The Colombian government and FARC have agreed to stage a cease-fire in their decades-long battle next week, during which FARC plans to release hostages that it has held since 1998. Washington and Bogotá should use the opportunity to restart talks and seek a negotiated end to the insurgency.
As the Colombian government sits down with FARC for formal peace negotiations this month, reports about the talks abound. Curiously missing, however, is any discussion of Bogota's nine-year-old program to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate rebels and whether it is equipped to bring thousands of remaining FARC guerrillas back into society should a peace agreement be reached.
FARC rebels pose with a girl holding a weapon in an undated photo confiscated by Colombian authorities. (Reuters)
In the summer of 2009, during a lunch with a retired colonel of the Colombian army, I asked about his experiences fighting female members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an insurgency that has plagued the country since the mid-1960s. Although the colonel did not say it was official policy to shoot women first during a firefight, he hinted that any sensible soldier would do so. Women, with their "Kamikaze-like" mentality, he said, were the most deadly combatants.
When I met "Athena" earlier this year, I found out why. In 1997, just before her 13th birthday, Athena became one of the rare women to join the organization. By the time she deserted in 2005, however, she estimates that female membership had grown to at least 40 percent. Recent Colombian government statistics, along with those of Colombian-based nongovernmental organizations, estimate current female membership to be between 30 and 40 percent. Although there are few cases exactly like Athena's -- she achieved a relatively high rank during her time with FARC -- the reasons she joined up, and the trials that followed, are common.
Twenty-eight years old today, Athena is barely over five feet tall, compact, and attractive. Her body is never fully relaxed. Even when she sits down, her light eyes scan her surroundings. She always appears at the ready. She grew up with her mother, an older brother, and two younger sisters in an impoverished rural town. She does not describe her home life before she became a militant as abusive, although her brother regularly beat her whenever she "misbehaved." (Misbehavior included her refusal to obey commands to perform random demeaning tasks.) After one such beating, Athena ran away, and within a few weeks of her arrival in a neighboring village, a "kind, old man" named Paco approached her, offering "protection and fun" if she would come with him to la finca (the farm). Had he been making his pitch to a boy, he probably would not have played up physical security. Generally speaking, FARC recruits boys with the promise of a motorcycle, a cell phone, and cool clothes, all of which will help them get girls.
After two weeks at FARC's farm, Athena realized that, for all the fun and protection it seemed to offer, she was not free to leave. But at that point, she says, she did not care. Back home, her mother was "cold" and had done nothing to prevent her brother's beatings. Further, no one had ever given Athena ice cream before, as the militants on the farm had, let alone the chance to be part of a family that promised gender equality.
So Athena joined the rank and file of the frente ("front" in Spanish) that controlled the area. Frentes, of which there are approximately 30, are subgroups of the bloques ("blocks"), which operate in seven distinct regions of the country. Between 1997 and 2001, the first half of Athena's tenure with FARC, they were on the offensive. The insurgency capitalized on the lack of state presence in rural areas; towns without access to law enforcement, social services, or passable roads were there for the taking. The Colombian soldiers and police dispatched to remote areas were largely unfamiliar with their surroundings and undertrained in counterinsurgency tactics. Casualties were many, and hundreds of confirmed civilian deaths were recorded.
With the turn of the millennium, the tide turned, too. In 2000, the U.S. Congress and the Clinton administration signed off on Plan Colombia. In addition to funding humanitarian efforts, human rights initiatives, and economic development, the $1.6 billion aid package paved the way for the United States to proffer millions of dollars in military equipment and training to support Colombia's efforts against insurgencies and the illegal drug trade. At the beginning of 2002, the United States provided helicopters that gave Colombian armed forces a newfound tactical advantage over FARC, whose encampments were nearly impossible to locate or access through the impenetrable cover of mountainous and jungle terrain.
In the many meetings we had over the course of five months, Athena never discussed the specific military tactics of her front. However, she was candid about her day-to-day experiences. At first, she welcomed the sense of familial belonging and order that came with being in the group. Speaking with lingering respect for the routine, she told me that she awoke at 4:30 every morning, made up her leaf-and-wood cot, ate the first of three daily meals of rice and beans, and helped clean the camp. At 10:00, "school" would start. Adults would teach FARC's cause along with Colombian history as it related to their revolution.
After an hour lunch break at noon, it was time for physical readiness and arms training. During Athena's early days, new recruits practiced handling arms with wooden poles; there were not enough firearms to go around. (Today, FARC is far better equipped. In addition to support from sympathetic foreign regimes, the group generates funds from cocaine trafficking and illegal mining activities.) At 6:00 PM, the guerillas convened to talk about FARC's mission, sing farenas (pro-FARC folk tunes), and discuss any tactics that had been used during the most recent engagement with Colombian military or paramilitary forces.
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