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Guerrillas in the Mist: Seven Days in Rebel-Held Territory in Colombia

What does half a century of war do to a country?

by Juan Camilo Maldonado Tovar
Dec 3 2015, 12:00am

Photos by Carlos Villalón

This story appears in the December issue of VICE magazine.

A comandante had told us someone would pick us up in front of the pool hall, but we arrived two hours late. Now we didn't know if they were still coming. We waited through the afternoon and night and, after crashing in a cheap hotel, through the next morning, too. That's when a woman wearing a black cap and a too-tight blue shirt with a small green parakeet on her shoulder pulled up on her motorcycle in front of the tienda where we'd been told to stay put. She eyed us suspiciously and left without saying a word.

We watched her—and farmers and shopkeepers and everyone else—for a signal, any signal, that they had come for us. That was the agreement we'd made with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country's oldest communist guerrilla organization. The group has been waging war against the federal government since 1964, in a conflict that has caused at least 218,000 deaths. If we showed up in this tiny village, on the outskirts of a huge swath of FARC-controlled territory called Llanos del Yarí, they had promised to take us deep into the bowels of their jungle hideout.

The day prior, we'd set out on our journey from Bogotá, the country's capital. The route is one of rolling hills haloed by mist, and snakes and howler monkeys seemingly hide in every tree and valley. The FARC, which has about 8,000 members today, has managed to control the territory for more than three decades. Farther along, the journey toward the FARC's headquarters starts to feel like a trip through Colombia's history. Ramshackle villages tell the story of the abysmal inequality between the country's center and its forgotten periphery. A two-lane highway gradually transforms into a muddy and solitary road. The farther you are from Bogotá, the poorer the infrastructure becomes. Toward the end of the journey, just before you reach FARC territory, guerrilla graffiti vandalizing government buildings begins to appear.

"Did you get here unarmed?" asked a wide-eyed young National Army soldier. He was manning a Brigada Móvil checkpoint, located on the peak of a mountain in the Andes just before the roads slope down into Caquetá. Here, many National Army checkpoints dot the periphery of FARC's territory— this, after all, is the front line of the civil war. When the soldier saw that we were just carrying tripods and cameras in our truck, he relaxed—somewhat.

"You should go back," he said. "If you keep going you'll find El Paisa, a guerrilla commander. Have you heard about him? He's a bloodthirsty man, and he's against all of the peace negotiations. Please, you really shouldn't go that way."

Eventually he let us pass, and two hours later, the night had already fallen upon us as we continued driving. Then the lights of our truck suddenly illuminated a man in the middle of the road, the muzzle of his rifle pointed directly at us.

"Turn off the lights and get out of the truck!" he screamed. The man was a young guerrilla dressed in civilian clothes. He was flanked by two more armed men.

"Where are you coming from?" one of them shouted. We had apparently passed into FARC territory at some unknown point. "Don't you know that it's forbidden to pass through here after 18,00?"

We explained that we'd come from Bogotá to make a documentary, although we did not tell them that we had permission from a FARC commander to be there. We weren't sure if this FARC battalion was friendly with the commander who had given us permission to visit.

"Which way did you come from?" one of the guerrillas asked.

"Bogotá, Girardot, Neiva..." our fixer answered.

"That's it?"

"And through an Army checkpoint up there..."

Then there was silence. He was testing us. If we hadn't admitted that we had talked with the military, we would have been in trouble.

"Leave then," he said. "You can't stay here. You will get shot, bombed. Go back and remember that you can't travel through here at night."

Civilians run community meetings and participate in government, but everyone in the region knows that the guerrillas have the last word.

We turned around. After a short drive, we passed through another Army checkpoint in San Vicente del Caguán. In a tent nearby, a small light bulb illuminated the faces of 32 members of the FARC depicted on a wanted poster issued by the government. At the top of the spread was a picture of El Paisa, who has a $5 million bounty on his head. REPORT AND GET THE MONEY, the sign said. WE'LL GET THE PEACE WE ALL WANT.

