Farc rebel leader: ‘We repent everything, not just the war’

Carlos Antonio Lozada, supreme urban commander of Colombia’s Farc rebels, is poised to lead his organisation into politics. In this exclusive interview he speaks about war, making peace and meeting victims

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) stands apart from other Latin American leftwing guerrilla movements founded since the 1960s because it has outlived them all – well into the 21st century – and remains in control of vast tranches of territory. But it is also from a different mould: almost entirely rural – its leaders have not been intellectuals, such as Che Guevara, but peasants, fighting a peasant war in the countryside. The Farc’s violence has, however, had an impact on the cities, and during the 1990s Colombia even feared that the guerrillas were poised to take the capital, Bogotá.

The group’s presence in urban areas has been led by a man who most observers say will be the new figurehead of Farc in politics, Carlos Antonio Lozada (left). Lozada is from a generation younger than the guerrillas’ supreme commanders, and though he also fought in the jungle with them he is distinct in that he hails from Colombia’s second city of Cali. He spent 19 years in Colombia’s cities as Farc’s supreme urban commander.

During recent months the Observer has interviewed all Farc’s commanders, in depth, for a long-term project, including Lozada, Farc’s coming man, who hopes to take the organisation into its next conflict, a political fight, a “war without weapons, but with words”. Here, in this interview extract, Lozada talks exclusively about the road to the Havana peace deal.

The Farc has been accused of perpetrating many atrocities during the 50-year war – how do you respond?

We are trying to come out of a 50 years war. War is a denial of the human being. War is not human. Irrespective of its causes, however just, war in itself isn’t human.

What we have said is that, in this process, we have to assume our responsibilities and we have shown that we are ready to do so. The agreement on the issue of victims, that is the way Colombia society has to go forward in order to build reconciliation. We are ready to assume that part of the responsibility that corresponds to us.

We repent everything, not just the war but things that we have done in life. But beyond my personal case, one has to put this into political context. Personally, yes of course, there are always things to repent. We would like to rewind the movie, not to have been part of those situations.

We made decisions that in the heat of the moment we thought were fair and necessary, because otherwise there would have been great consequences for own forces. And then, in hindsight, one does see things differently. But you have to see them in the context that they actually happened.

You are one of the few Farc leaders who spent considerable time in both rural and urban areas. You spent 19 years working as Farc’s urban leader. Describe your role, and life.

The life of the urban guerrilla is different. There is permanent tension, permanent pressure. One has the feeling that, if you make a mistake at any time, you could pay the price with either [loss of] freedom or death. You have to act all the time, faking all the time, because you have to live a normal life in front of neighbours and friends, all the while remembering that you are a clandestine militant. This makes huge demands and requires a huge amount of discipline. Even without a uniform, you have to be conscious that it is a revolution and you cannot be irresponsible. Do what any ordinary person would do, but have self-control. You can get drunk, but you have to know where and with whom.

In the jungle the life is limited in terms of physical limits – the jungle is geographically limiting. In the city the life is emotionally and sentimentally limited. In order to be clandestine, you must limit yourself to a very limited number of friends and be careful not to let those relationships meddle too much in your personal life, because that could turn into a problem.

I changed houses constantly. In every new apartment one arrives with a new, different identity. Many times I thought I was going to get caught.

What will Farc’s political future look like – what will you offer the country as a political proposition?

When the Farc emerge in an open, legal, political fight you will see an organisation that is a reflection of how we think of Colombians. If you go to the Pacific coast, you will see Afro Colombians; if you go to the Cauca, those are indigenous people; if you go to the Meta, they are people from the Llanos, and if you go to the Farc’s Northern Block, they are Caribbean.

Embracing the rainbow of Colombians will involve a very wide political project. We are betting on having a space in the political spectrum that runs from the democratic forces to the left. It is not going to be a Marxist movement; it will be a wide offer, where different groups can converge.

We need to dismantle the neoliberal model and get rid of corruption. We are going to have points of agreement with other groups, and we aspire to achieve a democratic left alternative.

Carlos Antonio Lozada
‘I never thought that life would turn so that I will be on a peace-negotiating table with a guy who directed a military campaign against me and tried to kill me’: Carlos Antonio Lozada in former rebel days. Photograph: Internet

The role of the victims in the peace talks (five different groups of victims were brought to Havana) to address the Farc and the Colombian government is unprecedented. How was the experience of meeting these victims? 

When we started welcoming the delegations of victims we realised that they were not just statistics and numbers, but human beings with their pain and suffering. Inevitably that changes things. We were struck that none of the victims that came to Havana asked for revenge. They all asked us to continue this discussion at the table and not to stand up from it until we finished what we came here to do – which is essentially make a peace agreement.

