BOGOTA, Colombia • In a dimly lit university auditorium in the Colombian capital, not far from where the country’s largest rebel group once launched bomb attacks, Julian Conrado sings to eager-eyed students about the pain of war.
“Instead of a rifle in my hands I’d like to carry a flower,” he croons, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and an olive green fedora that make him look more like a geeky dad than someone who spent over three decades as a guerrilla fighter in Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict.
“Call me the singer of unity,” Conrado said in a recent interview. “I like that.”
The setting is a new one for the man known as the “singer of the FARC,” the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which last year reached a landmark peace agreement with the government to end a half century of fighting.
Rather than singing battle hymns to fellow rebels in the mountains, Conrado is now living in a demobilization camp and gradually venturing out for shows that have not only enthralled idealistic college kids but also drawn the ire of opponents who say he shouldn’t be performing at all.
“It’s unacceptable that FARC terrorists are giving concerts in Bogota without even having confessed their crimes or made reparations to their victims,” conservative lawmaker Daniel Palacios said.
Conrado said such criticisms were a temporary distraction from a larger mission of transforming himself into a messenger of peace and forgiveness.
However the ballad he performs most these days is one he wrote in 1984 during a previous, failed peace attempt. He has been struggling to compose new material in the early, still-factious days of the post-conflict era, wary that his frank, socially critical lyrics might cause more discord than his performances already have.
“I wrote a song but I don’t want to sing it,” Conrado said while driving through Bogota in an SUV with tinted windows. “I see the looks in people’s faces. and there is like a glow of peace.”
“But then I see other people.” he continued, his voice trailing off. “Hopefully I am wrong.”
Born in a small city near Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Conrado, whose birth name is Guillermo Torres, learned to read by reading the lyrics to ballads known as “corridos.” From an early age he found himself drawn toward leftist causes, and he began organizing neighbors to improve access to water and electricity and incorporating politics into his music, drawing rebukes from officials and also death threats.
After narrowly escaping gunfire that he believes was aimed at him while exiting a building, Conrado decided to join the rebels in the mountains. Just shy of 30 years old, he had never fired a weapon.
His acoustic guitar was among the few belongings he took with him.
In rebel encampments and later in jail, he wrote folksy tunes in the “vallenato” style paired with cheerful accordions, flutes and acoustic guitar. His songs vary from light-hearted professions of love to darker themes decrying social inequality and paramilitary violence or paying homage to fallen guerrilla comrades.
“For our dead, not a minute of silence,” one goes. “A whole life of combat.”
Conrado’s songs were played at rebel parties and shared through videos and CDs — the cheerful, seemingly out-of-place rebel playing guitar while his AK-47 leaned against a wall.
“If there is anyone who made music in the middle of the conflict, it’s him,” said spokesman Fabian Ramirez of the Bogota artist collective Independencia Records, which recently invited Conrado to perform. “And if there is a cultural reference of the FARC, it is him.”
Being a musician wasn’t always easy in the jungle. Three times Conrado was forced to abandon guitars while fleeing bombs or soldiers. But he was never more than a few days without a new one.
One of the two he uses today was delivered by guerrillas who traveled by canoe to find it. The other was given to him in a Venezuelan jail where he says he shared a cell with several bankers. He calls the first guitar “the guerrilla” and the latter “the oligarch.”
“But ‘the oligarch’ sings revolutionary songs, too,” he said.
The U.S. State Department at one time offered a $2.5 million reward for information leading to Conrado’s arrest, identifying him as a member of the FARC’s top leadership and accusing him of helping set and implement its cocaine policies. Colombian authorities have investigated him on allegations of terrorism, forced displacement of civilians and recruiting minors.
For a time Conrado was believed to have been killed in a 2008 army attack, but he was captured in 2011 in Venezuela while reportedly living at a farm under an Ecuadorian alias. He remained behind bars until 2013, when he was released to travel to Cuba to participate in peace negotiations.
These days Conrado, now 62, lives beneath a plastic tarp at a demobilization camp near the northern coast. Independencia Records invited him and two other former guerrillas to perform at a peace concert Sunday, arguing it was time for Colombians in cities far removed from the armed conflict to hear “the other side.”
“They are coming to sing, not to shoot,” Ramirez said. “And we believe that if they have their hands busy playing a guitar, painting a picture, writing a poem or acting in a play, they will never have to return to war.”
Conrado also gave talks and small performances that were mostly unannounced in an attempt to keep a low profile. But at the National University, he packed an auditorium with several hundred students who sang along to songs that for years were considered taboo — best listened to only in private or with like-minded friends.
“The FARC were part of the insurgency,” said Lorena Parra, a 21-year-old political administration student. “Now that we are in a more open environment, it’s the perfect opportunity to discover that ‘other’ who was in the mountains.”