We hadn't come to Llanos del Yarí just to meet Colombia's most important guerrilla fighters—we'd also come because, after two years of dialogues in Havana, Cuba, the FARC and the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos were entering the final stage of a historic peace process. On July 20, 2015, FARC leaders had announced a unilateral ceasefire. This had been tried four times since the dialogues started, and each time it failed. In April 2015, in fact, a previous ceasefire had unraveled after four months, when FARC fighters stormed an Army platoon while troops were sleeping, killing 11 soldiers. A month later, government troops retaliated and killed 26 guerrillas. Would this time be different? We wanted to find out.

We slept that night in a primitive hotel a few blocks away from the Army checkpoint. The next morning, in the daylight, we drove on along a muddy and winding road toward Llanos de Yarí and the FARC.

There we were, still waiting in front of the pool hall. The surrounding village was a shoddy little dump of a dozen huts—a vegetable stand, a school, a beer shop. A FARC commander had promised to pick us up, but still no one had come, except some farmers and the random woman with the bird on her shoulder.

Finally, after more than 24 hours of standing sentry in front of that pool hall, and just as we were about to give up, a man in civilian clothes got off a motorcycle and called to us. He had a stern grimace on his face and told us to follow him. He guided us through the Yarí plains and then led us to a few solitary houses at the base of the hills. As I scanned a crowd of some FARC militiamen gathered in front of one of the houses, I noticed a familiar face—the woman with the green parakeet. Seeing her made me realize that FARC members had been there, watching over us, the whole time.

She waved and smiled. Then, quietly, she led us to a big house in a deep valley. In front of the red wooden hacienda were at least 20 men, many wearing fatigues, some holding automatic rifles. They were members of Frente 63's Combatientes del Yarí, the eastern front of the FARC. From a pole on one side of the house flew the group's flag—two rifles crossed in front of Colombia's national colors: yellow, blue, and red. On the other side was a white flag signifying their commitment to the unilateral ceasefire.

A chubby and friendly-looking woman walked in our direction from the property's entrance and greeted us warmly. She wore a green uniform and combat boots. Everything happened so quickly. It wasn't clear at what moment we had stopped being among civilians and joined the guerrillas. We were now, without a doubt, standing in the heart of FARC territory.

The friendly guerrilla woman got on her motorbike and guided our truck through hidden roads that ran behind the pastures, through forking paths, and little by little, three hours later, she brought us deep into a desolate savanna with no fences or livestock or houses or roads. All around us were jungle corridors and mazy paths that led to the Putumayo River and up into the mountains, virginal and immense. At the end of each of these paths were more guerrillas, waiting to see what would come next: peace or more war.

The date was July 21—just one day after the FARC began its sixth unilateral ceasefire since the peace talks began in 2012. In Havana, the Castro administration and Norway had served as a mediators between the FARC and the Colombian government. As part of the negotiations, the FARC had made pledges of peace multiple times—but each time, they'd done so without actually agreeing to stop fighting. In past negotiations, during the 1980s and early 2000s, the FARC had exploited truces to strengthen their military positions. This time, the government wasn't willing to let this happen. Thus the rules were clear: While the two sides talked about peace, they continued to fight.

Because the National Army continued to attack the FARC's campsites while they negotiated, the guerrillas directed us to stay in the home of a peasant family, who were unlikely to be targets of government violence. It was there, in a wooden shack with no energy and no running water—but with a DirecTV satellite—that we spent the next few days.

I asked Laura if she thought peace was possible in Colombia. "Yes," she answered without any trace of doubt. "Because the Bible tells me so."

Following the orders of the FARC, Granny Laura, a wizened peasant woman, welcomed us to her house. She was hunched and fragile, and she walked slowly. When she spoke, her voice broke so much that it seemed as if it were going to completely disappear with her next words. She shared the home with her husband, Cruz, and their son and daughter, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren. While we spoke, the kids chased one another around the house with homemade, wooden toy rifles.

The children weren't attending school this year because, their mother explained, the nearest school didn't have any teachers. The family couldn't afford to send the kids to the next-closest school—a public boarding school run by the Catholic Church—so the kids were helping their grandmother with work on the hacienda and, in their spare time, pretending to be guerrilla fighters.

