‘They think we’re terrorists’: Colombia’s female former guerrilla fighters find no peace

The 2016 ceasefire was supposed to help Farc’s ex-guerrillas reintegrate into society, but with little work and many having been murdered, fear stalks the camps

In a Colombian reintegration camp for former guerrilla fighters, María Rosalba García de Sepúlveda sits beneath a parrot wind chime next to her green and orange shack. Wearing leaf-pattern trousers and eating jam biscuits, she couldn’t be less threatening if she tried. But she feels her life is at risk. “You fear for your security at all times,” the 68-year-old says.

For 43 years Sepúlveda was part of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc – a leftwing guerrilla group founded by farmers that spent five decades fighting the government.

After joining at 18 to escape rural poverty, she rose to become one of the few female commanders, known by her war name “Eliana”. Then, in 2016, a peace deal led her and 13,000 others to demobilise, and she moved to the Pondores reincorporation zone near the Venezuelan border.

Down a dirt track and guarded by soldiers with assault rifles, the camp in La Guajira, northern Colombia, feels like a prison at first. But the 400 or so residents, including 135 former guerrillas and their families, have done their best to make it their own.

The plywood-walled, metal-roofed homes are painted bright colours and small gardens are filled with flowers, dogs and toys. Anti-war murals are everywhere, like the building painted with doves and huge letters: “PAZ”.


Yet beyond the symbols of hope lies discontent. The government promised reintegration camps would be places of safety and opportunity to help battle-hardened former fighters settle back into society. When she first moved here, Sepúlveda saw positives: she resumed the high school studies she never had a chance to complete and moved in with another female ex-guerrilla, whose son affectionately calls her “abuelita” – granny.

But jobs are scant and healthcare provision patchy. “Life here is hard,” says Sepúlveda. “People get sick and the houses are very, very small.” When it rains, water pours through the cracks of the shacks that residents were told would be temporary, and the paths become rivers of sewage and mud. The electricity goes out for 24 hours at a time and the toilets don’t flush. “We were supposed to be here for six months and then be given decent housing,” Sepúlveda says.

As well as frustration, there is fear. When it was signed in Havana, Cuba, six years ago, the peace deal guaranteed the former combatants’ safety. But political violence has risen in Colombia in the last two years, with ex-Farc fighters at heightened risk. Since 2016, 342 have been assassinated, including 11 in July alone – the deadliest month since 2019.

And people at other camps have been killed. In April, a former Farc combatant was shot near a reintegration camp in the southern Cauca region. He had been active in the peace process, making him a possible target of drug gangs, militia groups and ex-Farc dissidents. In other cases, the assailants bypassed checkpoints and killed victims in their homes.

Sepúlveda and her neighbours feel betrayed. Where is the support and security they were promised? “If we had a government with a true desire for peace, it would have been concerned with these things,” she says. “Instead, our comrades are being murdered.”

The feeling that the government has failed to uphold its side of the bargain is echoed across Colombia. And it’s not just ex-guerillas saying it. In January, the country’s top court ordered the government to do more to protect demobilised Farc fighters. The “fundamental rights to life, personal integrity and peace” of ex-combatants had been “ignored”, its judgment said.

The security situation, particularly in rural areas where the Farc’s demobilisation left power vacuums, is “fragile and complicated”, says Dr Julia Zulver, an expert on gender and conflict at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies. “The fighting has been violent and bloody, and in the demobilisation zones in particular, people are afraid. They really feel that they are sitting ducks,” she says.

They also feel deceived. Over the last four years, the government of Iván Duque, who opposed the peace deal signed by his predecessor, failed to prioritise many promised reforms.

Women in particular have been left behind, despite playing a historic role in the peace process. Many felt equal in the Farc, where they made up about a third of fighters, but have since started families and faced pressure to assume traditional roles. Six years on, only about 12% of gender provisions in the peace deal have been implemented compared with 30% overall.

Female members of Farc rest at a camp in the Colombian mountains in 2016 before the ceasefire.
Female members of Farc rest at a camp in the Colombian mountains in 2016 before the ceasefire. Photograph: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images

Reform in rural areas, designed to improve job prospects and reduce inequality, has also lagged. “People were excited about what the peace accord would mean but there’s a lot of disappointment and disillusionment around the actual implementation of what was written,” Zulver says.

Janeidy Martinez is among those struggling to get by. Now 37, she says she joined the Farc at 14 after suffering violence at home. It afforded her opportunities she would not otherwise have had, like learning to read and sew. “To me it was like a school, when all society had taught me was how to be a drug addict,” she says. During the conflict she sewed uniforms; now she makes clothes sold to tourists in cities. Other days she grows herbs and crops as part of a “productive initiative” intended to help ex-combatants become financially independent.

But the work is unstable and doesn’t always pay. Martinez and her coworkers once tried selling sacks of their spoils in a nearby town, but were offered the equivalent of a few dollars. Now they spend days filling small bags with compost, which sell better, but success is not guaranteed. “I want a secure job,” she says.

When we visit as part of a trip with UN Women, the mood in Pondores is particularly sombre. A few weeks earlier soldiers from the Colombian army raided a visitor centre and confiscated Farc memorabilia used in tourism projects teaching people what life in the guerrilla group was like.

The attack was called an act of “provocation” by Comunes, the political party that succeeded the Farc. For Martinez, it was state violence that decimated a potential revenue source in an area where there are few. “They’re stigmatising us and hurting us all,” she says.

