Life in a FARC Camp
We met two female members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) at the pre-established rendezvous point deep in the Colombian jungle. There we waited in a simple two-room wooden shack, which served as the home of a local peasant family. We sat there talking and drinking coffee while one of the guerrillas stood on the riverbank communicating through a hand-held radio. Finally, having received the all clear, which meant that there were no army patrols on the river, the four of us climbed into a canoe for the next stage of our journey. It had taken Terry Gibbs and myself more than two days to reach that point and we still had a short river trip and a hike through the jungle before we would finally arrive at the FARC camp that was our destination.
After an hour journeying deeper into the lush green rainforest we pulled over to the riverbank, climbed out of the canoe and walked down a narrow path through the jungle to a small clearing. We waited there while our two female guerrilla guides stashed the canoe and its outboard motor. When the two rebels returned to the clearing they were each carrying two planks of wood measuring six foot long, ten inches wide and two inches thick. They insisted on also carrying our backpacks for us. The sun was setting when we all set off along a trail through the jungle on a one-hour hike to the FARC camp.
We stumbled and slid along the muddy path, traversing streams on fallen logs with only the narrow beams of our small flashlights to illuminate the way. Miraculously, I managed to avoid falling into the quagmire that passed as a trail. Almost an hour into the hike I heard the female guerrilla up front mumble something to a shadowy figure in the darkness. A fully uniformed, AK-47-toting male guerrilla then greeted Terry and I as we passed him. I noticed a small white light through the trees up ahead and as we reached the perimeter of the camp saw a uniformed man with a gray beard working on a laptop computer. It was FARC commander Raúl Reyes; a member of the rebel group’s seven-person Central Command. According to many analysts, Reyes is the second-highest ranking member of the FARC.
Reyes greeted us both and after an introductory conversation invited us to join him and several other guerrillas for dinner. Afterwards, Terry and I were shown to our bivouac, which consisted of a bed with wooden planks for a mattress, a mosquito net and a plastic camouflaged canopy that hung above everything to provide protection from the frequent tropical rains. Our bivouac was identical to the ones used by the guerrillas in the camp. For the next three days, Terry and I lived as the guerrillas lived. We bathed with them in a nearby stream. We went to the bathroom in their rainforest latrines, which consisted of trenches dug in the ground. And we all ate ample servings of basic Colombian food.
Terry and I were at the remote FARC camp for different reasons. She was there to interview female guerrillas as part of her research on women engaged in social struggle in Colombia. I was there to interview Reyes. We were given free rein of the camp and access to all the guerrillas, about one third of whom were female. We were also allowed to take photos with the stipulation that we didn’t publish the faces of any of the rebels except Reyes. We also passed many hours engaged in informal conversations with Reyes and other guerrillas.
Living conditions for the guerrillas were austere to say the least. They consisted of the aforementioned bivouac, two uniforms, a pair of rubber boots, an AK-47 assault rifle, extra cartridges of ammunition, a machete and three meals a day. Despite the austerity, the camp’s infrastructure was impressive given its remote location. The bivouacs were interconnected with a network of wooden walkways constructed several inches above the wet, muddy ground. As few trees as possible had been felled to make space for the bivouacs and walkways in order to preserve the rainforest canopy, no doubt to limit the possibility of detection from the air.
In the center of the camp was a large wooden-framed, tent-like structure with sheets of black plastic that served as a roof. Inside were a dozen rows of benches constructed from wooden planks similar to the ones our guerrilla guides had carried to the camp. A television and chalkboard were situated at one end of the structure and each evening the guerrillas watched the news on Caracol and RCN—Colombia’s two major television networks—in order to keep informed about current issues. This activity was particularly interesting given that the country’s television networks generally presented a very negative portrayal of the FARC.
The wooden walkways extended beyond the center of the camp in several directions, becoming wooden steps whenever the path went up or down hills. One walkway disappeared into the rainforest only to terminate at the men’s latrine. The word latrine might be a bit elaborate given that it only consisted of two trenches dug into the ground. One was for urine and the other for feces. A different walkway led to the women’s latrine, which consisted of the same facilities. There were long sticks that were used to shovel the red, clay-like mud back into the trench to cover up the human waste.