Laura was ill. She had diabetes and suffered from chronic dizziness and nausea, but she didn't have regular access to a doctor. Traveling to San Vicente de Caguán's hospital would cost her about $100, which is half her monthly earnings. Instead, Laura got her medication from a bus that drove by her home every two weeks. Sometimes she had to let the bus pass by because she didn't have enough money to pay.

Like most farmers in the region, Laura and her family lived under the FARC's rule and followed their laws. "It's better this way—whoever kills or steals, they have to [answer to the FARC]," another farmer had told me. "Of course we need to pay them a tax. Every sale, every livestock head has its price," he explained. As in the rest of the country, local juntas composed of civilians deal with everyday problems and solutions for the community—housing, public services, making demands of local officials. The taxes had made life more difficult for poor peasants, but the ones I spoke with believed the FARC's laws were as fair as the federal government's. Civilians ran the community meetings, locals told me, giving people an opportunity to participate in government— though everyone in the region knows that the guerrillas have the last word.

Chepe, a large, shy man, was in the company of 30 guerrillas when I met him for an interview. We were at a FARC camp that had been temporarily constructed out of rough-hewn tree trunks and huge green leaves, a few miles away from Granny Laura's house. Even though he spoke quietly, I could detect in his accent that he had grown up in a wealthy family in Bogotá. Chepe had been born in the jungle of Caquetá, but he was raised in Colombia's capital from a young age. He went to the Colegio Claretiano primary school and then Colegio San Viator, an upper-middle-class high school. He was called Jorge Suárez then, sharing a surname with the FARC commander Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas—his father. The elder Suárez died on September 22, 2010, after seven tons of government explosives fell on his guerrilla camp.

"The comrades wanted me to study in the city and then to come back here to help with the revolution," he told me. "When I was in ninth grade, the government started to apply pressure, and the paramilitaries were looking to make us disappear. So I studied up to ninth grade and then came back here with my dad. I spent eleven years with him.

"I wonder about my friends from back then," he said. "What would they think if they knew that I'm here? They are probably doctors, politicians, engineers. I didn't have the chance to go to university, but I studied the revolution."

His father was a famous man—or, rather, an infamous man. Also known as Mono Jojoy and Jorge Briceño, he led the FARC's Eastern Bloc, which kidnapped dozens of people in the 1990s and early 2000s. For more than a decade, kidnapping rich people for ransom was one of the FARC's key sources of income. Many people died in captivity during those years. What would have happened if any of Chepe's schoolmates ended up as secuestrados, kidnapping victims?

Chepe said he always knew that at school what he was studying was his classmates—"my enemies, the sons of the bourgeoisie." He knew that he needed to fight for the "common good. Their ideals weren't an influence on us," he said. "We were already formed as individuals."

Across from Chepe, sitting on beach chairs, the guerrilla fighters listened to their comandante. Chepe opened his laptop and started the meeting that all guerrilla units conduct at the beginning of their daily routines. They sang "The Internationale" (a classic revolutionary song that's almost as old as Karl Marx), and then Chepe read "Al Filo de la Navaja," an opinion column written in Havana by comandante Carlos Antonio Lozada. The text commented on the previous six months, a period in which the guerrillas had declared a ceasefire that was broken when a military patrol entered their territory. For Lozada, a member of the FARC delegation in Havana, it was important that the National Army reduce the intensity of its attacks in order to make the ceasefire more than just talk.

After Lozada was finished reading, the guerrillas got up to sing a song honoring Manuel Marulanda Vélez, one of the men who founded the FARC in 1964 with a group of communist peasants:

I sing to Manuel, that old dear friend.
Manuel, who one day had the courage of daring to dream.
Manuel, who bad tongues say is a bandit
And whom they used to compare to the devil.
All the love that is in his whole being will flourish.
Like Fidel, history will absolve you too, Manuel.

Afterward, eight guerrilla fighters raised their hands to comment on the column from Havana. Each expressed the exact same opinion and the exact same vision. They all blamed the Colombian oligarchy and American imperialism for the conflict. But they all emphasized how much they trusted their commanders in Havana and said they were willing to lay down their arms and pursue revolution through elections. Their accounts varied only in their eloquence. They seemed to believe in their own ideas so deeply that they nearly vibrated with epiphanic intensity.

