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Colombia: Throwing open the doors


From the Llanos del Yarí — a special series for LAB  from the FARC’s Tenth Conference. Read Part One here. Part Three will report on the Political Declaration of the Tenth National Guerrilla Conference. All photos by Gwen Burnyeat. As I paid for my morning coffee, I remarked to the restaurant owner, “You have some of the toughest hours of all around here”. He replied, “Yes, so far we’ve been going from 5 in the morning to 4 in the morning, with just one hour’s sleep a night”. The restaurant, located in the press tent, was selling meals of bread, rice, soup, meat, lentils, salad and fruit three times a day, and between meals, cigarettes, crisps, sweets, beer and spirits. I asked him if he was a member of FARC. “We’re a local family”, he said. “FARC trust us to do the job. They don’t hire just anyone to do this work”. This restaurant is an important aspect of the new face FARC is presenting to the world in their Tenth National Guerrilla Conference, which was taking place from 17–23 September in the Llanos del Yarí. It was the first time that a FARC conference had been open to national and international media, and it had a specific purpose: for the whole of the guerrilla movement to discuss and agree officially the Havana peace accords. colombia_farc10conf_sitemap_700 I arrived in the area via San Vicente del Caguán where the last attempt to negotiate a peace deal with FARC failed back in 2002. The scale of the preparations was immediately evident. The public jeep was loaded high with sacks of plantain, boxes of toilet paper, and mattresses. One woman travelling with me had two boxes full of perfumes to sell. I began to realise that for the local inhabitants, this Conference meant a boost to their economy, with hundreds of journalists passing through and spending money. I asked passengers in the jeep how they felt about the fact that the FARC were preparing to transform itself from an armed group into a political movement. “Concerned,” said the driver, a young man in sunglasses. “They provide order here”. The lady selling perfumes was also worried. “When FARC controlled San Vicente, everything was peaceful. You could sleep with the door of the house open, and no one would steal even a needle”. But when the negotiations failed in 2002 and the demilitarised zone was lifted, the army and police rushed in. She remembered the indiscriminate bombings they carried out in San Vicente. “I remember hiding with my husband under a bridge, clutching my children, and wondering if we would survive. Then the police took over the town, and the crime started again, burglary, and other things,” she said.

Larger than most villages

We arrived at El Diamante in late afternoon, covered in dust from the dry, unpaved road. I went first to a welcome tent to receive my press credentials and basic instructions, and from there with a guide to one of the three purpose-built camps for guests. There I was met by one of the guerrilleros from the Southern Bloc, who had been detailed to organise the construction of the huge complex, provide security, and attend to visitors. colombia_farc10conf_trader Local trader selling everything, from USB sticks to make-up The conference complex was larger than most villages in the remote Yarí. Previously, El Diamante only had one house, and a bar with a billiards table and a shop. There was a sign by the bar saying “El Diamante, territory of peace”. In less than three weeks, FARC’s Eastern and Southern Blocs had worked together to build something that could easily pass for a rock festival. At one end was a huge stage with speakers and three giant screens, for the cultural performances in the evenings. At the other was a bamboo barn for the FARC delegates to conduct their conference, out of bounds to press. In between there was the big press tent, with the restaurant, a space for press conferences and a marquee with a hundred or so white plastic tables with electric sockets for journalists to work and charge their equipment. They had installed a petrol pump for all the cars and buses arriving, there were three medical posts for emergencies, and local people had come from all around, setting up stalls selling T-shirts, beer, hats, cake, empanadas, toilet paper, USB sticks, stationary and torches. Everything was extremely well organised, with military-style planning and discipline. colombia_farc10conf_barber_700 A haircut before the conference Everywhere guerrilleros were walking around, talking, working, and being photographed by journalists. For 52 years the FARC have avoided cameras at all costs. Many Colombians have never met a guerrillero, nor had a chance to talk to them as human beings and understand why they fighting. At this crucial moment in the peace process, following hard on the publication of the final agreement on 24 August, and just before the public signing in Cartagena on 26 September and the National Referendum on the Havana accords on 2 October, FARC decided to host their conference in public, in order to have witnesses to their transition to a political movement. Journalists from every kind of media had come, from RCN and Caracol, two of Colombia’s biggest mainstream outlets, to small local community radio programs, student newspapers and left-wing publications, as well as international journalists, photographers, and academics such as myself, interested to come and see the FARC, meet guerrilleros and find out about their lives and motivations, and their expectations for the future.