A third walkway led to the camp’s kitchen, which was a large, open-sided structure that contained two fires and lots of large pots and pans. The cooks prepared three meals a day of basic Colombian fare such as beef, chicken, rice, potatoes, yucca, vegetables and lots of soup. One afternoon, while Terry was interviewing female guerrillas, I walked down to the kitchen and hung out with the two rebels, one male and the other female, who were on kitchen duty.
“You all seem to eat well here?” I said to them, half as a question and half as a statement.
“You’ve come at a good time,” explained the female guerrilla. “We have plenty of food right now. Sometimes we don’t have much to eat. How often we get supplies depends on the weather and the security situation.”
“Do you two cook everyday?” I asked them.
“No,” replied the male rebel. “Everybody takes a turn. We will cook dinner today and then breakfast and lunch tomorrow. After that someone else will take over and do the same.”
“So everybody cooks?” I inquire. “The men and the women?”
“Of course,” the female guerrilla answered. “Everybody does everything in the camp. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. You cook, you wash your own clothes, you stand guard, and you go out on patrol. It is the same for men and women.”
I had heard that this sort of equality was part of the FARC’s philosophy, but wasn’t sure to what degree it had actually been implemented. I still wasn’t sure to what degree it applied in other FARC units throughout the country. However, there was little doubt that the guerrillas in that particular camp had achieved an impressive degree of gender equality. It was not just evident in their activities and words but, more importantly, in their way of being.
Surprisingly, for me at least, it was more evident in the behavior of the men than the women. The softness of the energy exhibited by the male rebels towards their female colleagues, their absolute lack of machismo, their acceptance of them as equals, was actually quite astounding. And for the women, they also exhibited many feminine qualities for a group of females living a traditionally male lifestyle. In fact, maintaining their femininity was important to the female guerrillas. During off-duty hours we often observed female rebels getting together to apply make-up or to braid each other’s hair. Evidently, equality in that FARC camp was not about women acting like men.
Everyday in the late afternoon the guerrillas went in groups to bathe. Terry and I would go with a bunch of rebels shortly before dinner each day. The wooden walkway wound its way through the rainforest and down a hill to a small stream. The rebels had built a dam across the stream that allowed the fresh, clear water to flow over the top of the twelve-inch high wooden structure, through the ten foot long bathing area and then over another dam before continuing its course through the rainforest. Wooden floorboards were placed in the bottom of the pool of water created between the two dams to ensure solid, mud-free footing.
The male and female guerrillas stripped down to their underwear and bathed together in the shin-deep pool of water. They also hand washed their clothes on a wooden table constructed along one side of the pool. The guerrillas each had two sets of camouflage uniforms and they washed one each day, which then dried over the following twenty-four hours while they wore the other one. In one of our bathing sessions I attempted to hand wash the pair of trousers that had gotten muddy on the hike to the camp. A female guerrilla who was bathing with us couldn’t help but smile at my ineptitude in the laundering department. A male rebel took pity on me and taught me his washing technique, which was surprisingly effective.
Everyday began at 4:50 am. Some rebels went out on patrol and others stood guard around the camp’s perimeter. Many of those who remained in the camp engaged in education programs that taught basic reading, writing and math. All the guerrillas were peasants, some illiterate. The better-educated rebels would be paired with the less literate ones in order to provide them with a basic education and to teach them the fundamental concepts of Marxism. The pairs would spend a couple of hours each afternoon engaging in lessons. Some days the guerrillas engaged in military training. After dinner, the rebels would watch the news, engage in group discussions about political and cultural issues, watch a movie and be in bed by 9:00 pm.
We were told that the rebel unit frequently moved camp for security reasons. Such an operation involved packing up everything, except the wooden infrastructure, for the journey to another part of the jungle where they would take out their machetes and begin constructing a new camp. Because they were all peasants, the rebels were very adept with that ubiquitous tool of the countryside, the machete. However, other skills that the group required were not always so easy to come by, such as medical care.
