In the jungle, FARC rebels prepare for peace

by @nadjadrost September 27, 2015 5:30AM ET

As Colombia's 51-year conflict winds down, Al Jazeera gets exclusive access to a guerrilla unit

Federico, a regional FARC commander, walks with one of the members of his unit. A former student leader, he joined the rebels as a teenager.
Nadege Mazars /

CAQUETÁ DEPARTMENT, Colombia — In a tiny patch of jungle in southern Colombia, the flashing of a red light broke the predawn darkness. The rebels, using infrared headlamps to avoid detection by the military, huddled around a makeshift platform surrounded by brush and trees dripping with vines. A fighter who goes by Abelardo illuminated an attendance checklist and started calling out names. There were only six. “Presente!” each responded, one by one. They started singing, to a backdrop of crickets, “Guerrillas of FARC will triumph with the people, fighting for our country, land and daily bread.”

Members of FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, have been singing that hymn for 51 years. They have not triumphed, nor have they been defeated. Founded in the mid-1960s, the group promised to fight on behalf of peasants in the struggle against what it saw as a wealthy elite and repressive state. During its peak in the 1990s, FARC controlled about a third of rural Colombia. It is the hemisphere’s longest-running insurgency, and it may be in its twilight.

For almost three years, top FARC commanders in Havana have been holding talks with the Colombian government to try to end the armed conflict. While the broad outline of the talks’ agenda is public, negotiators from both sides keep the details of the agreements they are hashing out confidential. The Colombian public is informed of the latest advances and setbacks via press conferences featuring government representatives and FARC leaders who have, for now, swapped their fatigues for pressed linen shirts. While negotiators try to strike a deal in the Cuban capital, the conflict in Colombia continues to simmer.

In a country of deep-set inequalities and weak state presence, the conflict has played out on many fronts for half a century, its actors ranging from left-wing rebel groups (among them, FARC is the oldest and largest), right-wing paramilitaries and state armed forces that often fought alongside the paramilitaries against rebels. Drug-related violence has been a combustible element of the conflict, and victims tend to be civilians caught in the middle. Since the conflict began, more than 220,000 people have died, and over 6 million have been forcibly displaced.

The peace negotiations have reached partial agreements on rural development, the illegal drug trade, political participation for FARC and the establishment of a truth commission, but certain issues stalled negotiations. That changed last week, when government and FARC negotiators announced that they reached an agreement on one of the thorniest matters: how to hold perpetrators of grave human rights abuses accountable for their actions. It was a major breakthrough, though questions remain, such as the nature of disarmament and how to implement an eventual peace accord.

Since peace talks began, FARC units on the ground in Colombia have been almost entirely closed off to journalists. But in a rare opportunity, the organization gave three foreign journalists access to one of its units for a few days in the country’s southern department of Caquetá. There was little risk of combat — the FARC had implemented a unilateral cease-fire to as a good-will gesture to advance the talks, and the military had stepped down its actions. The unit, led by a commander with the alias Federico (all rebels are referred to here by their nom de guerre) was small, but its day-to-day life offered a window into the broader reality of FARC troops on the ground and the challenges posed by the prospect of peace.

Demobilization is one of the main issues under discussion between FARC and government negotiators. In exchange for giving up arms, the government has agreed to support efforts to transform FARC into a political party.
Nadege Mazars /

The trip to reach Federico’s unit started in Florencia, the capital of Caquetá, a large region of plains and mountains that sprawls east from the city. Less than an hour outside Florencia, the pavement turned to dirt, and the landscape unfurled into hillsides of jungle. As the jeep trundled deeper, jungle gave way to fields of coca, the source of cocaine.

It did not take long for a sense of frontier isolation to prevail. The roads were often little more than trenches of mud that threatened to swallow vehicles whole and slow driving to a walking pace. Schools are sparse in these parts, and many haven’t had teachers for months. Because of prohibitive costs for taking common, low-revenue crops like yucca and cacao to market, many farmers turn to coca for extra income. This leads to relationships with FARC, as farmers must pay the rebels a “tax” to protect their coca crops from the government.

About six hours outside Florencia, signs of FARC started emerging. “We were born to defeat, not to be defeated — FARC-EP,” read a slogan painted on a farmer’s gate.

In Caquetá, FARC has been part of the landscape for as long as anyone can remember. People talk of far-flung regions such as this one as if they have been abandoned by the state, as if it arrived and left, creating a vacuum for rebels to fill. But really, the state was hardly there in the first place, and when it made its presence felt, it was mostly by sending in military and fumigation planes to destroy coca. After the launch of Plan Colombia in 2000, a U.S. drug eradication and counterinsurgency package that has surpassed $8 billion in funding, military troops spread throughout the region to try to recover territory from the guerrillas. Since then, combat has increased, and locals have been caught between the military and FARC.

