Out of the Jungle Colombia Tries to Tame FARC Guerillas
For 50 years, the Colombian guerilla group FARC fought for a leftist revolution. Now the group is laying down its weapons and the state is trying to transform the fighters into normal citizens. For many of them, that is more frightening than the war.
Every morning at precisely 10 a.m., the generator rattles to life, bringing internet to the middle of the jungle and to the FARC rebels who have left their rebellion behind. Somebody from the government set up a satellite dish so that these former fighters can be pulled back into the contemporary world, warriors who spent years, decades, cut off from civilization without the web, without telephones, living almost like a tribe of natives. The only difference being the fact that they were constantly under fire and surrounded by booby-traps and minefields.
The small light on the satellite receiver begins blinking, signaling that Wi-Fi has arrived and that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other digital treats are now available in the jungle. And of course, the obligatory happens here too: They become immediately addicted. Just one month ago, they were a people's army working in 34-degree Celsius (93-degree Fahrenheit) heat and 100 percent humidity and who didn't know what Google was.
Now that peace has broken out, they are prohibited from carrying out military exercises and lie in their wooden huts, many of them with a mobile phone in their hands - second-hand models that were a recent gift from the state. Cell phones were taboo in their previous lives, for fear that their enemy could track them. Now, they stare at the displays of their new devices and learn how to "like" Rihanna videos and attract new friends on Facebook that they don't even know. Such are the first steps back to the present.
Colombia has embarked upon a unique experiment, a bold mission of peace aimed at leaving its blood-drenched past behind. It is a kind of domestication, a process of turning savage fighters into responsible citizens. To do so, FARC bases across the country are being morphed into re-education camps. This one, in the far south of the country near the border with Ecuador, is roughly the size of a football field and hosts 80 former guerillas - former explosives experts, snipers, reconnaissance experts and torture specialists. They have fought against the government as members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, since their childhoods.
Until recently, fighters like Willington Ortíz, Cazika Atahualpa and Edwin Cano were terrorists. Now they present a problem. Can a gang of Marxist-Leninist enemies of the state, a group that has spent their lives being hunted by the government, be turned into well-behaved Colombians?
Potato Cultivation and Contraception
The first step was to send professional aid workers into the jungle. Now the guerilla camp, with its plastic tarps and wooden shacks, is full of doctors, nurses, teachers, psychologists and social workers. The fighters are discovering that peace requires at least as many people as war does.
The doctors examine the men and women in a small, green tent beneath the towering rubber trees, discovering herniated disks, osteoarthritis, rheumatism, typhoid fever, damaged ligaments and malaria. They sometimes find themselves wondering how such wrecks were even able to fight. The psychologists end up with myriad questions of their own. How can a person join a jungle war at 14 and still keep fighting at the age of 50 without completely losing their minds? The guerilleros, in short, are being studied like a previously undiscovered people from the Amazon basin.
The most important part of the project, however, is education. Using machetes and an old chainsaw, a kind of assembly hall with no walls was erected out of felled trees, and furnished with tables and chairs. The curriculum includes the Colombian electoral system, the best way to cultivate potatoes, magazine photography and methods of contraception. And, just as important: What is Netflix?
When they're not surfing the web, the guerilleros sit in the assembly hall. Up front, an agriculture expert with dreadlocks is explaining the fascinating world of land cultivation. "When this here is finished in a few months," she says, " you will turn in your weapons and perhaps start a self-sufficient commune." It sounds like a pie-in-the sky plan from a European environmentalist, but it is the only one Colombia has.
Peace arrived on a sunny day in September of last year. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the leader of FARC, Timoleón Jiménez, stood on a stage in the city of Cartagena, both in white shirts, shook hands and held up a treaty ending a war that had lasted five decades without producing a winner. Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. As defense minister, he had spent years dropping bombs on the jungle while his counterpart Jiménez stands accused by state prosecutors of being responsible for more than 100 murders.
The fight between the Colombian state and FARC began in 1966 and ultimately became the longest guerilla war in Latin America, a demoralizing orgy of unrestrained violence. The statistics only hint at the true horror: Over 5 million people displaced from their homes, 200,000 deaths and 10,000 people either disappeared or kidnapped. The conflagration had several parties, including FARC, the military, the right-wing paramilitaries, the competing drug cartels and other criminal groups.
