In the pre-dawn hours of March 1, 2008, the second-in-command of Colombia’s oldest and largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP) and 21 other rebels were killed by an army incursion into their jungle camp located two kilometres across the border with Ecuador. It is the first time in the decades-long civil conflict that the Colombian military has been able to kill a member of the FARC’s seven-person central command and the cross-border strike brought Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela to the brink of war. Eight months prior to his death, I had traveled to one of Reyes’ jungle camps with my partner and colleague Garry Leech. It was a rare opportunity as few North Americans had met face-to-face with Reyes during the last six years. We not only met Reyes in person, but also gained insights into guerrilla life.
Reyes, who was chief negotiator for the FARC during the failed peace process (1998-2002), was known as a hardliner. He refused to accept a peace agreement that did not include social justice. This necessarily implied a transformation of Colombia’s political and economic structures—a process not welcomed by either Colombia’s elites or Washington. Colombia has been enmeshed in a civil war for over 40 years and while a small minority have benefited from its vast resource wealth, a majority of the population lives in poverty. The FARC are battling against the U.S.-backed government and its right-wing paramilitary allies, calling for an end to U.S. imperialism and a redistribution of wealth. Reyes was the international voice of the guerrilla group and he spent a great deal of time working to build international solidarity.
At the time of our departure from Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, we had only a vague idea about the specifics of our two-and-a-half day journey to the remote guerrilla camp. Our trip began with a one-hour flight to a small city in southern Colombia. After a night in a hotel, we journeyed for two days on two buses from high in the Andes Mountains down into the Amazon rainforest. One of the bus trips lasted over nine hours, five of which took place on harrowing and meandering mountain roads dropping off into cavernous valleys. While the views were stunning in all their green majesty, I was too terrified for much of the journey to venture a peek out the window. My fellow travelers found this distinctly amusing. There were several bends in the road that required the bus to grind its way through fallen rocks or running water. To add to the terror, our driver appeared to be in a rush, heading into many of the curves with the determination of a Formula One race car driver.
At one point on the second day, as our bus approached a river, we recognized the spot where we were told to disembark. It is here that we were to rendezvous with our guerrilla contacts. While we waited, a local woman in the solitary house beside the river served us cups of strong black coffee. We were able to make out a shadowy figure in the distant trees talking on a hand-held radio. After about twenty minutes, two young women in civilian clothing, one of them the figure in the trees, approached and informed us that they would be taking us down the river. We traveled in a dugout canoe that was powered by an outboard motor for approximately two hours. After stopping to pick up gasoline and four large planks of wood, we continued on our journey. Our river trip terminated at a seemingly arbitrary spot along the riverbank. Equipped with rubber boots and ponchos, we disappeared into the Amazon Rainforest on a narrow muddy trail. The two women insisted on carrying our backpacks in addition to the two six-foot long, heavy planks of wood each of them carried on their shoulders. With seeming ease, they made their way along the winding, hilly trail, while Garry and I struggled to avoid falling, and to keep apace with our guides.
Nightfall came during our hike and we were soon surrounded by darkness except for the dim glow of our small flashlights, which were pointed downwards at all times as per the instructions from our guides. After an hour of hiking, we were greeted by a fully-uniformed guerrilla armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. There was a brief conversation between this man and the two women. He remained at that point on the trail when we resumed our trek. We passed several more guerrillas over the next few minutes and each of them greeted us with a nod of the head. And then, appearing suddenly out of nowhere, the carefully constructed wooden structures of the camp became visible through the trees. At one end of the camp we saw a bright light perched over a table where a middle-aged man sat at a laptop computer. It was FARC commander Raúl Reyes.
After a brief introduction, we stood there for a few moments in an uncomfortable silence. How does one kick-off a conversation with a guerrilla leader? Commander Gloria and three other female guerrillas joined us. We all dined on a supper of fish, potatoes and vegetables, which led us into a friendly, but rather surreal, conversation about our favourite types of food. We were told that this was a good week to visit because they had managed to secure some decent food supplies. Sometimes they have little more than bananas and beans to eat.