Changing perceptions

I asked Valentina, one of FARC’s press team, how they planned to counteract the multiple misconceptions about them that exist in Colombia. “Our main strategy is to show ourselves as we are, the well-rounded human beings we have formed on our road of struggle. Changing the perceptions of a society that has been manipulated by the media is complicated. But with this event we are opening the doors to our home, so that you can come close to our lives, get to know our political project, and so that you can help us to modify those perceptions.” Over the next few days I spoke to dozens of the men and women of the FARC, many of whom reiterated the same message. “We aren’t the drug-trafficking terrorists that they have made us out to be,” they all said. “We are a revolutionary process, and we have always wanted peace, we were at war because we were forced into it by the state, because it was our only option to make the changes we saw were necessary in Colombia.” One guerrillero I talked to said, “It’s a psychological war. The national media, instead of informing, misinform. They say we rape women, for example. None of it is true.” All of them I spoke to said they wanted to work in the new political party which will emerge from the FARC. The slogan of the Conference was: “National Reconciliation, Peace with Social Justice, and Advanced Democracy”. Management of the media was as disciplined as the life in the camps. Journalists were not allowed into the actual Conference except for short allocated slots to take pictures, but we were treated to a speech in the morning and a press conference in the evening by a member of the Secretariat, who would bring us up to date with the development of their discussions.

Approval for the peace accords

Prior to the Conference, each Front had its own assembly, reading and debating each of the six points of the Havana accords, and electing delegates to communicate their observations and concerns to the Conference. Over the first couple of days, each delegate gave their report. In the 10 minutes in which I was allowed into the conference, I overheard one delegate saying that his Front was giving their approval to the accords, expressing agreement also that FARC’s economic resources should become centralised now that they were going to become a political party, saying that they hoped that the party – so far without an official name – would maintain the same acronym, FARC. He was just beginning to talk about the issue of legalising their resources (money, property, goods) when the time for our visit to the conference hall ran out. colombia_farc10conf_plenary_700 The Conference in session After two or three days of plenary discussions, delegates divided into a series of commissions with particular tasks:
  • Drafting the concluding Political Declaration of the Conference
  • Organisational aspects of the new movement
  • Financing for the implementation of the agreements
  • Media and communications
  • Relations with international accompaniment
  • Analysing their own human resources and electing the new leaders for the political transition
  • Gender matters
  • ‘Greetings’ (or formalities, I supposed)
  • Writing the Conference report
The commissions reported back to the plenary, and the Conference finished with the reading of the Political Declaration, which will be the subject of Part Three of this blog. Several of the speeches given by commanders in the press conferences included sharp reminders to the media to “be responsible” and “contribute to peace-building”; indirect reminders that they felt they had been unfairly treated by the media in previous times.

