BOGOTA, Colombia – As Colombia's leftist rebel movement begins making its transition to a political party, a crucial question hangs over the process: how much money is it hiding?
Chief prosecutor Nestor Martinez rocked the nation last week by saying he has compiled evidence that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is sitting on an illegal fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars, a political war chest that outstrips the coffers of traditional parties. He asserted that its assets, arising from the FARC's involvement in the drug trade as well as illegal mining and extortion, include everything from herds of cattle held in the name of front men to offshore shell companies.
Martinez didn't list the specific properties, but his statement appeared aimed at cornering the FARC as it faces an Aug. 1 deadline to declare its war spoils, which the peace deal signed last year earmarks for compensation of the rebels' victims. Assets that aren't itemized can be seized down the road and anyone involved in concealing them faces prosecution for money laundering outside the generous terms provided by the accord.
"That legend of Franciscan poverty is about to end," Martinez said, referring to the image the FARC has long cultivated since its origins in the 1950s as a peasant-led self-defense movement.
The FARC was quick to strike back, accusing Martinez of being an enemy of the peace accord aimed at ending a half century of violent conflict.
Chief rebel negotiator Ivan Marquez posted a caricature of Martinez sitting down at a restaurant to eat a peace dove, while FARC commander Rodrigo Londono suggested the nation's top law enforcement doesn't show the same zeal going after other political actors with their own ties to illegal armed groups and drug-trafficking organizations.
Indeed, Colombian officials have a long history of conspiring with criminals, dating back at least to cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar's purchase of politicians in the 1980s. Dozens of lawmakers have been imprisoned over the past decade for financial ties to the FARC's battlefield enemies, right-wing paramilitary groups.
More recently, President Juan Manuel Santos' re-election campaign as well as his opponent in the 2014 race are under investigation for concealing millions of dollars in contributions and payments from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht in a still-unfolding scandal that threatens to discredit much of Colombia's political class.
Despite the rebels' pledge to the contrary, analysts say that the FARC is counting on its money to fund its takeoff as a political party. In the next campaign cycle, it's likely to need far more than the $1 million in state funding that it, like other political movements, is entitled to receive as a result of the peace deal.
Any solid evidence of the FARC hiding its riches is bound to antagonize Colombians who still distrust the rebels. The FARC only yielded to pressure to make the inventory of its assets after the original peace accord was narrowly defeated in a nationwide referendum.
Further angering the peace accord's many detractors — and exposing frictions within the government — was Santos' recent decree allowing some of that wealth to fund development projects, including the creation of a FARC-led institute to train political leaders in areas it has long dominated.
"For the FARC, the subject of money has always touched a nerve," said Kyle Johnson, a Bogota-based analyst at the International Crisis Group. "If it's shown they have a lot of wealth, it adds fuel to the narrative that they are simply drug traffickers."
While Martinez gave few details about his accusations, he said they were based on the analysis of some 5.5 million documents, many of them found on computers and pen drives seized during jungle raids in the final days of the long conflict. He vowed to continue investigating with the help of the United States as well as other governments in the region, especially in Central America.
Already authorities appear to be tightening their financial noose: so far this year they've seized assets linked to the FARC worth about $100 million, or about a quarter of the $380 million taken from the rebels in their entire history, according to Martinez. Last year, Costa Rica turned over to Colombia nearly half a million dollars in cash authorities there found stashed in a house.
Nobody knows for sure how much wealth the rebels managed to accumulate in their long war against the state. Some government analysts reportedly estimated their assets at over $10.5 billion as recently as 2012, but the rebels dismiss such speculations as sheer inventions.
While nobody believes they are penniless, the cost of feeding and equipping a fighting force of 7,000 rebels is believed to have sapped FARC reserves in the war's finals years as the rebels renounced extortive kidnappings and a string of military setbacks kept them largely confined to their jungle hideouts.
AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Bogota.