SABANAS DEL YARI, Colombia – Just before the sun rises and the fog rolls out on the horizon at 5:30 a.m., a group of young fighters pick up their rifles, slip on their rubber boots and head out to the grassy hilltop to do their daily calisthenics.
At the end of the exercise, involving squats, star jumps and press-ups, they lift their guns high in the air and chant “Viva Colombia!” – a declaration of unity with the state that would have been unthinkable just a year ago.
After half a century of guerrilla warfare, the fighters of the Jorge Briceño Bloc of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – better known by their acronym, FARC – are getting used to the idea of peace. After months of negotiations between the left-wing guerrilla group and the government, a bilateral ceasefire was signed on June 23, setting the table for a final peace accord to be signed, perhaps this year.
It's a potentially historic moment for the country, especially after the second largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), announced in May that it too wanted to enter peace negotiations.
For FARC fighters life has taken on a different tone, as they adjust to the prospect of continuing their revolution “by other means” – without guns. In theory at least, the FARC plans to reintegrate into civilian life as a political organization seeking to achieve its radical political goals of deep social and economic change. But major issues continue to overshadow this vision.
How will the guerrillas integrate into mainstream society after so much time fighting in the jungle? What will happen to the land they now hold sway over? And how will they fund their future political organization while abandoning a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise – funded by cocaine, kidnapping and extortion – that has kept their insurgency afloat for decades?
Changes to camp routine
Named after one of their military commanders who was killed by the Colombian army with a “smart” bomb in September 2010, the front is part of the FARC's Eastern Bloc, which operates across a vast, sparsely-populated swampy savannah in the southeastern province of Meta, stretching from the Andean foothills south of the capital, Bogotá, all the way to the Venezuelan border, and south into the Amazon jungle as far as Brazil.
Peace has brought changes to the camp's layout and daily routine. Neatly constructed bunks made from logs flank both sides of the camp that sits below a bluff on a forested hill.
Previously the fighters slept in hammocks that could be quickly strung up and taken down in case of a government bombardment or ground assault. Each of the bunks has some personalized adornment: a banner painted with the profile of a revolutionary icon or fallen comrade; a Mickey Mouse mosquito net; or colorful embroidery, invariably in red.
The forest sounds of chirping birds mingle with the murmur of talking soldiers. The once constant whirr of military aircraft overhead has mostly stopped. If it weren’t for the network of trenches throughout the camp – and the fighters carrying guns – it could almost be mistaken for a regular campsite.
A large German Shepherd named Bruno roams the camp. He never barks, acting as a silent reminder that this is the frontline of a war that is not quite over yet. These days Bruno is just a pet, says Isabela, a 34-year-old woman who is one of the bloc's senior officiers.
There is less need now for guard duty. The FARC’s camps are nestled away in the jungle, well hidden from the enemy. In the past, feared Colombian Special Operations forces were known to silently infiltrate their camps and carry out assassinations and sabotage, she explains. So they started training dogs to protect themselves from intruders.
The dogs also serve to protect commanders from betrayal within FARC ranks. An iconic commander, “Ivan Rios," was betrayed by one of his own bodyguards and murdered in cold blood in 2008. The rogue bodyguard carried out the coup de grace by chopping off his commander’s hand and bringing it as bounty to the army to prove his betrayal – so the story goes. Since then, dogs have been an essential part of a commander’s security protocol.
The daily routine consists of morning exercise, coffee, washing, studying and assorted chores. It's southern Colombia’s rainy season, so it rains most days. The three streams that run through the camp are dammed to create washing areas.
The guerrillas carry out military drills several times a day, between chores – and if there's time, they also play volleyball, the preferred sport of the insurgency.
“We like soccer a lot,” confesses one fighter, “but it gets too confrontational and the ball gets lost easily in the jungle.”
The FARC was formed in May 1964 by a group of armed peasant collectives and left-wing intellectuals seeking to overthrow the Colombian government and install a communist regime. As a rural insurgency, most of their war has been fought in the countryside, just as their political aspirations have revolved mostly around agrarian reform.
While they may not have come close to achieving their objective they have shown remarkable stamina, holding out against the Colombian state, which has the largest army on the continent, for over half a century. They control as much as a third of the country’s territory. The FARC continues to see itself as a revolutionary Marxist organization, but it now envisages a different future, one that doesn’t involve the violent overthrow of the state.
Signing the peace accord is the first hurdle. The decision will go before Colombia’s voters in a referendum. Meanwhile, the FARC will retreat to undisclosed “concentration zones” in the countryside for six months, during a disarmament process supervised by the United Nations.
