“It is good to be with you,” Elmer Idrobo nodded, then smiled faintly. “I thank God that I am able to be with Christians, and have no desire to kidnap or kill you.”
As an ex-commander of one of the fronts of the Colombian armed rebels known as the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia), Elmer’s words were only half in jest. The MB Mission ACTION team listened, mesmerized by his story.
“By age thirteen I had joined the communist rebels,” he relates, “Ready to kill for the Marxist ideological cause, especially Christians.” For ten years Elmer was indoctrinated in atheism, taught to hate those who were preaching the Gospel. “The Bible was dangerous. It made us soft and weak, and encouraged us to stop fighting,” he says. This was unacceptable: passion for one’s country requires that one fight. And so Christian churches were burned down, and pastors shot. In respect for his ferocity as a warrior, Elmer’s commandant re-named him Geronimo.
It was in the mountains of Popayán that the FARC found him and, impressed by his past exploits, recruited him to a position as commander over various rural regions of Cauca. Geronimo now had the power to oppose the Christians in full force.
“I went to each of seven churches,” he says, “And I took their buildings for our revolutionary meetings. I forced them all to leave; they had no choice. They all feared me.” All but one.
One pastor, a powerful evangelist, continued to persuade armed rebels to follow Jesus. This had to be stopped. Geronimo decided to execute the pastor himself, but when confronted with a gun the pastor remained calm. In the face of the man’s quiet, compassionate demeanor, Geronimo snapped.
“You and your prayers!” he shouted. “I see you praying for the soldiers in the state army, our enemies! How dare you! How dare you pray for them! You make our country weak!”
“If you don’t believe in God,” the pastor asked, “Why does it matter to you if I pray?” Geronimo jerked his head back as if he had been slapped. The pastor continued. “Yes, I pray for soldiers. But I also pray for the gangs, for the drug traffickers, for the para-military. And I pray for you, Commander Geronimo.” Deeply shaken, Geronimo left the pastor alive, and returned to his FARC base.
A few months later, Geronimo and his troop found themselves in need of such prayers. Surrounded by opposing rebel factions, the state army and para-military, Geronimo’s troop was decimated, and two hundred and ninety of his fellow militants were killed, including his commanding officer. Bullets were flying when, desperate, Geronimo fled down a mountain path at night. There he almost collided with a member of a local church that he recognized. Terrified, Geronimo turned and ran, and to his horror the Christian chased after him. Geronimo was sure that the man wanted to kill him.
“Stop!” the man cried out. “God loves you! I want to save you!” Geronimo kept running.
Coming to a crevice in the rocks known as Hell’s Cave, barely big enough for him to enter, Geronimo crouched in the mud to wait for morning. A violent storm broke out. He could hear the state army closing in and, knowing what might happen to him if he were captured, Geronimo decided that suicide was his only recourse. Holding the gun to his head, he steeled himself to pull the trigger, but a voice suddenly spoke: “Do not do this thing.” Was it the thunder? The wind? A hallucination? Three times he raised the gun; three times the words rang out to stop him. Then, as the rain stopped and dawn finally broke, Geronimo dropped to his knees and asked God to rescue him.
“I felt a caress,” he says. “A hand, wiping my face, wiping away the mud.” Choking back tears, he struggles to continue with the story. “Oh God, I was so dirty. But you didn’t even use a glove, you touched my filth with your bare hand!”
Geronimo went down the mountain that morning and surrendered. “I put myself in God’s hands,” he says. And God showed mercy. Despite a bounty of two hundred million pesos on his head, and sixteen charges against him, Geronimo was released by the authorities in Popayán, told that because of his voluntary surrender and willing confession, the only crime counted against him would be that of rebellion. Geronimo was astounded.
“Now,” Geronimo tells us, “I am like that pastor that defied me.” He preaches a gospel of peace and reconciliation in the mountains and in the prisons of Cauca, to drug traffickers, rebels and ex-combatants – including his own son. “We are still warriors; this is in our blood!” he says. “But there is a better battle to be fought, as warriors for Jesus.”
By N. White