The mood became light and we gradually felt comfortable enough to explain why we had come. While Garry was there to interview Reyes himself, I sought to interview women guerrillas. As part of my research exploring the role of women in social transformation, I wanted to understand how and why these women had become guerrillas. After an animated discussion about world politics and revolution, Reyes told us we could begin our work the next morning. We were led to our bivouac, which contained planks of wood to serve as a mattress and a tarpaulin draped overhead to protect us from the tropical rains. I lay in our bed thinking about Zen masters and their ability to sleep on anything. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep.
It was 4:30am when I was awakened by the mild buzz of hushed voices. I attempted to focus my eyes in the darkness. From my bivouac I could see the faint glow of small flashlights pointed downwards as guerrillas dressed themselves. I had made two trips to the “washroom” during the night with a guide, so I felt confident that I could find my way back there alone without armed accompaniment. The morning air was grey and heavy with damp. Donning my rubber boots and poncho, I made my way along the wooden pathway trying to recognize at exactly what point I had turned right during the night. I didn’t want to end up in the male washroom again.
I returned to the centre of the camp as streaks of light from the rising sun began to penetrate the jungle canopy. I watched the guerrillas in nearby bivouacs efficiently folding everything from their tarpaulin to bed sheets. It was the kind of exercise that reminded me of my mother’s stories about the disciplined life in London during World War Two. After a few moments of activity, there were neat, identical piles of tightly wrapped cloth in the corner of each “bed,” and not one bug or fleck of dirt was visible. Within moments the sleeping areas were abandoned as the group fell into formation in the large meeting area to receive their orders for the day. Meanwhile, Garry and I spent a good half hour doing a less than stellar version of the guerrillas’ morning household chores. We were then called to breakfast, which we ate with Reyes and Gloria. We were joined by two young female guerrillas who were on kitchen duty and an older guerrilla named Gladys, who has been with the FARC and living in the jungle for 32 years—longer than any other woman.
Many think of Gladys as a mother figure, but not your typical mother. She is responsible for the camp’s communications centre and could be seen in her bush office disseminating information via radio. She has been in combat many times over the years. Gladys has known nothing but life in the FARC since she was a teenager. The FARC was her family and she spoke with great pride of her commitment to building a new Colombia where the poor would have a voice and the wealth would be shared equally. Despite being hardened by decades spent in the jungle, tears were visible in Gladys’s eyes when I asked her how she kept going after all these years. “I believe in what we are doing, in the revolution, in social justice,” she said. “The vision of a new Colombia keeps me going.”
While the FARC has been criticized for its violations of human rights, particularly kidnapping, targeted assassinations, and its use of notoriously inaccurate home-made mortars and landmines, some analysts have suggested that it is a mistake to simply dismiss the group as a criminal or terrorist organization—as the Colombian, U.S. and Canadian governments have done. Carolina, who joined the FARC more than 10 years ago, explained that she became involved in the guerrilla group because “I liked the sound of the objectives it was fighting for: defending the interests of the people, the struggle against imperialism, against discrimination, for a radical change in the structure of the government.”
On the afternoon of our first full day of absorbing camp life, we were eager to bathe and change clothes. Even in this activity, we were struck by the efficiency and order of the camp. Everything happened at a specific time and in a specific way. Even when bathing, we were integrated into the rebel order of things. We were pleasantly surprised by the “bathroom,” which thankfully was situated far from the “toilets.” It consisted of a warm pool in a free flowing river with an adjacent primitive wooden structure in which one could get undressed and wash clothes. The fact that the male and female guerrillas strip down to their underwear and bath together was at first intimidating, but it soon became apparent that nobody was fazed by it. We entered the water in our underwear and washed both our bodies and our clothes before exiting, drying off and donning clean attire. Each guerrilla had two uniforms and they kept both themselves and their uniforms immaculately clean. While bathing, everyone engaged in light conversation, telling stories and jokes. After watching Garry floundering with soap and his muddy trousers on the laundry table in the running stream, one of the young male guerrillas tried to teach him how to scrub the stains from his pants.
We were free to roam the camp during the three days we spent with the guerrillas. We observed the rebels receiving commands, doing their chores and spent many hours simply sitting and chatting with them when they had free time. Not only did the guerrillas treat us with great respect, but they also appeared to treat each other that way too. I took these opportunities to get to know some of the female guerrillas. I was focused on finding out why these, mainly young, women had decided to live this dangerous and harsh life in the jungle.
