[News] Columbia - Life in a FARC Camp

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Sep 4 11:44:54 EDT 2007

Life in a FARC Camp
by Garry Leech / September 1st, 2007

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 makeup.

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 
the hosts asked Terry and I to select the new 
Señorita Colombia. We agreed on Señorita Chocó. 
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.

Garry Leech is an independent journalist and 
editor of the online publication Colombia 
Journal, where this article first appeared, which 
analyzes US foreign policy in Colombia. He also 
teaches international politics at Cape Breton 
University in Nova Scotia, Canada. Read other articles by Garry.

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