Last march of the Farc: Colombia's hardened fighters reach for a normal life

Latin America’s most formidable guerilla group is transitioning to civilian life following a historic peace deal. But that doesn’t mean their struggles are over

Over his 18 years as a member of the revolutionary armed forces of Colombia, German became accustomed trekking for days through jungles and over mountains with a heavy pack on his back and an AK-47 strapped across his chest.

But, this week, as he and thousands of other rebels began to make the final journey of their 52-year war, the hardened guerrilla fighter was filled with equal measures of expectation and trepidation.

“Now we’re facing a different kind of battle,” said Germán, 34, who was a member of a senior Farc commander’s security detail.

At a temporary guerrilla camp near one of the demobilization sites, Mauricio Jaramillo, the commander of the Farc’s powerful Eastern bloc, gave a pre-dawn briefing to the 190 rebels amassed there.

“Start packing up your things,” he told the troops in a large open-sided tent that served as a classroom, meeting hall and TV room. “We are getting ready for our last march,” he said.

As part of a historic peace deal with the government, thousands of guerrillas began traveling this week by foot, truck, bus and boat to demobilization zones throughout the country. By 31 May about 6,300 guerrillas are to have handed over all their weapons to a UN mission and should be well on their way to becoming civilians.

Winning approval for the peace deal – reached after four years of talks in Havana – faced enormous obstacles after Colombians initially rejected the agreement in a referendum. Likewise, implementing the revised accord has been slow, clumsy and complicated.

‘It’s the start of the construction of peace’: Columbians react to peace treaty – video

Initially, the rebels were meant to have reached the zones by 31 December, but the logistics of setting up housing, power and other services in remote areas has overwhelmed the government agencies charged with coordinating them.

Just a few days before the new deadline of 31 January, the 16-hectare demobilization zone in the remote eastern province of Guaviare that Germán and nearly 500 other guerrillas were supposed to occupy was far from finished.

According to plans, housing, classrooms, water tanks and a water treatment system should already have been constructed, but this week, the site was still an empty field with nothing but a few dozen wooden planks and a tent.

“We will go into the demobilization zones because it was an order from commanders,” said Germán at the morning meeting, who like many rebels, feared that conditions of the peace deal could soon be broken. “But if the government is not living up to its promises with us still in arms, what’s going to happen once we get in there?” he asked.

“All they’re interested in is that we hand over our rifles,” he said of the government. “Once we give them that they won’t do what they promised.”

Fundación Paz y Reconciliación, a conflict thinktank based in Bogotá, said in a report this week that 23 of the 26 camps were still incomplete even though the government had seven months to plan them.

In many of the zones, the guerrillas themselves have agreed to build their own housing, but some worry that it will take time from their studies and training programs that were supposed to smooth the transition to civilian life.

Despite the difficulties, Mauricio said he knew there was no turning back. “We are committed to making this transition to a legal political party,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean the Farc’s struggle has come to an end, he said. “There is a peace agreement but we still have to fight for everything. For now we have to fight so that the government complies with what has been negotiated,” Mauricio said.

The government is also fighting to make the Farc comply with the terms of the deal.

Even before a final accord was reached in August, the guerrilla leadership had vowed to hand over all minors in the rebel ranks to child welfare agency so they could be returned to their families. However, only 13 children were released last year, said Sergio Jaramillo, the government’s peace commissioner. The Farc now say they will hand them over once they are all in the demobilization zones.

And in Guaviare, the guerrillas share some of the blame for the lack of infrastructure: a 2015 Farc attack on a power pylon left the remote jungle region disconnected from the national grid.

Despite the setbacks, the sight of thousands of Farc troops marching toward their demobilization throughout the country is nothing short of remarkable.

Members of the Farc make their journey towards a demobilization zone. At its height the group claimed as many as 20,000 members.
Members of the Farc make their journey towards a demobilization zone. At its height the group claimed as many as 20,000 members. Photograph: Christian Escobar Mora/EPA

The Farc’s first long march was more of a scramble. In 1964, the government bombed a small communist enclave known as Marquetalia and a ragtag group of peasants who claimed independence from the government scattered into the jungle.