The guerrillerada

In between these press conferences, we were free to wander around, interview commanders, and talk to the guerrillerada. The large majority are of campesino origin, and many joined FARC at a young age. I spoke with Jhon, born in the rural area of Cartagena de Chairá in the department of Caquetá, who grew up in a FARC-controlled area and since he was a child listened to them talking about the struggle for social justice. “I saw how the situation was with the poverty in the countryside, and I saw that they were right, so I joined when I was 15”, he said. I asked him how his family felt about this. “They are proud, because they know that I’m fighting for a better country”. I asked him what the hardest thing was about guerrilla life. “Losing many comrades in battle,” he said, looking down at the ground. “We share our life together, we learn together. The FARC is the biggest university in Colombia for us. We study everything. Marxism-Leninism, the history of other countries in Latin America, how to read and write. And we fight side by side with each other. More than the family I was born into, the FARC is my family. And losing a comrade is like losing a brother”. I asked him if he was scared about the demobilisation process. After the referendum on 2 October, the FARC will concentrate in 27 zones around the country for six months, with a Verification and Monitoring Mechanism composed of Army, United Nations personnel and members of FARC, during which their arms will be decommissioned and those not charged with crimes against humanity will receive amnesties. Many analysts are concerned that one of the greatest challenges to the implementation of the accords are the paramilitary and criminal structures, which have been implicated in assassinations of social and political leaders and who represent the main threat to members of FARC participating in politics. Jhon said, “We trust the commanders a lot. We know they have a lot of knowledge, and have done their best to make everything as safe as possible for us. I’m not afraid, because I believe in what they’ve worked on for the last four years of negotiations”. Ernesto, a young man with close-set eyes and dark skin, talked to me about the ceasefire with the army. Over the last year, FARC has observed a unilateral ceasefire, hailed by security analysts as an indicator of an effective centralised command able to deliver on such commitments. Compared with similar processes in other countries (for example Northern Ireland) the level of dissent from these peace accords promises to be low. The only openly dissident faction has been a sector of the First Front. Only delegates from the non-dissident faction attended the Conference; Secretariat member Pablo Catatumbo told us in a press conference that the dissident faction had been invited but had not attended. On 29 August, a bilateral ceasefire was finally implemented. Ernesto said that during the unilateral ceasefire, the army would search for and try to provoke them, shooting into the areas where they were present. The FARC forces’ response was always try to get away and avoid breaking the ceasefire. “Of course if they shot directly at us we would respond”, he said. On the way to the Conference, their unit was stopped on the road by an army checkpoint. “I was in the truck. The Commander went ahead to talk to their Commander. They told us we should pass the checkpoint with our guns on the floor of the truck. Our Commanders shook hands. It was nearly dark, and we couldn’t see very well, but they waved at us as we went past and called out ‘have a good trip’”, said Ernesto. Osvaldo, a commander of the unit, was more sceptical. He was older, perhaps in his forties, thickset and tall, with piercing grey eyes, and had been nineteen years in the FARC. He was concerned about the paramilitaries and the army. “We’ve been fighting for years with our guns, and we know that one day we might be killed in combat, but fighting for what we believe in. But when we set down our arms, we might be killed like rats, boom, just like that”. colombia_farc10conf_rebels-of-the-south-band_700 The Rebels of the South In the evenings were the concerts. The first night I was there, one of the main acts was FARC’s own band, ‘The Rebels of the South’, a 13-piece group singing cumbia, baladas and merengue songs about guerrilla ideology and the peace process: “The change all started in Havana”, went one of the lyrics. There was an incredible energy as hundreds of guerrilleros in front of the stage cheered, stood on their chairs, sang along with their hands on their hearts and danced wildly into the night. The predominant emotion was happiness. No one was drunk, people were drinking beer and enjoying themselves but everything was orderly and respectful, and everyone kept repeating to each other, “It’s a historical moment”. I danced with three or four guerrilleros, who were much more respectful, it has to be said, than most Colombian men in nightclubs. I asked one of them how he felt about the peace process. “Excited, on one hand”, he said. “It’s what we’ve been struggling for. But scared on the other.” “Scared of what?” I asked. “Scared that they will kill us”, he replied. colombia_farc10conf_timochenko_350 At one point, the singers called up on stage the political prisoners and prisoners of war who had been released temporarily in order to participate in the Conference, as part of an agreement with the government, accompanied by prison guards who would take them back afterwards to their jails to await the amnesties they were hoping to receive. The prisoners danced with the members of the band. One of them, Robinson, in jail for 22 years, made a speech and called out, “Freedom! Freedom!”, with extraordinary intensity, half crying, ecstatic. Every song was about peace, and every speech was saying “Yes to Peace”, or “Viva la Paz”, but lightly, it was a party, and the MC said, “Whoever isn’t dancing it’s because they don’t want peace”, and everyone laughed. At one point, top commander Timochenko was sitting in the audience, swamped by press, with cameras and lights in his face, close-up; but he was just watching the band, smiling gently, as if determined to ignore the cameras and enjoy the moment. Many of the guerrilleros haven’t seen each other in years. For a lot of them, coming to this huge complex in the middle of the Llanos del Yarí is like going to a town, somewhere they can make a phone-call, can buy a T-Shirt, and have electric light at night. Some of them have reconnected with family members for the first time in years.

