[News] Inside the FARC: Colombia's guerilla fighters
news at freedomarchives.org
Tue May 31 13:50:22 EDT 2011
Inside the FARC: Colombia's guerilla fighters
Despite many of their leaders being killed in
recent years, armed rebels show no sign of giving up their fight.
Penhaul Last Modified: 30 May 2011 17:51
Fire spits from the muzzle of a Russian-made
machine gun. Assault rifles join the fray.
Leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC) guerrillas and Colombian counterinsurgency
troops trade shots across a gorge.
On a nearby plateau, 100 metres of thick brush
separate two other rebel squads from their adversaries.
Grenades echo as they explode.
"It's tough fighting in all this mud," said a
guerrilla named "Adrian", who flinched with every
shot he or his comrades fired. " This is to slow
the army's advance. Within two or three days
they'll take up new positions and we'll fight them," he added.
The battleground that day was an insignificant
hilltop in El Porvenir, a tiny hamlet in eastern
Meta province. The firefight lasted close to an
hour - another skirmish in a string of anonymous
battles that, these days, rarely make the media headlines.
Another testimony, too, to the cat-and-mouse
nature of this, Colombia's almost five-decade-old conflict.
On paper, government security forces currently appear to have the upper hand.
The lethal 2008 strike on Raul Reyes, a member of
the FARC's seven-man leadership council, was a
warning of the devastating military air campaign ahead.
Months later, the army's "Operation Checkmate"
freed kidnapped former presidential candidate
Ingrid Betancourt and 14 fellow hostages and was
a severe blow to the FARC's domestic and international political ambitions.
Then, when the air force - backed by army and
police commandos - killed the FARC's top field
marshal Jorge Briceno, alias "Mono Jojoy", in a
"pinpoint attack" in September 2010, the
government began to trumpet the end of the road
for the rebel force. Officials estimate FARC
membership has dropped from more than 20,000
fighters a decade ago to fewer than 7,000 now.
The guerrillas themselves have not published their own figures.
In April, the head of the Colombian armed forces,
Admiral Edgar Cely, said: "The FARC is in its
death throes - although this perverse
organisation refuses to believe that and fights
using terrorism, explosives and minefields."
Those military setbacks in the years following
the collapse of peace talks in 2002 propelled the
FARC back to the depths of the jungle, virtually beyond the reach of the media.
It was only after several weeks of driving an old
Jeep through remote corners of eastern and
southern Colombia, leaving notes in obscure
farmhouses, that I was able to reestablish contact with the guerrillas.
When they responded it was with a rare invite to
spend ten days marching alongside one of their
so-called "mobile companies", a unit whose main function is to fight.
Despite the string of recent defeats inflicted by
the government, none of the 54 young men and
women combatants of this FARC unit, the
"Marquetalia Company", were talking about surrender.
"Mono Jojoy dies and it's like everybody is dead.
Comrade Manuel Marulanda (a veteran FARC leader)
dies and again it's like everybody is dead.
That's what they think but it's not true," said
"Jagwin", commander of the newly reformed
Marquetalia Company. At 35, he's the oldest in
the unit. He said he was the son of peasant
farmers and joined rebel ranks some 20 years ago.
"We're sad because Mono Jojoy was like a father
to us. But it's like what happens at home if your
father dies, there's always a brother who will
replace him and run the farm," he added.
The conversation with "Jagwin" is cut short.
An Blackhawk helicopter gunship clatters
overhead, searching for the rebel column that
just attacked army troops in El Porvenir. As it
whirls overhead it spits up to 4,000 rounds a
minute into the jungle canopy from its six-barrel Gatling gun.
The rebels call this helicopter the "harpy", a
reference to the violent winged spirits of Greek mythology.
The Marquetalia Company pulls back with just one walking wounded.
Colombia's war is not a war of positions. In
hamlets like El Porvenir there is little to
defend. Steep cattle pastures, a humble
schoolhouse with broken-down desks and pockets of thick rainforest.
The retreat is laboured. After heavy tropical
storms, mud is ankle deep. Fighters clamber up
and down slippery hillsides carrying backpacks
full of clothes, ammunition and food - weighing around 30kg.
Camp that night was a banana grove. Government aircraft constantly circled.
Guerrilla commanders ordered a total blackout and
confiscated flashlights from fighters. All spoke in hushed voices.
As they listened to engines droning overhead they
would whisper "the explorer", reference to a
reconnaissance plane, or "the pig", a Vietnam-era
AC-47 gunship bristling with weaponry and night vision equipment.
