fully confess their offenses are unlikely to serve any jail time.
In a tweet Friday, Uribe reiterated his party's belief that those responsible for atrocious crimes should be barred from running for office or first complete a reasonable sentence and ask for forgiveness. He added that the party rejects violent incidents, "to which we have also been victims."
President Juan Manuel Santos is urging Colombians to show tolerance as the country's political campaigns get underway. He asked them to follow Pope Francis' message to the nation during his visit last year, encouraging still weary Colombians to "take the first step toward reconciliation."
Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas added that, ""Having bitter memories and scars over FARC acts during the conflict isn't an authorization to be aggressive during a political campaign that is looking to consolidate peace."
Timochenko told reporters earlier this week that some people have advised that he stick to campaigning in areas where he knows he would be welcomed, but that he felt it pertinent to do exactly the opposite.
"We need to go to the areas where we are not supported," he said. "Colombia's society has generated a profound intolerance and hate among each other. That's what we need to end."
The ex-rebels have proposed that the focus of the political party be aimed at addressing many of the same entrenched issues that gave birth to the conflict, like inequality and land rights. The former guerrillas are also strongly pushing for the full implementation of the peace deal.
Up until now, government pledges to tackle reforms like improving conditions for poor peasants have been slow to get off the ground, and other parts of the accord have been changed by congress.
Chief among the rebels concerns is security: At least 40 former rebels have been killed since the accord's signing, Marquez said. No one has been held accountable for a majority of the deaths, though smaller illegal armed groups are suspected in several of the killings.
Marquez, who served as the rebels' chief negotiator during peace talks, said he believed recent clashes at campaign events were the acts of a small minority, and not reflective of most Colombians.
"It's not the rejection of a country," he said. "People want peace. They don't want more war."