They quickly regrouped and formed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which went on to become Latin America’s largest, strongest and most formidable guerrilla group, claiming as many as 20,000 fighters at the height of their power.

By the mid-1990s the Colombian state could barely fight off the advance of the guerrillas, often relying on far-right paramilitary forces to do the job. The Farc engaged in forced recruitment, mass displacement, kidnapping, and extortion while reaping huge benefits from the expanding drug trade in areas under its control.

Launching bold attacks on military outposts and rural towns, they captured hundreds of policemen and soldiers and held them for years in barbed wire cages in the jungle, calling them “prisoners of war”. To the broader Colombian society they were simply hostages.

The change today is dramatic in its mundanity. On the mud road between the demobilization zone and the guerrilla camp in Colinas, a group of five soldiers stood relaxed on the crest of a hill.

Mauricio, who participated in attacks on the towns of Mitu and Miraflores where dozens of servicemen were captured, passed in a pickup truck with his guards, honking the horn in greeting.

The soldiers – now charged with their former enemies’ security – offered a friendly wave back, but the apparent calm belies the urgency of the army’s new mission.

Criminal gangs, so-called “neo-paramilitary” groups and the smaller ELN rebel group have already begun filling the power vacuum left by the Farc’s retreat around the country, and taking over the criminal economies once controlled or regulated by the Farc. Of the 242 municipalities where the Farc were present, new armed groups have expanded to at least 90 of them, according to Paz y Reconciliación.

In the case of Guaviare, a group of Farc dissidents have taken over.

Arsenio Mejía commander of the Farc’s First Front, saw his unit fall apart when a group of fighters announced that they would not accept a peace pact with the government. Then another group split off in December under the command of Gentil Duarte – a top Farc leader who had participated in the peace talks in Havana – claiming to represent the ideals of the Farc’s founders.

“It was painful to see that happen,” said Mejía, also known as “Kokorikó”. “They were my comrades, we fought together, and now they are traitors,” he said.

On Tuesday, a policeman participating in a mission to eradicate coca crops in the area of Guaviare where the dissident group is operating was killed by a sniper, although it is not yet clear whether it was a member of the dissident group who fired the shot.

According to a classified security assessment of the area, seen by the Guardian, Duarte and about 30 men are acting in the name of the Farc, and could pose a threat to the demobilization process.

They have called meetings of local communities to demand payment of “war taxes”. The government – and their former comrades – say the dissidents are hiding behind ideology to continue participating in the flourishing cocaine trade in the area; Duarte’s defection came just days after mafia groups appeared in the area, according to several sources.

But Farc leaders believe the dissidents also left the group because they fear facing the transitional justice system that will be set up under the accord to prosecute guerrillas for war crimes. “Each of us fears for what he has done,” said one Farc member.

And while the Farc don’t believe their former comrades pose a threat to them directly, they are extremely concerned by the murders of community leaders and leftwing activists seen as being politically aligned with the Farc.

At least 17 social leaders have been killed since implementation of the peace accord began 1 December, according to the government’s Victim’s Unit.

Although there is no evidence that the murders are linked, Alan Jara, who was held hostage by the Farc for more than seven years and is now director of the Victims Unit, said that “social leaders are being massacred”.

Farc members have a justified fear that once they lay down their arms and enter civilian life they could also be targeted; looming over the process is the fate of the Patriotic Union party, a political party set up by the Farc during a previous attempt to make peace in 1984. Thousands of members of the party and other leftist movements were systematically hunted down and killed by rightwing paramilitaries.

Germán worries history could repeat itself, but for now he is hopeful. He is hoping to become a certified physical therapist, expanding on the skills he learned in the Farc where he helped wounded comrades in rehabilitation through exercise massage and acupuncture.

“Let’s see if they let us,” he said.


Sibylla Brodzinsky in Colinas

The GuardianTramp

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