It is evident that some women in Colombia have, for various reasons, decided that armed struggle is the only way to overcome state repression and the structural problems of poverty and inequality. Women make up more than thirty percent of the FARC’s 16,000 fighters. Furthermore, they now constitute approximately forty percent of mid-level commanders in the rebel army. At the same time that these women are succeeding in shifting the gender dynamic within the structures of the traditionally male-dominated FARC, they are also fighting to dramatically change the country’s political, economic and social structures.
Many of the female guerrillas talked about the culture shock of joining the FARC, not only because of the difficult conditions in which rebels live, moving constantly in jungle terrain and living in fear of attack, but because of the extreme contrast between the role of women back in their communities as compared to that in the rebel camps. Many female FARC members come from traditional peasant communities where the hierarchy of the family and the subordination of women in the household are deeply entrenched. So for most of them, the FARC has provided a liberation of sorts from traditional obligations and a recognition of their broader capacities as women.
FARC women and men share equally in cooking, cleaning, guard duty and combat. Many guerrillas, both male and female, pointed out that discrimination of any sort is met with sanctions. As one guerrilla stated, “Here, we women say that a woman is not just for sexual exploitation—having kids, washing, cleaning and sweeping. We have to strengthen our own goals, to be someone in this life.” Another female guerrilla pointed out, “Here we have rights and responsibilities to live up to. A woman can find herself leading 50 to 60 men, just as a man can. She can give classes in politics and military strategy, and she can lead a team into combat. It’s great to see women commanders exercising their authority.”
The principal issues related to gender that FARC women identified did not differ significantly from those highlighted by other Colombian women engaged in non-violent political activities, although the language of the rebels reflected a Marxist orientation. Many political women who have not taken up arms identify poverty, inequality, displacement and political corruption as important issues. FARC women, however, speak also of U.S. imperialism and capitalist exploitation. And while many other women, particularly peasants and residents of the country’s poor urban barrios, tend to frame their politics in the very immediate struggles for rights, food, water and land, the FARC women were clearly working towards a socialist society, an overthrow of the existing capitalist order.
While we are well aware of the fact that many see the FARC as “terrorists,” our experiences in that particular camp made evident the complicated and multifaceted nature of Colombia’s war. The guerrillas we met were ideologically committed, respectful, hard working and surprisingly gentle in their manner. And I speak here not only of the women. While we observed the guerrillas engaging in military-like activities, we also saw them participating in a cultural show—singing and reading poetry. They watched the news every night on the camp television and then discussed political events. Once a week they had a “movie night,” sometimes they viewed historical films about Colombia or documentaries made by the FARC, at other times it was more traditional Hollywood fare.
There were many hidden surprises in the camp. Commander Gloria liked to wear make-up. She was Reyes’ right-hand person and his partner. One got the sense that she oversaw a great deal of the day-to-day chores in that camp and it was clear that, despite her sense of humour, she could be tough and uncompromising. Many of the young women also wore make-up and liked to dress-up for cultural shows and poetry readings. Living moments of “normal” seemed key to morale in the camp.
I spent a great deal of time with a young guerrilla named Ana. She insisted on braiding my hair and showed me how to handle her AK-47. I found it hard to reconcile her warm personality with the assault rifle, and a strange sadness overcame me as I listened to her stories. On the morning of our final day, as we prepared to leave the camp on the long journey back to Bogotá, Ana asked me if she could keep a photo of my fifteen-month-old son. I thought it an odd but endearing request. FARC women have given up the idea of having a family of their own in order to engage in the revolution. But as Commander Gloria told me, “We do not lose our femininity because we are guerrillas. It is important to remember that you are a woman as well as a guerrilla.”
As I sit here writing these reflections on that visit to the jungle, I think of Gloria, who was killed alongside Reyes in the Colombian army’s recent attack on the camp. I also wonder if Ana, Gladys and the other female guerrillas I got to know for a brief moment were among the other rebels killed that fateful night.
Terry Gibbs is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Centre for International Studies at Cape Breton University.