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.

It took Athena a while to open up about the camp's nighttime activities, specifically her duties as a sex slave. Most female recruits, regardless of age, are forced to service male guerillas in an effort to maintain morale among the male troops and avoid the security risk that comes with the men venturing into town to consort with civilians.

After three years, Athena's commanding officer apparently realized that her intellect and communications skills could serve him more effectively if she assumed a position other than the missionary. "You joined the cause to become a revolutionary," Athena recalled him saying. "If you want to be a prostitute, why not go back to your village, where at least you will get paid?" That taunt was particularly vicious, because no female member could choose to trade sex for better food or medicine, let alone to just go home. At any rate, in 2000, when Athena was 16, she stopped being a sex slave and was promoted to director of propaganda for her front. In that role, she was in charge of creating messaging strategies, including developing radio shows, authoring leaflets, and mingling with the local villagers.

When Athena was first recruited, she had known nothing about Marxism or communism. She could not find the "imperialist empire" (the United States) on a map. But as a 16-year-old director of propaganda for her front, she came to embrace the FARC doctrine. It lauded Che Guevara's revolutionary theories (without necessarily following them), condemned Colombia's "oligarchy-serving" democracy, and vilified the United States as a poisonous capitalist influence. Athena enjoyed talking to the people in the villages that her frente controlled, encouraging them to see FARC as their champion and recognize the group as the only "legitimate" authority. No doubt the AK-47 she carried enhanced her persuasiveness.

Athena's promotion to propaganda director also included an invitation to join her front's inner command circle. At the time, she was one of only a few females who had ever reached this level. Her Venezuelan-sourced combat fatigues, assault rifle, and new position among the decision-makers were empowering. She recalled feeling that FARC's promise of gender equality had finally become a reality, and that her male superiors saw her as their equal.

Then she got pregnant. The father was a lower-ranking combatant who was transferred to another front and never learned of Athena's pregnancy. Recalling the experience for the first time in the several meetings we had, Athena fought to maintain her composure. She continued to look me in the eye, but tears rolled down her cheek. She related how, at six months, a FARC "doctor" induced labor and performed a vaginal extraction. Her baby boy was born alive but soon died. "It was an execution," she said. Later, when Athena found out that the "doctor" had been killed in combat, she secretly rejoiced. "My child was the son of two revolutionaries. How could a fellow revolutionary do something so horrible?"

The ordeal left Athena shell-shocked. Her family had betrayed her, but she did not want to believe it. The pain from the physical trauma eventually subsided, but the emotional anguish did not. Although there are no official statistics on forced late-term abortions, other former female FARC members tell similar stories. When I asked Athena why the group treats its female comrades in such a way, she said that, looking back, it had essentially been a troop-retention strategy. The experience was so dehumanizing, she said, that she ceased caring about her future or about dying. She felt dead; FARC owned her completely. She volunteered for close-combat assignments, ready to kill or be killed.

Yet during encounters with the enemy, Athena found herself losing focus, imagining each adversary as someone's son. The bouts of empathy enraged her. She would remember her murdered son and resent her duty to kill another woman's child. At the same time, she wanted to believe that there had been some purpose to her forced abortion. Moments of doubt threatened her sanity. Over time, she trained herself not to feel loss or compassion. She spoke to me of an incident in which she "proved" that she had rid herself of all feeling: Her closest confidant, a young man in charge of making improvised explosive devices blew himself up with one of his explosives. "I remember looking at his remains and thinking, All that's left is una libra de carne -- a pound of meat," she recalled. "He was here and now he's gone -- y qué? So what?"

But then, in a strange twist of fate, a fellow female fighter approached her in desperation. The woman had gotten pregnant by a commanding officer and wanted to escape. The woman feared for her baby's life. Presumably, Athena was the only person in a position to help her, since she was the only woman with access to the safe in which the front's money was kept. She also had "influence" with the logistics man who tracked all the current FARC positions in the immediate area. The pregnant woman pleaded with Athena, arguing that they both deserved freedom and another chance at a life. Athena says that moment "woke her up." Although she was doubtful that either of them would survive an attempt at desertion, she agreed to formulate a plan. She took about $200 from the safe and slept with the logistics man in exchange for information.

In the pre-dawn hours of a mid-August day in 2005, Athena and her pregnant companion fled the insurgent camp on foot, each heading for a different destination because they would move faster on their own. For three days, Athena ran through the jungle, enduring torrential rains and blistering heat, only to arrive at the outskirts of a village where a man recognized her as a FARC member and turned her over to the local Colombian armed forces.

Athena was sick with a parasite infection, famished, and dehydrated. She was sure that the Colombian army would rape and execute her. She remembered thinking, "Whatever they will do they will do." So she refused to answer questions. After some time, a sergeant entered the room where she was held. She braced herself for the worst. But something else followed. The sergeant looked at her and said, "You look a lot like my daughter. In fact, you two could be sisters. How long has it been since you've eaten?"

Had it not been for the sergeant's compassion, Athena says, she would not have trusted the government's offer to enter her into its demobilization program. At the age of 21, she accepted and was transferred to a safe house in a different departamento ("state") where no one would know her. Athena's stay in the Casa de Paz ("House of Peace") was challenging, but she received job training, counseling, and funds with which she transitioned to the "reintegration" phase of the program. The Colombian government's statistics show that between 2003 and 2011, more than 53,000 insurgent and paramilitary combatants have been demobilized (11 percent of whom were female). Current Colombian government estimates suggest that fewer than 8,000 FARC members remain active.

Today, Athena is pursuing a technical degree. She is married and has a young son. She often thinks of the pregnant woman who inspired her to flee; she never learned her fate. Although she has cooperated with the Colombian government since her demobilization and is grateful for her chance at a new life, Athena worries that the Colombian government will never serve the poor. She questions whether the recently approved free-trade agreement between the United States and Colombia will benefit el campesino -- the common farmer. That said, when I asked Athena what one should tell a 13-year-old girl who sees joining FARC as a means toward empowerment, she was adamant: "Dígale que el mensaje es una mentira." Tell her that the message is a lie.

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  • CHRISTINE BALLING is Senior Fellow for Latin American Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.
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