The jeep’s route ended in Miramar, a 200-yard strip of homes, a gas pump, an empty school and a neglected church. That evening, a pickup truck pulled into town carrying a girl, about 13 years old, whose leg had just been blown up by a land mine. She was bandaged but still bleeding profusely. The nearest clinic was three hours away and wasn’t equipped to deal with injuries. Spotting foreigners, a few locals approached and asked if it would be possible to take the girl to a nearby military base in the hope that the soldiers would fly her to Florencia.

Hermano,” one of the locals said, “you know it’s complicated for us to go there.” He said nothing else, but the meaning was clear: Locals, stigmatized as guerrilla sympathizers, fear contact with the military. Then, not wanting to waste more time, they drove off into the inky black of the Caquetá night. 

Gabriel, a 19-year-old guerrilla, prepares food for his unit. He grew up in Caqueta and saw FARC members as local authorities.
Nadege Mazars /

A half-day’s drive from Miramar, a rebel called Gabriel waited by a farmer’s gate along a thin, muddy road. He was 19, and his face still bore the acne of adolescence. On his shoulder, a Galil assault rifle was slung over a taut green T-shirt tucked into fatigues. He led the way past a burned clearing being prepared for pasture and turned onto a path along a field of hip-high grass bordered by forest. Just yards in, a FARC camp was barely visible under the canopy.

“Welcome to our house,” said Federico, gesturing across the small area they had carved out amid the trees. T-shirts and camouflage fatigues were hanging on laundry lines to dry; tarps were suspended over beds fashioned out of planks of wood. The camp was home to only six rebels and a green parrot called Gris who faithfully followed them everywhere. In some ways, the unit resembled a roving family, equipped with hammocks and cooking pots, AK-47s and revolutionary books. They were welcoming and offered coffee from a gas-fueled stove.

Among them was Abelardo, a 35-year-old hardened fighter who had always wanted to join the military. Luckily, he said, he fell into the ranks of FARC, when he could have easily ended up on the other side. Jessica, a 30-year-old indigenous woman, joined FARC after a recruitment presentation at her high school. She came from a very poor family and figured she would be less of an expense if she became a rebel. Gabriel was from the area and grew up around the guerrillas; he saw them as authorities and liked their demeanor toward campesinos.

“It’s not like we’re painted, as monsters,” Abelardo said. “We are the sons of the Colombian people. We come from very poor families.”

Federico, 35 and still baby-faced after 15 years in FARC, was a good-natured and charismatic commander. A former communist youth leader, he joined the group after receiving death threats and seeing his colleagues murdered during a paramilitary and state-led campaign of terror against the left.

One of several commanders in charge of regional politics, Federico led a unit tasked with organizing and engaging locals. His unit did not engage in activities many associate with FARC, he said; it didn’t carry out military ambushes, plant land mines or collect extortion taxes from locals. Instead, it planned community projects and held meetings to discuss the peace talks. “Our work is about reaching out to people and explaining to them why FARC is fighting,” he said, a gold-colored watch on one arm, a beaded Che Guevara bracelet on the other. “People end up saying, ‘They’re fighting for the same needs I have as well.’”

Every morning, Sandra, a 22-year-old rebel, goes into the countryside to send coded messages to FARC southern bloc leaders over the radio.
Nadege Mazars /

FARC began in 1964 as a revolutionary peasant army after a decade so marked by political violence it was simply called La Violencia. Underpinned by a Marxist-Leninist ideology, the organization expanded its reach into rural regions struggling with poverty and state exclusion. As it gained territory and fighters over the years, it became more powerful, and in the 1980s Colombia’s drug boom played a major role in financing the group’s cause. By the early 2000s, FARC had an estimated 16,000 fighters and was known for blowing up military and police outposts and carrying out kidnappings for financial or political reasons. In many rural regions, it was seen as the local law and authority. Many members were the sons and daughters of campesinos, and FARC found support by defending farmers (or their crops and land) from the threat of displacement or aggression by large companies, the military or paramilitary groups.

There have been multiple attempts at peace agreements over the past three decades, and the last one failed in 2002, after a three-year effort. Then came the second phase of Plan Colombia: A U.S.-financed counterinsurgency strategy called Plan Patriota. The plan’s military offensives, coupled with mass desertions, chipped away dramatically at FARC’s ranks. Today the government estimates that there are only about 7,000 armed FARC fighters.

Gone are FARC’s audacious days of taking over towns, roving through hamlets in columns of hundreds and staying in well-equipped camps for long periods. Guerrillas now live in smaller units and are constantly on the move to avoid military detection and aerial bombings. They change camp every couple of nights, cook with gas stoves instead of open fires and inspect all supplies for military-planted microchips that might track their location. They don’t even smoke during the day for fear the scent of tobacco might give them away. “Plan Patriota saved our lungs,” Federico joked.