While some press on in rural areas, the poor economic prospects have led many ex-guerrillas to leave the reintegration camps and take their chances in the cities. Among those trying their luck in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, is Sandra Patricia Velasco, 32. After joining the Farc at 17 she spent all her adult life in its ranks, roaming mountains, sleeping in jungle camps and training as a nurse administering battlefield first aid. “You see a lot of very hard things, like your friends being killed during combat, or very badly injured. It’s war. It becomes normal,” she says. After the peace deal she moved to Bogotá, shed her nom de guerre, Lizeth, and traded her military routine of 4am starts, strength training and weapons maintenance for life in the city. She is doing things for herself, like “dressing well, going out for dinner, and dancing”.

But adapting has been hard. It took her two years to get a job. Despite having nursing experience, she was excluded from healthcare work; jobs with children and families were also out of bounds. “People don’t see us as humans,” she says. “They think we are terrorists who are still looking for war.”

Velasco eventually found work as a bodyguard, but is always looking over her shoulder. “Our security is weakened because they have killed many ex-combatants. What was the cause of their murders?” she asks. “I feel very insecure.”

At the Bogotá headquarters for Comunes, surrounded by posters of the revolutionary leader Che Guevara, Alejandra Tellez is similarly unsettled. The 37-year-old – nickname “la chiqui” or “the little one” – joined the guerrillas at 15 because she was angry about the violence she saw growing up, which she says included the murder of a community leader and the torture of her mother after her family was suspected of working with ELN, a rebel group.

Now she is adapting to domestic life, with her own child, Henry, four – “un hijo de la paz”, or a baby of the peace.

Both she and Velasco are friendly but speak frankly about their time in the Farc. Did the conflict impact them psychologically? No. Did they face violence by other Farc combatants, as others reportedly did? No. Do they feel regret or sadness at their part in the armed conflict? No. Should they?

Sandra Patricia Velasco, a nurse, found it hard to get a job in healthcare, and now works as a bodyguard.
Sandra Patricia Velasco, a nurse, found it hard to get a job in healthcare, and now works as a bodyguard. Photograph: Shanti Das/The Observer

That’s a tricky question. “There’s a tendency to put people into binary categories of victims and perpetrators,” Zulver, from Oxford, says. “But some of these women decided to join armed groups because they were escaping violence or brutal poverty themselves. In many cases they were forcibly recruited into these groups.

“On the other hand, if you’ve been victimised by an armed group it is a hard pill to swallow to see that, at least on paper, the ex-combatants are getting government attention. And why would we give tax money and resources to people who were terrorists in our country? I understand that as well. And that is the really hard balancing act of any transition away from conflict.”

For their part, Velasco and Tellez feel they are victims too – of the state, and of their circumstances. While they weren’t forced, they wouldn’t have joined the Farc – a group founded by farmers in 1964 with the goal of fighting social inequality, which later raised funds through drug trafficking and kidnappings – had they seen a better option.

As for the violence, that was part of military operations for a political purpose, in line with strict rules, they say. “I arrived to the Farc because I wanted to kill those who were hurting my mother,” Tellez says. “They said: ‘If you want to use a weapon, you have to know the political, economic and social impacts.’ They weren’t going to give me a weapon to go and kill somebody until I had the awareness of why I would do that.”

Today, Tellez is struggling with the “consumerism and selfishness” of life in Bogotá. She says she has been threatened twice – “for being a political leader, for going to university” – and says she has no “internal peace”.

She believes things will improve one day. But for now she wants out. “I’m requesting political asylum from Germany, to see if it’s possible,” she says. What if they stayed? “The schooling isn’t the best and there’s discrimination,” she says, her eyes fixed on her son.

Janeidy Martinez now makes clothes to sell to tourists but is struggling to get by.
Janeidy Martinez now makes clothes to sell to tourists but is struggling to get by. Photograph: Shanti Das/The Observer

Velasco has her focus fixed somewhere else. “I want to go to England with you,” she says, half-joking. “You can get a job very easily; I cannot. You have an advantage in life; I have a disadvantage.”

Despite the challenges there is reason for optimism, too. While a small number have re-armed, most ex-Farc guerrillas remain committed to the peace process. That former combatants are willing to endure such tough conditions is proof of that commitment, says Alejandra Allado, coordinator for Soberanas, a reintegration project backed by the Norwegian government. “Believe me, if they weren’t committed, no one would stand living like this,” she says.

Under Duque’s government, things “went backwards”, Allado adds. But in August, Colombia’s first leftist president, Gustavo Petro, came to power. As he is a former guerrilla fighter himself, there is hope he will prioritise reforms neglected by his predecessor. “It’s totally critical now to push forward and to accelerate the implementation of the agreement in general and especially of the ethnic and gender measures,” says Bibiana Aído Almagro, country representative for UN Women. “It is a window of opportunity.”

Back in Pondores, where campaign posters of Petro are still glued to houses, community leader Marinelly Hernandez ponders the future. She remains worried for her son Edwin, nine, who she gave birth to while in the mountains.

But she is determined – and hopeful. As well as coordinating an environmental project called Dama Verde, she is leading an initiative to replace residents’ wooden shacks with brick-built homes. It’s slow progress: so far they have completed only one, and there is no money to scale up quickly. Duque’s government has “done nothing”, but with all hands on deck, and Petro in power “there is hope”, she says.

Even Sepúlveda is cautiously optimistic. Petro could be good “if people will let him be in power and don’t assassinate him,” she says. All he has to do is deliver the basics – housing, jobs, security.

“That is my dream,” adds Sepúlveda. “This is what every human being must have.”

The Pondores camp aims to helps former guerrilla fighters reintegrate into society.
The Pondores camp aims to helps former guerrilla fighters reintegrate into society. Photograph: Shanti Das/The Observer


Shanti Das in Pondores

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