I asked one female rebel what happened when a guerrilla became ill, or was injured or wounded.
“There are always several guerrillas who can apply basic medical care,” she explained. “And these guerrillas pass this knowledge on to others so each unit always has medics.”
“But what if the sickness or injury is serious and requires extensive medical care, like surgery?” I inquired.
“Then the person is transported to one of the FARC’s hospitals, which are staffed by doctors. For security reasons, it is preferred that they don’t go on such a journey unless it is absolutely necessary.”
“Where are these hospitals located, in villages or in jungle camps like this?” I asked her.
“In camps like this,” she replied.
Several of the guerrillas referred to their cultural time on Sundays as an important part of guerrilla life. During these sessions they would engage in music, theatre and poetry readings, with most of the art being inspired by their revolutionary ideals. On our final afternoon in the camp the guerrillas put on a cultural show. We all gathered in the large structure for the performance, which consisted of songs and skits that were full of humor and political and social commentary. One skit that several rebels performed was a parody of beauty pageants, which are extremely popular in Colombia. A male and a female guerrilla held imitation microphones and acted as the hosts of the pageant, which sought to crown the new Señorita Colombia.
They first introduced the reigning champion, who was an attractive female rebel dressed in a halter-top and miniskirt with a cardboard crown perched atop her head. She took her place at the front of the room while the hosts introduced the contestants seeking to become her heir. One by one, the four contestants entered the room from behind a curtain. They each paraded around the inside perimeter of the structure in their skimpy outfits as the audience cheered wildly. The interesting catch was that all four were male guerrillas dressed in drag and adorned with lipstick and make-up.
The hosts then asked the contestants questions about what they would do if they were to be crowned the new Señorita Colombia. When it was his turn to answer, a short stocky mestizo rebel who was Señorita Cauca replied, “I would bring about the New Colombia in which all Colombians would be equal.” His reference was to the socialist society that the FARC has envisioned and labeled the “New Colombia.” Clearly, in the FARC, culture and politics are integrated.
The funniest moment in the show occurred when Señorita Chocó, a tall thin black guerrilla with a moustache, paraded around the structure exhibiting exaggerated feminine mannerisms while wearing a wig, a red bikini top and a blue makeshift plastic mini-skirt. The skit ended when Señorita Chocó was chosen as the new Señorita Colombia. The hosts then coaxed several male rebels into dancing with the guerrillas in drag. The entire skit was a parody on the sexist nature of beauty pageants and the objectification of the female body.
There were a few older guerrillas in the camp who had been members of the FARC for decades. Among them were Reyes, who had been in the rebel group for 26 years, and the oldest woman in the FARC, who had been living in the jungle for 32 years. Most of the guerrillas, however, were in their twenties. Some of them were couples whose bivouacs had been constructed with double beds. Any two guerrillas who want to enter into a relationship with each other have to obtain the permission of their commander. This protocol is similar to that in the US military where soldiers posted overseas must obtain the permission of their commanding officer before getting married. FARC guerrillas also need to obtain permission to end a relationship, although that is rarely denied.
The fact that the guerrillas are rotated in and out of field units makes it difficult to maintain long-term relationships. One morning I sat down with a guerrilla couple in their bivouac to discuss engaging in relationships under such conditions.
“It is difficult because you never know when one of you is going to be sent somewhere else,” explained an Afro-Colombian female guerrilla named Carmen.
“The FARC tries to keep couples together whenever it is possible,” added her partner Osvaldo.
“If you are separated is it possible to stay in touch with each other?” I asked.
“No, not really. It is difficult, but that’s just the way it is,” said Osvaldo, acknowledging that commitment to the FARC and their revolutionary cause is every guerrilla’s first priority.
Terry and I also engaged in many informal conversations with Reyes and I conducted one formal two-hour interview with the FARC commander. During the informal conversations we discussed a wide variety of topics related to Colombia and the world in general. Some of the conversations occurred during the meals that we ate with Reyes. Other conversations were held around the table in his bivouac, which was situated at one end of the camp. The only difference between Reyes’ living quarters and those of the other guerrillas was that it contained a table with wooden benches on each side and a laptop computer.