Searching for loved ones

People travelled to the Conference from all over the country, hoping to find their sons and daughters in the guerrilla, and news about whether they are alive or dead. People started to send notes up to the stage during the concerts for the MC to read out: “Carolina seeks her son David, nom de guerre Lucho, joined the Fourth Front in 1999”. There were dozens every night. One man, Erasmus Vargas, a campesino who walked with a stick, came looking for his son Willington, and had a photo of him in his wallet, a young man who had joined the FARC as a teenager, posing in the photo with his gun. He had been told by those in Willington’s Front that he had died in combat some years ago. One of the issues being discussed in the Conference was precisely the importance of compiling a registry in order to be able to inform family members of the whereabouts or fate of their loved ones. I later showed a photo of Erasmus with the picture of his son to an academic colleague, who immediately burst into tears. “I did an internship in the region of the Macarena twenty years ago, I was the teacher of the local school. I taught Willington maths, because he wanted to learn how to multiply and divide because he wanted to work in the logging industry, and needed to be able to do the maths about the dimensions of planks of wood. I knew his younger brother had gone into the guerrilla. But I had expected him to have a wife and children.” colombia_farc10conf_erasmus-vargas_700 Erasmus Vargas with the photo of his son After the concert, a colleague and myself interviewed one of the Rebels of the South vocalists over a cold beer in one of the tents set up by local villagers. Camilo Vargas talked to us about the human rights violations that FARC have committed over the years. He said they were due to two main things – on the one hand, poor enforcement of discipline by commanders, because one of FARC’s strict rules is not to kill civilians. On the other, there have been a number of cases of infiltrated commanders who have committed atrocities in order to discredit the guerrilla and weaken their support among the campesinos. “We have to recognise our mistakes and ask for forgiveness in all those cases”, he said. This has, in fact, already begun – in December 2015, Secretariat member Pastor Alape took part in a public act of recognition and apology in Bojayá, where dozens of civilians were killed by a bomb FARC threw at a church in 2002, supposedly aimed at paramilitaries who were taking cover behind. And in recent weeks, family members of politicians from the department of Valle who were kidnapped by FARC and later killed met with the Secretariat in Havana to coordinate a public apology.