None of the 7,000 active FARC fighters are supposed to leave their zones during this transitional period. This already complicated process relies on both sides maintaining the ceasefire, and on the FARC getting all of its units on board with the peace process.
Peace brings its own security concerns. Once they disarm, the FARC will have to rely on the army for protection. In the past, de-mobilized guerrilla groups have not fared well in Colombia. A previous attempt at political reintegration by the Patriotic Union, a lefist group affiliated with the FARC, and the M19 guerrilla group, resulted in the murder of thousands of political activists.
Commander Mauricio: 'The Doc'
At a table in the center of camp sits Commander Mauricio, 60, who is one of the FARC’s seven-member Secretariat.
He doesn't wear military fatigues or a weapon like all the other fighters, but instead a white T-shirt and trousers. The fighters regard him as a father-like figure who appears solemn but is quick to smile and is treated with universal reverence. Dutifully at his side sits Byron, his second-in-command, some 20 years his junior.
Mauricio explains that he joined the war at age 24, after studying medicine, which is where he got his nickname, El Medico – "The Doc." After 36 years at war, Mauricio says he believes it's time for the FARC to “transform itself” into a political party. He's confident it is now possible.
Mauricio was a key figure in the peace negotiations when they first began more than four years ago, by helping to hammer out a compromise with the government that paved the way to further dialogue. “We need to be sensitive to people who have feared us, but weapons are not the only obstacle to peace,” says Mauricio, diplomatically.
In a civil war that has claimed over 250,000 lives and displaced six million people, the conflict has left a polarized and suspicious society – just as it has left the FARC wary of the government. Numerous peace talks have broken down in the past. “But it is time to make this happen,” Mauricio assures, noting that an international coalition of states including Cuba, Norway and the United States are backing it.
Mauricio denies that the FARC are giving up the fight. “This is a resurgence. It’s about implementing a project to transform society,” he says.
As he pours coffee for his guests, he mentions that the European Union had expressed interest in helping the FARC’s transformation effort. “We’re looking for international support… but we need to produce for ourselves, we’re not going to wait for handouts,” he says.
Since the late 1980s, the FARC has relied largely on the cocaine trade to fund its insurgency, along with kidnappings for ransom and a “revolutionary tax.” The tax functioned as an extortion on any economic activities that went on it its territory. A liter of milk would be taxed 10 percent, for instance, while a hotel owner would need to pay a premium for the profit they made annually. The FARC has since renounced kidnappings, and on July 5 it announced it would put an end to its “revolutionary tax.”
How the FARC are going to fund their political organization is a huge challenge, admits Mauricio. “We were peasants and farmers but the culture of cocaine did away with everything,” he says candidly.
“But we can produce for ourselves, we have done so in the past… Colombia can return to a country that produces its own food,” he adds.
The coffee he serves is no Juan Valdez, he says proudly, referring to a popular commercial brand in Colombia. “It’s FARC coffee.”
The government recently introduced a pilot scheme to replace coca crops with coffee and passion fruit plantations. Another scheme that the president recently suggested was to turn FARC fighters who wanted to stay in the countryside into park rangers.
“It's a good idea,” says Mauricio, “But we need guarantees.” Mauricio worries the state will hand over the land for commercial use and bypass the FARC’s claims to farm it . “There are already multinational companies ready to seize on our land for oil exploration ... But local communities are organizing against this,” he says.
The FARC fighters are in the last week of a three-month course on “political ideology." It is part of an initiative to give the fighters comprehensive education in the lead up to peace, beyond basic literacy and numeracy skills, which most of the fighters have, assures Mauricio.
The course involves everything from biology to Microsoft Word and creative writing. This also includes an update and explanation of the latest peace negotiations, which the students are encouraged to comment on. Their reflections, they are told, will be relayed back to the leadership in Havana (where the peace talks are being held) for them to deliberate on.
Despite the excitement of a peaceful return to civilian life, the prospect of leaving the camp is troubling, if not traumatic. Much like American soldiers returning to civilian life after deployment in Iraq, combatants face internal demons, the deep psychological scars of war.
Alejandro Eder, director of the Colombian Agency for Reconciliation in Colombia (ACR), an organization that has helped reintegrate thousands of paramilitary troops and ex-guerrillas into society, believes the FARC and ELN are ready for demobilization despite the challenges that await. "The first thing we do [as an agency] is to stabilize the combatants psychologically and emotionally; that can take on average two to three years per person,” Eder, said during an event at Council of the Americas in New York.