It’s not like we’re painted, as monsters. We are the sons of the Colombian people. We come from very poor families.

Abelardo, FARC rebel

After failed peace talks, years of devastating military assaults against them and infiltration of their ranks, FARC fighters are weary, to say the least, of trusting the government. Every morning, Sandra, a demure 22-year-old with braids framing her face, took her radio kit and walked beyond the camp to communicate with FARC’s southern bloc. She would choose a place to sit and lay out the small guide that translated words into ciphered numbers. She assumed the military was listening in and was vigilant about using only code. During her first week as a guerrilla, about eight years earlier, a plane flew over Sandra’s camp and began bombing. That lasted close to six hours, and all she could think about, she said, was dying.

Sandra joined the guerrillas when she was barely 14. Rebels used to go by her house and invite her to play cops and robbers with them. “I loved that they invited us to play,” she remembered. “I decided that one day I would become a guerrilla.”

She lived through Plan Patriota and three bombings. She hoped for a final peace agreement but was skeptical about whether it would really happen. “No one knows, right?” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “It can be frightening to think that they might reach an agreement and then start killing us one by one.”

Sandra’s fear was well-founded. After amnesty agreements in the early 1990s, demobilized fighters from other rebel groups were hunted down and killed. In 1984, as a result of a truce with the government, FARC formed a political organization, the Unión Patriótica. Within a decade, over 3,000 of its leaders and members were assassinated by state and paramilitary forces.

This ominous history haunts today’s FARC fighters. If they put down their arms, would the same thing happen to them? 

Gris, the unit's parrot, catches a ride on Sandra's backpack.
Nadege Mazars /

During peace talks, government negotiators have struggled with the challenge of how to persuade FARC members to put down arms while facing justice for their role in the conflict. While atrocities have been perpetrated by all sides, over the decades FARC has committed thousands of homicides and kidnappings and caused as many forced displacements and injuries by land mines. As its violent history has accumulated, public perception of FARC has suffered, and the organization seems to have little support left among Colombians.

“I think the FARC are very far from being seen as a group whose crimes are related to their political motives,” said William Duica, a professor of philosophy at the National University of Colombia who writes about FARC. Furthermore, the group’s involvement in the illicit drug trade has seriously eroded the group’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

FARC hotly denies that it traffics drugs, but it demands a tax on economic activities in areas it controls, including the multimillion-dollar coca trade. (Indictments issued by the U.S. suggest FARC involvement at every link in the cocaine production chain.) The week before, a nearby FARC unit shot at a fumigation plane flying overhead. FARC, Federico explained, is interested in coca not because it is coca but because it is subsistence for campesinos. “If it was a plantain plant,” he said, “we’d defend the plantain plant.”

Between the violence and drugs, the vast majority of Colombians — 82 percent, according to a Gallup poll from December 2014 — want to see disarmed members of FARC serve prison sentences before being reintegrated into civilian life.

But FARC commanders in Havana have repeatedly made it clear that they have not been negotiating a deal just to end up behind bars. When asked at the camp if FARC members should serve jail sentences, Rey, a 49-year-old guerrilla who has been in the organization for 21 years, gazed toward the forest as though searching for an answer among the trees. “What do I say?” he said, nervously laughing and looking down between his knees. Perhaps his comrades should ask for forgiveness, he said. “I think that if someone should serve jail time, the principal one should be the government.”

To think FARC would disintegrate at the moment a peace agreement is reached would be crazy, because we have 51 years of experience that we can’t toss to the wayside.

Federico, FARC unit commander

FARC is not willing to take all the blame for the conflict; it has maintained that it will accept an application of justice only if the state and its military do as well. In the months leading up to this week’s agreement, both sides seemed more willing to explore how that might happen. “FARC has to assume responsibility for its actions. The state as well, naturally,” said the chief negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, in a July interview made available to all media. Before the announcement, many experts argued that peace talks could succeed only if they put forth a form of transitional justice that both FARC and its victims could accept. Rodrigo Uprimny, the director of the Bogotá-based nonprofit Dejusticia and an adviser to the peace talks, said he believed negotiations would have to result in a form of justice in which “victims feel there was punishment but that FARC does not feel is undeserving.” For FARC members, he continued, an agreement would need to make them feel as if “their right to rebellion was recognized.”

This seemingly intractable problem is now resolved: Both sides have agreed to a formula for transitional justice that will administer alternative sentences to both FARC members and state agents willing to take responsibility for their crimes.