"It's so beautiful," said Luisa Monserrat, a young guerrilla from Bogotá, as she smiled with the spiritual drunkenness of a worshipper who closes her eyes to see God. "It's so beautiful to be the owner of the truth."

All guerrilla fighters are members of both a military (the FARC) and a political party (Partido Comunista Clandestino Colombiano, or PC3). They knew that once they joined, the revolution would become their life. According to the FARC's official statutes, those who willingly join have to serve for an indefinite amount of time. In other words, they commit to being professional revolutionaries until the revolution triumphs. Desertion is a crime that is sometimes punished with execution.

Of the 218,000 people who have died in the war between the FARC and the Colombian government, nearly 80 percent of them were civilians.

To reinforce solidarity and collective identity, the guerrillas hold these meetings every day. The reading material varies, from the basic principles of Leninism, to Simón Bolívar's Cartagena Manifesto, to classic Russian and Colombian novels.

One of the women at the meeting was named Antonia Simón Nariño. She grew up in Bogotá, like Chepe, and attended the National Pedagogic University. She began reading the guerrillas' political writings about a decade ago, she told me, and she was recruited soon afterward by the Movimiento Bolivariano: a first step for any young student interested in joining the FARC. Her boyfriend was a militiaman. For three years she snuck away from her parents' house to attend training sessions held at camps in Caquetá. She told her family that she was giving catechism lessons in the Sierra Nevada. One day, her father went to her university to ask how the young instructors in the Sierra Nevada were doing, and he discovered his daughter's lies. She never found the courage to tell him that she was a guerrilla fighter, instead saying that she had joined the Communist Party, which, unlike the PC3, is a legal, non-subversive organization in Colombia. Not long after that she left for the jungle. She arranged for her boyfriend to tell her family the truth.

She finished her tearful story by singing "Todo Cambia," by Mercedes Sosa:

My love doesn't change,
No matter how far away I am.
Nor does the memory
Or the pain of my people.

The camp doesn't exactly feel like a war zone. During my time there, the guerrilla fighters passed the day by watching American TV shows and Katy Perry videos on Chepe's MacBook. Some dug trenches, others cooked cancharina, a fried pastry made with corn flour.

The FARC has fought this conflict for more than 50 years. First, it was a struggle between communist peasants and the American-backed wealthy elite in power. But in the 1980s, the FARC became involved in the drug trade to help fund the war, and the surge in narco-traffic gave rise to new paramilitary armies that fought the guerrillas for control of drug territory. Fighting intensified during the 1990s, and all sides' tactics reached newly inhumane levels: The FARC kidnapped and planted bombs that targeted civilians; paramilitaries perpetrated massacres in hundreds of villages; and National Army members murdered thousands of innocent young Colombians, claiming they were "positivos," an Army term for guerrillas killed in combat, in order to make it look like they were winning the war against the FARC.

The facts and figures are gruesome. According to the National Center for Historic Memory, nearly 80 percent of the 218,000 casualties that have resulted from the civil war were non-combatants. The UN calculates that during the past decade, 4,716 murders of innocent "false positives" were committed by the Army, while the think tank Cifras y Conceptos estimates that the guerrillas kidnapped 9,447 people. The paramilitaries were demobilized between 2004 and 2005, under the presidency of Álvaro Uribe, and though many paramilitaries regrouped to form new criminal bands that traffic drugs, their role has been diminishing.

Six miles from our camp, however, the conflict was still simmering. There, in an expansive valley, FARC units were set up to stop the advancing Army, which had just landed nearby, an action that many guerrillas considered a provocative gesture.

"At the moment I can't even imagine the process of abandoning armed struggle," Chepe said.

Chepe allowed us to walk around the camp. We saw the guerrilla troops doing exercises with their rifles still hanging over their shoulders. At noon we had lunch, then a bath in the river, where the guerrillas stripped down to their underwear, not looking beyond their own bodies. Many rested with their "bed companions," or lovers, in shacks they had built out of lumber and leaves (40 percent of the FARC are women, and many guerrillas have romantic partners).