But that is in the past. Now is the time for peace and reconciliation. The peace deal calls for the almost 7,000 FARC fighters to hand in their weapons by June and a few hundred have already done so. President Santos promised generous amnesties, political participation and aid to those wanting to return home. FARC head Jiménez emphasized that "hearts and minds" would also be disarmed. Many other promises were made as well: land reform would soon take place, along with a peace tribunal and a truth commission. FARC was to become a normal, boring political party and the former rebels were to become settled, politically involved and, some of them perhaps, elected members of parliament. And of course, the entire world applauded in approval. Everybody likes a happy ending.
Boris, Too, is Human
Boris Forero, who recently turned 50, has the face and the bald head of a prize fighter. On this spring-like Monday morning in Bogotá, he isn't in the mood for a happy ending. He sits in a loose-fitting black suit as waiters in livery hurry past him. He has been invited to speak at a reception in a luxury hotel held by the Agencia Colombiana para la Reintegración (ACR), the state agency responsible for the resocialization of the former FARC fighters.
Boris used to be a member of FARC, but deserted years ago. He tells the audience about his experiences: "If there is one message I wish to leave you with, then this," he says from the stage. "We are people too."
The audience is made up of representatives from companies and agencies, all dressed formally in suits. They aren't from the top levels of their organization, and were presumably ordered to attend by their bosses. The ACR would like to convince them to provide jobs to former FARC fighters. Colombians are extremely polite people and many of the attendees effusively promise to consider the idea. Later, at the buffet, some of them can be heard wondering how you fire somebody who knows how to assemble a Kalashnikov in their sleep.
Boris spent almost 20 years as a member of FARC, spending extended time in battle and receiving several gunshot wounds. At some point, he realized he no longer knew why he had joined in the first place. Eleven years ago, he returned to civilization and studied psychology. Now, he occasionally speaks with FARC deserters on behalf of the agency, trying to explain to them what freedom is and peace means. He should know if the current transformation is possible, if the savage beasts can be tamed.
"I don't know anything. Except that these poor devils have no idea what is awaiting them here and how damned difficult it will be," he says. "FARC marks you. War is your entire life. Five years passed between the moment when I resolved to leave and the moment when I finally left. FARC is a strange group, but it is the only thing in the life of a guerillero that resembles family."
More than anything, FARC provided a home to all manner of different people. Genuinely staunch warriors fought alongside others who were slowly becoming corrupt and still others who were outright criminals. The majority, though, always consisted of the desperate, the lost souls for whom the rebel life was still the best of many terrible options. People like Edwin Cano.
Edwin Doesn't Get It Yet
Edwin is a shy man. He lies in his shelter sending smileys to the three numbers that he has saved on his phone. When a social worker asked the 30-year-old yesterday what he wanted to be, he said that someone in the assembly hall had spoken about photography and he thought it sounded interesting. "But I'm not the one to decide if I will become a photographer or not. The party decides."
Edwin appears not to have understood the crucial point: The peace plan means that FARC will disappear and the fighters will be free to do as they like. That means that each one of them can decide themselves if they will become a photographer, a floor tiler or a table dancer. And it means that most of them won't care what becomes of Edwin, and neither will the party.
Edwin doesn't get it yet. The guerilla group has taken care of him for his entire life. He was 13 years old when he joined and FARC taught him to read and write. They fed him, gave him clothes and sewed his face back together after it was torn apart by a mine. Edwin's parents were farm workers who sent him away because they couldn't afford to feed him. That's why he's here.
It is shortly before noon and Boris Forero is still sitting in the luxury hotel. The conference has come to an end and he has no further plans for the day and nothing on the agenda for tomorrow either. It is a good moment to talk about his past. "Life in the FARC collective meant that many decisions are made for you. Mistakes have consequences, you know what they are, you endure them and life goes on. There is something soothing about it. It's uncomplicated."
Ever since Boris stopped fighting, he has had nervous tics. He can't keep his hands still, always rubbing a finger or scratching his face. "Everybody has scars. You can see some of them, but others you can't," he says. Boris has both. His arms and back look like someone had cut out bits using a kitchen knife, the result of a fragmentary bomb.
Other Groups Wait to Swoop In
War is like an engine; it needs fuel. Hate is a good one, but it loses strength over time. The only thing that really makes war last is money. The war against FARC may be over, but the drug war will continue for as long as there is demand for cocaine in America and Europe.