Their lives depend on spotting those aircraft in time and avoiding detection.
Under the tin roof of an abandoned peasant shack,
Jagwin explained how he survived an aerial bombardment.
It was past midnight back in August 2009. He and
his comrades heard the whine of a fleet of
fighter-bombers approach and then their camp
exploded in flashes of light and a storm of
shrapnel. He saw the silhouettes of fellow
fighters and heard their screams as they tried to flee.
"Our only option was to dive into the trenches.
When the bombardment started we practically
buried ourselves in those holes and when they
started to strafe with gunfire and troops began
disembarking then we ran to escape," he said.
In that attack alone, he said, 33 of his fellow guerrillas were killed.
Willinton, deputy commander of the Marquetalia
Company, has also felt the fury of air raids. He
gave few details but confessed that he had no
option but to leave dead and wounded behind a taboo in any military force.
"It's tough to have to flee the battlefield or
escape a bombardment and leave wounded or dead
companions behind. They were my comrades. It's
tough but it was an exceptional circumstance.
Sometimes you just have to do what you can to escape," he said.
For that reason, this night and every night,
commanders briefed combatants - and me - about
evacuation routes in case of bombardment. They
instructed us on using shallow riverbeds and
small foxholes dug alongside their sleeping
quarters to shelter from a potential shower of shrapnel.
The following two days were a series of gruelling marches.
These combatants were mostly in their twenties,
from poor backgrounds and very fit.
But rainy season had set in in Meta province and
they advanced at little more than two kilometers an hour.
Nobody was much in the mood for talking en route,
weary under backpacks, assault rifles and mortar tubes.
Their rubber boots squelched, half-filled with
brackish river water, half-filled with sweat.
Vast tree roots formed natural staircases down
muddy banks. Electric blue butterflies flit
between the trees. Howler monkeys swung overhead
and occasionally lobbed down branches.
With limited access to TV and radio and marching
for days under a thick jungle canopy, it's easy
to lose track of time. Days become weeks and
blend into years. The FARC's revolution has become a war with no apparent end.
Beyond the confines of the rainforest, these
young men and women would have been part of the
Twitter generation. Yet most, like 21-year-old
Eliana, had joined rebel ranks before they were
15 and were way too poor to afford a computer.
Eliana said she joined the FARC when she was just
13. She ran away from home after a fight with her
mother and roamed the streets of an eastern
Colombian town "getting into trouble", as she
described - without further elaboration.
She's slim built and admitted she could "hardly
carry the groceries home from the store" before
becoming a guerrilla. Now she boasts she can
march for days with a 30kg backpack and her AK-47
assault rifle. She's also developed a love of gunfights.
"I know I wasn't born to live forever. So when
there's a fight I move forward and blast away.
That way my nerves disappear. I'm always careful
though to save one or two magazines for the
retreat in case there's any trouble," Eliana explained.
That bristling confidence evaporates into a
girlish giggle when I ask her if she's ever heard of Facebook or Twitter.
"I have no idea what Facebook is and I've never heard of Twitter," she said.
One morning during a break in the march, company
commander Jagwin explained the FARC has managed
to keep arms supply routes open.
He was sporting a new assault rifle he said was a
South Korean-made version of the US military's M-16.
That, he said, had been smuggled into Colombia in
oil barrels the cost some 17 million pesos ($10,000).
The Russian-made PKM machine-gun used in the
firefight at El Porvenir was also new.
And the previous afternoon, Jagwin had taken
delivery of 100 rounds for a multiple grenade
launcher. Price tag - 140,000 pesos ($83) each, he said.
All the ammunition appeared to be stamped with
the brand and serial numbers of Indumil, the state-run munitions factory.
Getting hold of 81mm mortar bombs was proving a
little more problematic, he confessed. A weapons
smuggler was demanding 500,000 pesos ($295) each, he said.
As the latest rainstorm subsided, Jagwin issued orders to a four-man unit.
Scouts indicated the army was once again close by
and he had decided to employ what is probably the
most controversial weapon in the FARC's armory homemade landmines.
"We use these mines to slow the enemy advance. We
place them in the path of the army. Once they've
passed we go and collect them again," Jagwin said.
Prior to the year 2000, all sides in Colombia's
conflict used anti-personnel mines.
Since the Colombian government ratified the
Ottawa Convention to ban landmines in 2000, the
main culprits have been the FARC.
Colombia's legacy is bloody with one of the
highest number of landmine victims after Afghanistan.
