'Unarmed, we are nothing': Farc guerrillas wary of future without guns

Daniela can’t imagine life without her AK-47. Since she joined Colombia’s largest guerrilla group nearly a decade ago at the age of 15, the battered assault rifle has been her constant companion.
But negotiators from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Farc, and the government of president Juan Manual Santos appear to be within touching distance of a deal to end more than half a century of war, and now Daniela is being forced to contemplate life as a civilian.
“The first days are going to be difficult for us,” she says, her assault rifle lying on a rough wooden table before her at an outpost of the Farc’s Magdalena Medio Block.
Last month, the two sides signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement that calls for the Farc to give all their weapons within six months of signing a final deal, which could come within months. The ceasefire has yet to come into effect and one Farc unit clashed with the army last week in Meta province, leaving several guerrillas wounded.
But both rebel commanders and the government hope that once a deal is done an unarmed the Farc will become a leftist political party, promoting their professed Marxist-Leninist ideals through the ballot not the bullet.
But many Farc members are wary of a future without the weapons which give them protection and status.
“We will be vulnerable,” Daniela says. “Unarmed, we are nothing.”
At least one Farc unit already has said it has no plans to demobilise. The Farc’s First Front announced in a communiqué made public last week that its estimated 200 members would “continue the fight for the taking of power by the people for the people, independent of the decision taken by the rest of the members of the organization”.
Members of Daniela’s unit say they are prepared for the impending peace, but they share her fears about the future.
Mornings at the camp begin just before daybreak.
On a recent morning, a squad of 20 men and women in assorted uniforms line up next to a volleyball net for inspection. Some wear the pixilated camouflage used by the Colombian army, others the dark green uniforms used by the police.
Squad commander Andrés greets the troops (“Good morning comrades!”), then then the previous night’s sentinels gave their reports. “I heard animal noises and a motorcycle passed on the road below,” says one bleary-eyed fighter unenthusiastically.
After a brief review, they break ranks with a cry of “Viva Colombia!”
They lay down their weapons – AK47s, M-16s and Gallil rifles – then strip down to tshirts, and began a round of mild calisthenics: head rolls, jogging in place, stretching.
As part of the peace negotiations, the Farc declared a unilateral ceasefire in July 2015, so these guerrillas are not preparing for battle but for class: reviewing the latest news from the negotiating table Havana, and copying their notes in notebooks with cartoon characters on the covers.

During morning formation, Alias Andrés serves as the duty officer for the group and points out the exact route the guerrillas will take if attacked by the army.
During morning formation, a duty officer for the group points out the exact route the guerrillas will take if attacked by the army. Photograph: Stephen Ferry for the Guardian

Most of these young fighters come from Colombia’s abandoned rural areas and have barely finished grade school. Some come from areas so isolated that they have little contact at all with the outside world. Didier, 19, who joined the Farc just over a year ago, was surprised to learn that peace process was going on. “I was fired up to fight,” he says.
Instead, he joins a mid-morning game of volleyball, swatting at the ball inexpertly.
Suddenly, a helicopter whirs overhead. The guerrillas scramble, grabbing their weapons and ducking behind trees until it has passed by.
The only rebel to remain unflustered is the unit’s commander, known by his nom de guerre Pedro Aldana, who in his 25 years with the Farc has survived more than a few air raids.
Though the negotiating teams had yet to sign the bilateral ceasefire agreed on June 23, Aldana was confident that the army would respect the government’s previous promise not to bomb Farc camps, identified by a white flag flying high over the trees that provide cover.
Aldana, a member of the Farc’s central high command, is known as “The Russian” for his seven years of studies in the Soviet Union, and is intent on turning these fighters into political operatives.
“Some Colombians want us to demobilise politically and that’s not what we’re going to do. Quite the opposite: we are going to mobilise politically.”
But while nearly all guerrillas in this unit say they’re prepared to do political work once the Farc turns into a party, they seem to have little interest in activism – as opposed to armed opposition.

