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.