"The jungle is our home," said Jineth, a 26-year-old woman holding a handmade notebook in which she writes Marxist reflections and poems for the FARC founders in childlike handwriting. When she was nine, Jineth saw a man murder her mother in front of a store her mother owned in the city of Villavicencio. "I was sent to a therapist," she said.

Jineth was then raised by her uncle. When she grew up she discovered that her cousin was a guerrilla fighter, and she asked him if she could join the cause. He said yes.

"Where would you go if the war were over today?" I asked her. "Our home is tied to our backs," she answered, referring to the 90-pound backpack she's carried ever since she joined the guerrillas a decade prior.

What would happen to the region if a peace treaty were signed? What would happen to the farmers, to the local militia, to the guerrillas? Jineth, Antonia, Chepe, and Luisa all agreed that they'd dedicate their lives to their political party, that their cause would never be over, that they'd have to search for the revolution by other means. Chepe and Jineth wanted to study; Antonia said she would teach. They all seemed tired of war, though they also didn't seem to really know any other way of life.

"At the moment I can't even imagine the process of abandoning armed struggle," Chepe said. "Around these areas, regular people come to tell us their problems, like a stolen cow or a fight that they had with a neighbor. We are an armed party. When we leave the arms we will continue to be a party, and we will continue our political struggle."

"And how would you prevent a new massacre of your people?" I asked. "How would you avoid the return of the drug traffickers and paramilitaries?"

"It all depends on the government," he said. "There should be some guarantees that verify that the [peace] agreement is being followed. That's why many countries will have to be involved in this."

At five o'clock in the evening on our last day in the FARC territory, we were about to go back to Laura's house when one of our fixers approached me. "You must leave now," he said. "You've been asking the wrong questions."

Someone had told the comandante that I was asking guerrillas and civilians if they were hiding kidnapped people in their homes. He gave an order that we were to leave that night. It was just a misunderstanding. One more misunderstanding in a series of five decades of misunderstandings.

My alleged offense had occurred two days before, as we were talking with Laura and her family at their dinner table. Night had fallen, and we sat next to a window through which we could see the stars. A candle illuminated our faces and projected shadows onto the wooden walls. Next to me there was a woman who looked like a regular farmer eating a delicious dinner. She told me that she was a guerrilla fighter. She had been one for years. She didn't speak much, but I took the chance to ask her the same question I'd posed to Chepe.

"Have you ever had to take care of kidnapped people? I imagine that they used to be kept in farmers' houses like this one. You've never had one here?"

"No, never," she answered me.

The conversation drifted to Laura and her kids, and I didn't broach the subject again. Laura told us about her health, about this one herb that helped her with her dizziness, about her childhood in Tolima, about her family life in Huila. We were still talking when the conversation was interrupted.

"Look, they've turned on the camera once again," said Laura's son, a day laborer just like his father, pointing to a distant light shining outside in the pitch-black sky. It looked like a satellite or a cellular tower.

All of a sudden it disappeared.

"A camera?" I asked.

"Yes, that's the Army. They are watching us," he said.

"Of course they are watching us," Laura said with her breaking voice. "The Army arrived to our house once. One of the soldiers, thinking that I couldn't see him, hid a device on top of our door. A few days later he quietly came back and took it with him."

It was a warm night. Laura rambled on from story to story. Then I asked her if she thought peace was possible in Colombia.

"Yes," she answered, without any trace of doubt.

"Why are you so sure?"

"Because the Bible tells me so. It says clearly that communism will arrive to our world even if it's just for one day."

Laura stood up in the dark and went to pick up her Bible with a lamp in her hand. Standing there, small and trembling, she pointed the light at a passage from Revelation 18–19, about the fall of Babylon.

Two months later, long after I left Laura and Chepe and the others and drove out of Llanos del Yarí in the middle of the night, the FARC would violate their own ceasefire six times. The Army attacked them another 76 times. A guerrilla fighter from the Daniel Aldana column, which operates on the Pacific coast, murdered the Afro-Colombian politician Genaro García, a peaceful man whose only transgression was opposing the FARC's rule in his impoverished community.

Today, the ceasefire negotiations continue, as does the war.