At night, the squad gathers in a tin-roofed communal to watch the news on Telesur, the Venezuelan government-funded channel. That is followed by a projection of “Insurgent Bulletin” a You Tube news program produced by the Farc’s media team in Havana. 
No one asks questions. No one comments on the events of the day.
“Young people are attracted to war by the weapons,” Aldana says. “But all guerrillas are also communists so it’s not going to be a trauma to switch to being a political movement rather than an armed guerrilla.”
But it might be for some. “Of 100 guerrillas, only two are interested in politics,” says Franklin, 28, who joined the Farc in 2005 to pursue a fascination with explosives. He learned how to make landmines using unstable mercury, laying them in the paths where soldiers were likely to pass.

Playing volleyball in highly visible white T-shirts would have been unthinkable before the cessation.
Playing volleyball in highly visible white T-shirts would have been unthinkable before the cessation. Photograph: Stephen Ferry for the Guardian

Franklin brags about his participation in a failed attempt of the life of then-national police chief Gen Oscar Naranjo – now one of the government’s peace negotiators – and estimates that he has laid between 80 and 100 landmines. As part of the peace accords the Farc has agreed to map out its minefields but many of the group’s explosives experts are either dead or don’t remember where they planted their bombs. Franklin says he can recall some. “But let other people remove them,” he says.
In the past, demobilised guerrillas from other Colombian factions have been offered amnesties, stipends and economic support to set up independent small businesses. Farc leaders say they are interested in none of that, projecting that the group will remain tother as a political project.
But politics is not Franklin’s calling. “I don’t like to study,” Franklin says. So what are his prospects for a post-conflict life? “I’ll plant yucca, plantain, sugar cane,” he says.
For now, however, the Farc still has some use for fighters like Franklin. In some areas like the region where this unit is based, organized crime groups are encroaching on territory once controlled by the Farc to take over the illegal economies there, including drug trafficking routes and extortion networks.

The guerrillas are fighting back. Although they have not fought the army or police for nearly a year, in the past three to five months, units of the Farc’s Magdalena Medio Block have clashed repeatedly with a group known alternately as the Clan Usuga or the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC). 
“We are on the offensive, keeping them in check and not allowing them to advance,” says Alberto Camacho, the block’s military commander.
Beyond taking over drug crops and illegal mines, the AGC could pose a direct threat to the demobilised guerrillas. Colombia’s paramilitary militias emerged in the 1980s and 1990s in response to guerrilla kidnapping and extortion, targeting real and suspected rebel sympathizers in gruesome massacres. Financed by drug lords and large landowners, the paramilitaries demobilised in the early 2000s but later regrouped into less ideological and more criminal bands, such as the AGC.
Rebel fighters have reason to fear the “neo-paramilitary” groups could turn their firepower against them: during the Farc’s last foray into electoral politics 3,000 members of the group’s leftist Unión Patriótica party were murdered by paramilitaries in collusion with the military.
The ceasefire accord signed in June includes specific measures the government will take to dismantle the neo-paramilitary groups.
But Daniela has her doubts.
“The biggest fear we have in giving up our weapons is the paramilitaries. They’re out there,” she says. “If the government can’t control then, what’ll happen to us?”
Daniela says she was drawn to the Farc for protection. Two of her uncles were rebels and her family had been targeted by rightwing militaries as rebel collaborators.
“You always look for someone to protect you,” she says.
She joined up without telling her mother – knowing that she would be opposed. “What mother is going to want their child to join an armed group?” she says.
For many girls and women in rural Colombia joining the guerrillas is a way to break free of the chains of the macho culture that reigns in the countryside.
But while women fight side by side with the men in the ranks of the Farc, with that equality comes a strict control of their reproductive lives, including forced contraception and mandatory abortions. Occasionally, women rebels are allowed to give birth, but they are forced to leave the child in the care of a Farc sympathizer.
Daniela says after a peace accord, she might start thinking about becoming a mother herself.
“As a combatant, I wouldn’t like it because the idea of having a child is to raise it yourself. I wouldn’t want to hand it off to someone else,” she says.
“But as a civilian, that’s something I could do.”


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