Access to the media

We asked how they interact with campesino organisations in the regions where they operate. In areas fully controlled by FARC, they frequently operate as a pseudo-state, administering justice, building roads, and resolving local disputes, such as disagreements over borders between farms, or couples separating and dividing up goods. “When there are disputes between campesinos,” said Camilo, “we first try to teach them to respect their own authorities. They have to elect a Junta, and we encourage them to respect the Junta’s authority, because why else did they vote for them? But in cases where the Junta cannot resolve problems we try to mediate”. I asked how often they met with the locals. “We can’t have regular meetings because we are an irregular armed group. We meet with them whenever we’re in the area. If we had access to media, then we could reach out to them more easily, imparting knowledge and ideology”. This, of course, is what they are going to try to achieve with the transition to being a political movement, and part of the Havana accords contemplates access to media, both for the movement that arises from FARC’s transition, and for local community organisations. We asked Camilo how he saw the challenges for dismantling drug-trafficking groups. “We have never agreed with drug-trafficking, because it corrupts the population. It creates disorder”. Many media channels have of course represented FARC over the years as “the biggest drug cartel in the world”. The truth may be hazier. They have admitted, in the fourth agreement from Havana on illicit drugs, to their involvement in drug-trafficking, to “finance the revolution”, but claim that their principal involvement has been levying ‘taxes’ from those cultivating or trafficking coca. Camilo continued, “Most young campesinos who work in cultivating coca end up in the guerrilla because they get tired of that life. And we have to educate them. They arrive with rough manners. It’s not like the generation of the sixties, at the beginning – that was a generation with principles. They were not corrupted by coca”. They have rules of recruitment: for example, not to recruit anyone younger than 15 nor older than 30. “We violated that rule when we recruited minors,” admitted Camilo. “We don’t want to take in people who are criminals, like rapists, or people who are lazy. We like to keep order in our regions. But we also know that if we send people away, they will go and create disorder in other parts. We can’t change people, but we can try to educate them.”

Dealing with fear

The paramilitaries remain a worry. Camilo said, “If, after the signing of the agreements, we just sit there with our arms crossed doing nothing, of course the paramilitaries will proliferate”. One of the great concerns is that when FARC demobilise, their areas of influence could be taken over by criminal and paramilitary groups. “We have to act”, said Camilo, “and for that we need access to the media, to teach people, to explain to them that they need to stop financing the paramilitaries, essentially, to dismount the culture of the corruption. I hope the army doesn’t just try to combat the paramilitaries by shooting them. Because that phenomenon, it can only be ended by talking to people, teaching them another kind of life”. Catatumbo explained four principal measures contemplated by the Havana agreements to counter the culture of corruption and paramilitarism. First, the agreement to create a National Political Pact between political parties, trade unions, media, the church and other sectors of society, committed to never allow politics to be done again at the point of a gun, and to resolve differences by dialogue. Second, a special investigative unit which will belong to the General Attorney’s Office but with an independent mandate and budget which will answer directly to the Presidency, to combat paramilitarism. Thirdly, an elite police unit, made up of personnel with high levels of training and rigorous selection mechanisms to dismantle paramilitary groups. And fourthly, a review of all the Colombian legislation which has permitted the spread of these groups across the country. “Being a guerrillero is a crime in Colombia”, said Catatumbo. “Being a paramilitary is not”. Camilo, like Ernesto, mentioned meeting soldiers on the way to the Conference. And he thought they were very respectful. “It’s clear they’ve been given training on the situation,” he said. “It was the first time we could travel by road. Usually we have to travel by back paths through the jungle. And it was great, we saw how beautiful Colombia is. And we are excited to get to know Colombia now, and see how beautiful other parts are”. The implementation of the Havana agreements will be an enormous challenge for the whole of Colombian society. At the moment, all the FARC members seem to be keen to participate in the political movement which will arise out of this transition. The energy and motivation is palpable, though there are many understandable concerns. Whether all of them actually will make the change will be another matter. The transition of over seven thousand men and women from a hierarchical, rural army operating clandestinely, to a political movement where leaders have to delegate, decisions have to be made by assembly, and compromises have to be made, remains a challenge that will be worked out in the coming months and years. The Political Declaration, which will be dealt with in Part Three of this blog, will set the founding pact for this process. The transition, however, to a group with the eminently civilian skills to organise events and face cameras and public interviews, has already begun.
Gwen Burnyeat is a Wolfson scholar reading for a PhD in Anthropology at UCL researching the Colombian peace process. She was previously lecturer in Political Anthropology in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, where she also did a Masters in Anthropology as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar. This was the basis for her forthcoming book ‘Chocolate, Politics and Peace-building: an Ethnography of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia’ (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) and the documentary ‘Chocolate of Peace‘. Before that she studied Literature at the Universities of Leeds and Cambridge. She has worked in Colombia for over six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International. 

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