When one sees the tenderness of the people, the capacity of human beings for reconciliation, to forgive, that generates commitments; one understands there is in the deep soul of our people a wish for peace and reconciliation. And so none of the opposing camps at the table can fail to deliver.

These peace talks were the first in which the Colombian military were represented, unlike previous failed peace talks. What difference did that make in helping reach a peace deal?

Since the first dialogue in the 1980s with the government we always said that the Colombian armed forces had to be at the negotiating table. Now we have two retired generals, [Jorge Enrique] Mora and [Óscar] Naranjo, who are part of the process.

We have a connection with the other side because we both know the desperate need to get out of this conflict. Both sides face the same risks, the same situations. We start to get to know each other and we find out that we speak the same language. We can tell each other about situations we have experienced from different sides of the spectrum, from the opposing camps. We hear the story from the other side – we hear their point of view, and that generates empathy, understanding.

During the talks you came face to face with the Colombian army general who had tried to kill you.

In 2007 … there was a big military operation … and I was a commander of the front … I was back in the jungle …. There was a ground assault on the camp, and I got a bullet wound. I tried to escape to the edges of the jungle to wait for night to fall. I thought I was going to lose consciousness out of pain … but then a guerrilla fighter called Isabella found me and rescued me.

A couple of days later I was recovering from wounds and I saw the television news about the assault and I remember the face of an officer from the Colombian army. When the government delegation arrived here [in Havana] to start the meeting with us, we were chatting informally during the recess – and we started talking about military episodes. And we realised we were in the same area.

Then one of the officers put a hand on the shoulder of General Flores and he said, ‘This is the guy who got you! And he [Flores] started laughing because he thought I knew it was him.

I never thought that life would turn so that I will be on a peace negotiating table with a guy who directed a military campaign against me and tried to kill me.

And if the peace deal fails?

I think that would be the worst scenario. I cannot even imagine what would happen to our people if this fails. 

Being here allows one to see the war from a different perspective, to understand the need to multiply efforts to end the war.  No future generations of Colombians should have to go through this war. To feel the desire for peace in Colombia – everyone that has been involved in the confrontation will need to take on that commitment to listen to the clamour in our country. A clamour for peace.

Interview by John Mulholland and Ed Vulliamy 


Interview by John Mulholland and Ed Vulliamy

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
No return to civil war, Farc leader promises ahead of Colombia vote
Guerrilla chief says it is the time to heal wounds, whatever next Sunday’s referendum decides

Ed Vulliamy and John Mulholland

25, Sep, 2016 @8:30 AM

Article image
‘It’s a miracle my Colombia could never have imagined’
After 60 years of conflict, the truce signed between President Santos and leaders of the Farc rebels has made a nation rejoice

María Jimena Duzán

25, Jun, 2016 @11:05 PM

Article image
Colombia death toll rises as gangs fill vacuum left by Farc rebels
Peace has proved more dangerous than war for activists and local leaders. Can the state stop the killings?

Emma Graham-Harrison

19, Feb, 2017 @12:04 AM

Article image
Colombia's president hails killing of Farc leader Alfonso Cano
Death of rebel chief in gun battle with government troops puts proposed peace talks in doubt

Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá

05, Nov, 2011 @9:54 PM

Article image
We must agree peace by Christmas or hope will end, says Colombian leader
Juan Manuel Santos says he wants consensus for a deal with the Farc – but is not prepared to risk further delay

John Mulholland and Ed Vulliamy

29, Oct, 2016 @11:01 PM

Article image
Ex-Farc leader killed in Venezuela by Colombian troops, rebel group says
Seuxis Hernández AKA Jesús Santrich, who rejected 2016 peace accord, died Monday, reportedly in ambush by Colombian commando unit

Staff and agencies in Bogotá

19, May, 2021 @3:40 PM

Article image
War on drugs: UN challenged by Colombian president
Juan Manuel Santos calls for ‘more effective, lasting and human solution’ – and says his government will work alongside former bitter enemies Farc

Ed Vulliamy

16, Apr, 2016 @8:00 PM

Article image
‘Without drug traffickers, we’d have peace’: Colombian villagers flee new killings
Two years after the end of the guerrilla war that killed 220,000, other players have moved in on the drugs trade, with poor local children now being bribed to take up arms

Karen McVeigh

22, Sep, 2018 @3:59 PM

Article image
Colombia activist killings ‘will not be tolerated’ says minister
Clara López, key player in the peace process, vows an ‘end to impunity’ for rightwing death squads

Ed Vulliamy

19, Feb, 2017 @12:03 AM

Article image
‘They think we’re terrorists’: Colombia’s female former guerrilla fighters find no peace
The 2016 ceasefire was supposed to help Farc’s ex-guerrillas reintegrate into society, but with little work and many having been murdered, fear stalks the camps

Shanti Das in Pondores

06, Nov, 2022 @12:00 PM