i don't know what to expectwhen I walk into the Founders College common room at York University to get a bird's-eye view of Juan Gabriel Ronderos, the Colombian academic who's become the talk of the campus. But it certainly isn't the young, paunchy figure in conservative blue suit and leather shoes sitting on the couch cradling a stack of files and looking slightly uncomfortable. Is this really the former member of DAS, the notorious Colombian secret police, who has local activists so rattled?
The occasion is a conference on violence and peace-building in Colombia back in May at a university where support for pro-communist guerrillas in FARC has had a special place among the lefty faculty. But the presence of Ronderos at York as assistant director of the Nathanson Centre, the law enforcement think tank, has altered the local political landscape and made other academics suspicious.
Watching him today, I'm not sure what to make of his spiel on crime and corruption. His words suggest that he hasn't set up shop at York to do anything other than pursue a Phd in international law. And his stint with DAS, the outfit responsible for countless human rights abuses? It was spent as the head of a money-laundering task force.
But this is Colombian politics, and it's difficult to find anyone in the expatriate community in T.O. who hasn't been touched by the war back home. Paranoia and unease run deep.
Emmanuel Rozenthal, himself a former visiting fellow from Colombia, is one of the few willing to fire his slings and arrows publicly.
"Ronderos looks open and democratic," he says, "but he's got loyalties."
Some days after the conference, I visit Ronderos in his office at Osgoode Hall. When I ask about the rumblings out there on his academic interventions, he leans forward across his desk, rubs his hands together and gazes out the window. "There's a lot of demonizing, a lot of labelling going on," he tells me.
Ronderos's emergence at York coincides with an aggressive PR effort by the Colombian diplomatic corp in Ottawa to clean up an international image soiled by continued government links to human rights abuses.
There's a lot at stake for Colombia.
The country is desperate for foreign investment as well as international financial support for Plan Colombia, the controversial $1.3-billion military aid package sponsored by the U.S.
Canada has played a special role in Colombia's push for international acceptance by virtue of our seat at the table where peace talks with the guerrillas have once again stalled.
Fanny Kertzman, the voluble Colombian ambassador to Canada, is her government's point person here. "There's a policy at (Colombian) foreign affairs that we should be more vocal," Kertzman tells me from Ottawa recently, "and not let these left-wing people say what they think without challenging their perceptions of Colombia."
The ambassador also happens to be a close friend of Ronderos's. The two attended the same private university, Los Andes, back home.
It's one reason why Ronderos's efforts to shift the political debate over Colombia at York have raised eyebrows among activists.
Colombia's attorney general, ambassador Kertzman and other officials from the embassy have all been brought in by Ronderos for speaking engagements and workshops. "All the sides have to be heard in the pandemonium," Ronderos says.
There's also an academic exchange program Ronderos has been trying to get going with the National University in Bogotá. One of the profs he's been involved in trying to recruit is the brother of a former far-right presidential candidate.
The National University also happens to be where far-right paramilitaries have been waging a campaign of fear and intimidation against left-leaning professors and students.
But Ronderos says he wants to remain above the fray. "There are those here who want to advocate, want to use their time here to influence what's going on in Colombia," he says. "I'm not one of them."