The ACR targets the psychological effects of militancy and helps combatants learn societal rules, and provides them with skills with which to enter the working economy. Though Colombia has a low rate of demobilized fighters relapsing back into violence (10%, according to Eder), the biggest challenge is overcoming the lure of the drug trade, which offers immediate gains to middle-level commanders hoping to rise through the ranks.
"The challenge is working with society, not just with the guerrillas," says Eder. "Usually their families shun them… so we have to work with families too.”
Efrain, a 32-year-old guerrilla who’s been fighting since he was 13, says he has never been to a city or even a small town, and is used to life in the jungle. But he is prepared to do whatever is necessary for “the revolution,” adding he'd like to help the poor in the city. "I don’t want to see people hungry,” he says.
He sings along to the radio every morning and later confides that he’d like to be a “revolutionary singer."
Combatants head to class in an earthen bunker, which holds around 30 students. The students receive an update on the peace negotiations in Havana, Cuba. Inside, it is humid and dim. A single light bulb, powered by the camp generator, dangles overhead. The teachers – a man and woman team, both political cadres from the clandestine urban arm of the FARC – sit rigidly at the front, wearing military fatigues, explaining the latest peace accords point by point.
“There’s not going to be a complete agrarian reform," says the male teacher. He warns: “We can only go so far with the talks.”
The fighters sit comfortably, resting their arms on one another or affectionately playing with one another’s hair while listening. Some giggle, others take notes. “What is going to come out of the talks is the minimum that a constitutional republic deserves; our struggle is taking care of the rest.” What the “rest” means isn't clear, but the commander hints that social movements will play a key part in the “transformation.”
His fellow teacher, Violeta, is a small figure cut from steel. Unsmiling, she avoids eye contact with the journalists present.
She talks of the "political-ideological fight" ahead. "We have to fight the media who lie and say only one percent of Colombians follow us; they are scared of the truth, because they know that the majority of the people support us."
The fight she is referring to is now largely a public relations war, and the presence of journalists in the camp is partial testament to that. Until recently, the FARC was referred to almost exclusively as “narco-terrorists” by the media, and the FARC itself was extremely wary of outsiders, including journalists.
Public support is also important as the government is facing opposition to the peace process from the hawkish former president, Alvaro Uribe, who is touring the country collecting signatures against it. He’s also called on civil society to resist the referendum. Right-wing paramilitaries who have battled the guerrillas for the past two decades also held a 24-hour “armed strike” against the peace process, which ground the country to a halt.
Game of Thrones in the jungle
In its jungle camps, the FARC may give the appearance of being out of the loop, but Isabela insists that the guerrillas have done their best to keep up with reality outside. “We’re not completely cut off,” she says over lunch one day. The fighters have kept up with the latest news and culture from the outside world via the internet, she says, and also watch popular movies and television series.
“We like 'Game of Thrones,'” she exclaims, “and I’ve just started 'True Detective.'” Isabela is noticeably worldlier than the rest of the guerrillas. She is also one of the few women to have taken part in the peace talks in Havana. In 2014, she went to Cuba and stayed for a year as part of the FARC delegation there.
Such exposure to life in the capital city of another country is rare. Most fighters have never even seen a big town in their native Colombia.
Now that peace seems to be around the corner, the guerrillas are imagining ways they can have a constructive role in a new society they hope to build.
Practical steps will have to be overcome. Being a member of the insurgency still carries a minimum jail term of 10 years. Most fighters have no civilian ID and long ago stopped using their real names, instead choosing a nomme de guerre.
Sirley, a 26-year-old guerrillera, wears a military cap atop her long dark hair, which almost reaches her waist. “I like to dance. Cumbia is my favorite dance.”
In her spare time she reads and sews, embroidering patterns on her gear like many of the fighters at the camp, she says. After peace, she says she'll do whatever ordered to do. "But," she says, "I’d like to help kids or the elderly as a nurse, since they need the most help."
Sirley studied medicine under the tutelage of the commander. And several other female fighters in the camp are also studying medicine under Mauricio, she says. “Maybe it’s because we’re more patient than the guys,” she laughs.
Brenda, a strong-looking 29-year-old guerrilla, is one of the oldest fighters in the camp, and one of the most qualified nurses. She would like to become a surgeon if given the chance.
“We are going to use these next few months to experiment with ideas for our legal formation as a party,” says Byron, the deputy commander of the front. As he speaks, Byron stops constantly to cough. Even after many years in the jungle, he explaines, he hasn't gotten used to the humidity. He wears a soccer shirt for the Colombian club Millonarios over a big belly and cargo pants tucked into rubber boots.
“But we’re not all just going home after this, it’s going to be an orderly process.”