FARC may have called themselves freedom fighters and wrapped their consciences in leftist ideals, but in truth, they were one of the largest drug cartels on the planet. They are believed to have controlled around 60 percent of the Colombian drug industry. The EU listed the group as a terror organization, one which made around a billion dollars per year.
If FARC really doesn't want that money anymore, someone else will surely step in. Recently, FARC fighters who aren't interested in a life as a bus driver, an unemployed photographer or a cassava farmer have begun deserting. Mexican cartels are active in Colombia, and they aren't beckoning followers with "The Communist Manifesto." They are waving bundles of cash.
There is also another possible employer in the jungle: the so-called National Liberation Army, or ELN, which stands for Ejército de Liberación. The group is essentially FARC's little sister. The government is also negotiating with ELN, thus far unsuccessfully, because it is clear to all involved that the ELN could occupy the suddenly available FARC territories and that FARC fighters uninterested in a life of legality could find a new home in the group.
The Colombian cocaine industry, in any case, hasn't suffered under the new peace deal. On the contrary, Colombia has never before produced so much of the drug. Experts estimate that supply has climbed by a third since 2015 to 710 tons per year. Fully 188,000 hectares (465,000 acres) of Colombian territory is now covered in coca fields, twice as much as in 2012. It is an area two times as big as the city-state of Berlin.
Willington Understands the Hate
It is shortly after midnight in the jungle camp. The generator has been turned off and a few howler monkeys seem to miss the ruckus and are screeching into the darkness. Beneath the tarps, the mobile phone displays go dark. Willington Ortíz switches on his flashlight and oils his weapon.
He is an officer with FARC and will soon be 50 years old. He is a quiet, sick man with extremely nervous eyes. His back is a disaster and his constant cough is testimony to 30 years spent in the rain forest. A small monkey is jumping around at the foot of his bed, his pet. "You civilians have pets too, don't you?" Willington asks.
Of course things can't continue as they were, Willington says wearily. Of course he hated the bombing raids carried out by the government troops; the helicopters flying above the tree tops as he lay in the mud and waited; the constant marches carrying 60 kilograms (130 pounds) on his back. Part of waging a guerilla war is that the enemy can never know where you are. Willington suffers from his inability to fall into a deep sleep. Then again, good sleepers die young, because they don't hear the danger coming.
"The worst thing is that they are all dead." His comrades, his parents who he last saw when he was 17, his trainers, Fidel Castro, the revolution.
To most Colombians, people like Willington Ortíz are terrorists and murderers. Willington understands that. He shot and killed many soldiers and confiscated their weapons , including the M16 that he cleans every day, on behalf of FARC. The dead soldiers have parents, siblings and children. Willington is aware that many people have good reasons for hating him, but he has long wondered why people like him are called "terrorists" while his old enemies from the army are called "soldiers." Aren't wars waged by the poor always called terrorism? And isn't the terrorism perpetrated by the rich always called war?
Willington Ortíz joined FARC because of a girl. He was 17 at the time and his father's coffee plantation near Cali was waiting for him. His name was Alex Vargas at the time, Willington Ortíz is his nom de guerre, given to him in the jungle. But the girl he had met wasn't interested in coffee. She spoke of class warfare, of a just Colombia and of FARC, a people's army that kidnapped Colombians and helped Pablo Escobar flood America with cocaine to raise money for the revolución.
Willington didn't know much about liberating the people, but he loved the way the young woman's lips pursed when she said revolución. He joined the guerilleros along with her.
That was 33 years ago. Of the 100 recruits who joined alongside Willington - a group that would soon become much more than mere comrades - only he is still alive, he says. Willington's girlfriend was torn to pieces by a bomb just a few weeks after joining. It didn't take long for him to find a good reason for going to war.
Willington angrily slams the laptop shut in front of him. That afternoon, someone had explained to him what Facebook is, but he already hates the internet, after reading several inaccurate reports about FARC. "There are lies there, in this Facebook," he says. His motivation to hand over his M16 hasn't risen since he's been online.
Willington Ortíz is thinking of joining the soon-to-be-formed party, but he isn't the only one who recognizes the dangers of doing so. For years, environmentalists, human-rights activists and farming representatives have been murdered in Colombia. A left-wing agrarian reform of the kind they have been promised, a fairer distribution of land, cannot simply be agreed upon in this country. It must be paid for in blood. Everyone in this camp who is considering going into politics has the same fear: of being shot to death while waiting for a bus or standing behind a speaker's podium.