Latin America analyst Colin Harding speaks to Al Jazeera
According to Colombian government figures, more
than 7,000 people were mutilated by mines between
1990 and 2010 - and around 2,000 were killed. Of
the total 9,000 victims, about two-thirds were
military personnel and the remaining third were civilians.
A young fighter spread around 20 mines on the
grass each with a diameter of about eight
centimeters, made from a short section of PVC
piping and packed with explosives.
"Take the GPS and mark where youre placing the
mines. Give them each a name, for example, Flower
One, Flower Two etc so you can find them again,"
Willinton instructed as he helped prime the devices.
"We tell the peasants they should not move around
after a certain time of day or in certain areas," Jagwin said.
It's a warning that is clearly far from
effective. In the first two months of this year,
23 civilians fell victim to landmines.
Hearts and minds
The company's destination was a wooden shack
nestled in the jungle. Pasted on the wall was a
hand-written poster with the words "Jorge Briceño Civic-Military Brigade".
Guerrillas from a sister unit had set up a clinic
to offer dental treatment and minor surgeries to
peasant farmers and their families.
Plastic camouflage ponchos formed walls around
the dental surgery. Another poncho marked the
entrance to a side room where FARC medics set up,
ready to operate using local anesthesia.
A civilian mother brought her three children
along. Her previous attempt to get them treated
by a civilian dentist in the town of La Julia,
about three hours away, was a wasted journey.
"I took them to town but the nurse who pulls out
teeth was not there that day so I had to bring
them home," said the woman. She, like others at
the FARC clinic, said dental treatment in town is
free but poor quality under a government-subsidised health scheme.
While rebel clinics like these may be a useful
stopgap measure for poor peasants, they are
unlikely to be a comprehensive long-term solution
to the precarious health conditions of Colombia's isolated rural communities.
Clearly this is a campaign by the FARC to win civilian "hearts and minds".
"What we're always looking to do is to win the
support of the masses. Whoever wins the masses,
wins the war. We also do this because we're
working for the people," said Yesid, one of the rebel medics.
Its a time-honoured tactic by any military
force, especially those engaged in guerrilla warfare.
The clinic had already been operating for around
an hour that day and a dozen civilians had
gathered. Then news came that the army was
approaching - treatment would have to be suspended immediately.
Art of war
The predicted clash with advancing army troops
never took place. Guerrilla scouts had no clear
idea of how many soldiers there were or their exact route.
Instead, the Marquetalia Company opted to move
camp and outmanoeuvre its opponents.
"In a guerrilla war you choose where you will
fight. We decide we can fight here or not, or
decide to ambush them somewhere else," said
Jagwin, expounding one of the key tenets of the
art of guerrilla war. It's a sign this low-tempo
conflict could drag on indefinitely, at least here in the countryside.
A day later the guerrilla clinic was back in
business, several kilometers away.
By early morning there was already a list of 17
adults and children hoping for treatment.
There's no electricity in this region. Only a
lucky few have portable generators or a solar panel.
So seeing neighbours having teeth pulled or
getting sliced open for minor surgeries proved to
be as much an attraction as TV for patients and idle onlookers alike.
A little girl watched her neighbour, "Don Luis",
a peasant farmer, getting a hernia fixed.
Shafts of light streamed through the wood board
walls. Medic Yesid and his three assistants
worked under the light from battery-powered
headlamps. The operating table was a wooden board
partly propped up on a tree stump.
Once surgery started, the medics had no option
except to continue even if the army staged a surprise attack.
"If bombs start to fall or bullets start to fly
we don't have much choice. We have to finish the
job because we can't just leave the patient cut
open on the operating table," medic Yesid said.
In an adjacent room, dentist Marta pulled teeth
and replaced fillings. She has been in the FARC
for 19 years and, like many others here, said she
had joined up when she was just a child.
"I only studied until third grade in primary
school. My mum abandoned us when I was just six
and she left us with an alcoholic uncle," Marta explained.
"I used to sell ice-creams in the wholesale food
market and scrounged for food for my brother.
Then I went to work with my brother in Meta
province on a farm - and that's where I came into
contact with the guerrillas," she said.
Marta said she dreamed of becoming a dentist in
civilian life when the conflict ended.
But she is adamant she will only lay down her
weapon once the FARC takes power. That may seem
like a hopeless illusion to the Colombian government and political analysts.
But Marta and her comrades cannot contemplate any other option.
"Some day this has to come to an end. Maybe I
won't see live to see that day but it will come,"
she said. "I can't believe my struggle has been in vain."
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