One topic of discussion was the possibility of a prisoner exchange between the FARC and the US government. More precisely, I asked about the possibility of the rebel group exchanging the three US military contractors that it was holding captive for Simón Trinidad and Soñia, the two FARC members imprisoned in the United States.
“We cannot agree to such an exchange because we are engaged in an internal conflict and so any exchange would have to be between us and the Colombian government,” explained Reyes. “We are not at war with the United States and we don’t want to internationalize the conflict. And besides, any humanitarian exchange would have to include the release of all the guerrillas being held in Colombian prisons.”
We also discussed the country’s new center-left political party, the Democratic Pole. At one point I asked Reyes if he thought there was any possibility of the FARC negotiating peace with the Democratic Pole should the party win the presidency in the 2010 elections.
“It would depend on their policies,” he replied.
Back in my bivouac I thought about the accusations made by many analysts that the guerrilla group is nothing more than a criminal organization. These critics often claim that the FARC was ideological many years ago but now is only interested in profiting from its criminal activities, which are primarily related to the coca trade. Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe has repeatedly declared that there is not an armed conflict in Colombia and that the government is simply combating criminals who engage in terrorism. Clearly these are efforts to de-legitimize the FARC as a political entity.
The FARC’s involvement in the coca trade and its human rights abuses against civilians, including kidnapping and the use of landmines and notoriously inaccurate homemade mortars, have made it easy for critics to simply dismiss the rebels as criminals. However, the issue is not so black and white, as illustrated by life in the FARC camp. In fact, it is difficult to accept such a simplistic analysis of the FARC given the difficult life that the guerrillas live. After all, unlike Colombian soldiers and paramilitary fighters, the rebels do not get paid and they receive no material benefits other than three meals a day.
And if guerrilla leaders like Reyes are little more than the heads of a criminal organization, then they must be considered miserable failures. After all, other Colombian criminals live in luxury. The leader of the former Medellín cocaine cartel, Pablo Escobar, lived lavishly in magnificent mansions, as have many other Colombian drug traffickers over the past thirty years. Paramilitary leaders have also lived well on their vast cattle ranches in northern Colombia, enjoying the riches wrought from their criminal activities. And now they are demobilizing so they can legally enjoy their ill-gotten wealth.
On the other hand, the FARC’s leaders live as Reyes lives. There appears to be no personal monetary gain despite the guerrilla group’s financial wealth. It is a hard life spent sleeping on wooden planks, bathing in rivers, fighting off tropical diseases, and constantly moving from camp to camp to avoid US intelligence gathering efforts and the Colombian army. Reyes has lived in the jungle in this manner for 26 years and the only comforts that he enjoys are a laptop computer and the camp’s television. It is hardly the lifestyle of a criminal whose principal objective is the attainment of wealth.
After spending three nights in the camp, and with our work completed, Terry and I awoke on our final morning, packed our things and bid farewell to the guerrillas. Along with our rebel guides, we made the return trek through the rainforest to the river and boarded a canoe. As we cruised along the jungle river I thought about Colombia’s future. After almost seven years of Plan Colombia, five years of President Uribe’s security policies and more than five billion dollars in US military aid, there is no evidence that the FARC has been significantly weakened militarily. Consequently, with the FARC being too strong to be defeated on the battlefield and not strong enough to take power by force, a negotiated settlement is the only possible route to achieving peace.
The FARC, however, is not about to simply negotiate its demobilization in return for reduced prison sentences as the paramilitaries have done. Nor is the FARC likely to demobilize in return for a full amnesty under a “peace” agreement that leaves the structures of neoliberalism intact, as did the M-19 in Colombia, the FMLN in El Salvador and the URNG in Guatemala. Any negotiated peace would require a restructuring of Colombia’s political, social and economic system to ensure a much more equitable distribution of the country’s wealth and land. But such a negotiated settlement would require the acquiescence of the country’s political and economic elites as well as of the US government. Consequently, at least for the near future, it appears that the conflict will continue to rage. And, tragically, it will be the civilian population that will continue to bear the brunt of the violence.