Cazika Wants to Return to Her Children
Peace does certainly have its positive sides, something the guerilleros recognize as well. In the camp, warm meals are served three times a day and there is music on Sundays. Early in the day, it's revolutionary songs like "The Internationale" or "Hasta Siempre Comandante." Shakira takes over in the afternoons.
Cazika Atahualpa, an attractive woman with dark eyes, is one of the few that is excited about peace. Her husband, Ramiro Durn, is currently the unit's "Secretary for Agitation and Propaganda."
Cazika has two children and when the camp schooling comes to an end, she says, she will be able to return to them. Currently, they are living with Ramiro's parents. Cazika and her husband were just there for a visit not long ago. José is seven and she didn't see him for six years following his birth. Their second child is just a few months old. It was already clear when she became pregnant that FARC wouldn't be around for much longer. In fact, six women in the camp are pregnant.
"You're not allowed to have children when you are a member of the guerilleros, so initially I didn't tell anybody. In my sixth month of pregnancy, I was still attacking military roadblocks. When my comrades noticed, they were extremely angry. They had to bring me to a hospital because it was a premature birth. Three comrades died on the way."
Cazika is lying on a cot as she tells her story. A doctor's examination revealed that she has typhoid and she is receiving an intravenous saline solution through her arm. The IV bag is hanging on a tree branch above her.
Cazika is a practically minded, direct woman. For her, the future is a gift that she never expected to receive. The future is not something that FARC members had to think about. Those destined to die don't plan for tomorrow; only the present matters.
FARC rules held that, if two fighters began developing a relationship, they had to inform their superior, because he had to know where his charges were at all times. You couldn't do anything without his permission, not smoking, not even falling in love. At the beginning, Cazika was only allowed to visit her Ramiro for two hours a night. Later, she asked for the visits to be expanded. Love was possible, but little consideration was given to relationships. Couples that had spent years together in the same unit, Cazika says, could be divided forever by way of a simple relocation order.
Things were handled differently, says Cazika, in an environment where a slight 17-year-old girl could sustain fire with a G3 assault rifle while the men would scatter like chickens. Courage knows no gender - another tidbit of war wisdom.
Cazika doesn't know what the future holds and nothing has prepared her for freedom. She would like to become a nurse. Her husband Ramiro, a lanky, eloquent man, once studied law for four semesters in Bogotá and was part of the youth chapter of the Communist Party before joining FARC in 2001. He is eyeing a career in politics. His parents have a holiday home on the Pacific coast, which he would describe to Cazika when they were under fire.
"I would like to see it," she says.
Once a Traitor, Always a Traitor
Boris Forero in Bogotá is likely to find himself in luxury hotels less often in the future. He has never managed to find a permanent position as a psychologist and the agency no longer needs him as often. His profile no longer matches the requirements. For the deserters who emerged from the jungle in the years before the peace deal, he was the perfect contact person. He had the same past as they did. But the former fighters that are now coming didn't run away and they see Boris as a turncoat. "They won't talk to me," he says, because he deserted. Once a traitor, always a traitor, even after the war has ended.
Boris gets up, wanting to head home to his not-particularly-nice apartment in a not-particularly-nice section of Bogotá. Boris thought peace would be different, not quite so difficult. Here, in freedom, nobody looks after you. You need money to live and a job that you can't get. You need money for food, electricity, gas, rent and clothes. You even have to spend money so that someone picks up your damned garbage.
Ever since Boris has been living in peace, hardly a day goes by that he doesn't think about the war. It's not that he misses the war, but he often thinks about its pleasant simplicity, its clarity. In war, there are certainties, even if they end in death. Black is black, white is white. But peace is gray.
The peace that Boris has experienced thus far has been more unsettled in its own way than the war, more confusing. On some days, says Boris, it has even been more difficult. Peace, too, is a fight. It is no longer a daily matter of life and death, but it's about the kind of life one leads and whether it is a life worth living.
Boris Forero used to carry a weapon; he was important. He wanted to make the world a better place. Today, he is looking for a job to ensure his survival. For many Colombians, he - and all the others that will come - are just freaks from the jungle who don't even know what Siri is. Several thousand guerilleros are now returning to civilization. Savage fighters. They have lost the war, and many of them won't win the peace either.