Under the arrangement, special tribunals will be created to investigate and judge conflict-related crimes, including kidnapping, murder, disappearances, torture and forced displacement. In exchange for immediately and fully confessing their crimes, perpetrators will be eligible for reduced sentences of five to eight years, and instead of prison, they will face some form of confinement. Those who take longer to confess or simply don’t will receive different sentences. Amnesties and pardons will be offered to those who engaged in political crimes, such as belonging to the insurgency.

This week’s agreement clears a major obstacle to achieving a final peace accord, which both sides have committed to signing by March 23, 2016. Now more than ever, resolving the remaining issues has taken on a new urgency.

Rey has been in the FARC for 22 years. His comrades taught him how to read and write, and they mourned the death of his brother, a fellow rebel, alongside him.
Nadege Mazars /

One of the biggest questions facing both sides is how to handle demobilization. Giving up arms is an unnerving and complicated prospect for many rebels. Three days into the visit, in a new camp near a farmer’s shelter, Gabriel opened the cartridges of his rifle’s magazine onto a plastic tarp. Gris, the parrot, hopped among the bullets and onto the soldier’s lap, and Gabriel cleaned the barrel of his Galil with a toothbrush.

When asked about demobilization, he said FARC members would be willing to drop their arms conditionally but not to hand them over to the government. For rebels, weapons are their insurance policy. “But if we see real change, what sense would there be in carrying a weapon?” he said. “In a country where one isn’t killed for acting politically or thinking differently, what point would there be in carrying a weapon? It wouldn’t make sense.”

During negotiations, FARC demanded guaranteed access to political participation in exchange for giving up arms. This week, the government and the FARC announced their support for transforming the group into a political party.

What will exist of the FARC and what shape it may take following a peace deal is unclear, and for rebels on the ground, demobilization raises many questions about how their lives will unfold . While much of the public seems to believe that to eliminate the conflict is to eliminate the group, a future without FARC is unimaginable to rebels in the jungle. “To disappear?” Federico asked. He started chuckling as he sat on his tiny folding chair, bugs swarming around. “No, no,” he said, clapping his hands to kill a mosquito. “To think FARC would disintegrate at the moment a peace agreement is reached would be crazy, because we have 51 years of experience that we can’t toss to the wayside.” The organization would still be an army, said Rey, just one that didn’t use violence. After so much suffering, he added, he couldn’t imagine the thought of “arriving and being left with nothing.” 

Before he became a guerrilla, Abelardo had planned to join the military.
Nadege Mazars /

Distrust and doubts from all sides have clouded the peace process. Throughout, Colombians have been divided between ending the conflict through negotiations or with the military. A Gallup poll this month showed 54 percent of Colombians polled supported the peace process over military means. While the government has, at times, threatened to pull out of talks if they don’t accelerate or if frustrations don’t ease, FARC has made one thing clear: It will not sign off on just any kind of a peace deal.

Time is elastic in an organization that is half a century old and based deep in the bush. If the talks fail, FARC will keep on fighting and replace their dead with recruits. For decades, FARC has been an all-encompassing structure for its members. It is their work, their family, their home and their lifestyle. Federico said he doesn’t ask himself about his future. “Because really, as an individual, I feel very alone, and my life has always revolved around the revolutionary process.”

If a peace agreement is reached, “the bosses would have to look for something for the whole guerrilla,” said Gabriel. “It’s not as if peace gets signed and you go off and do whatever you want. There are people who have dedicated their whole life to this.”

When asked what she would do if a peace agreement is signed, Sandra appeared baffled by the question. “We’ll wait and see what the bosses say,” she replied.

Abelardo, meanwhile, hoped peace talks would be fruitful. Because he saw the war as “fratricidal,” he found it difficult to say whether the long conflict has been worthwhile.

On their last afternoon hosting the journalists, the rebels undressed to their underwear and bathed in a knee-high pool fed by a stream. Gris also got a bath, and with his wings wet, he stuck even more closely to the troops. They washed clothes that wouldn’t have the time to dry; they were about to start moving again to set up camp under a different jungle canopy.

For some of the FARC rank and file, the prospect of life in peacetime without the organization is more daunting than the hardships of war. “I would prefer to be in the family of FARC,” said Rey. He has spent the greater part of his adult life in FARC. His comrades taught him how to read and write, and they mourned the death of his brother, a fellow rebel, alongside him.

“When something forms you, it is so difficult to” — he paused for emphasis — “abandon it.” His voice started cracking. “Because this is a family, it’s so hard to think that today you’re a guerrilla and tomorrow you become a civilian. If you go off to become a civilian, you have to start a new life.”

What that new life may look like remains uncertain. But with a final peace agreement now in sight, that rebels may soon face it is no longer such a distant possibility.