For more than a half century, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — better known as the FARC — has been in a brutal civil war with the government. But now the two sides are on the verge of signing a peace treaty.
This summer, I spent a total of five weeks with an elite FARC unit at different times and at different camps in the jungles of the southern state of Caquetá. The rebels came from fronts all over Colombia for a year’s education program to prepare them for leadership roles as the FARC prepares to transform itself from an armed rebel group into a leftist political party. Many of the rebels I met were unable to read or write when they joined the FARC but now were studying history, current affairs, and Marxist-Leninist political theory. More than a third were women, with many occupying command positions. The FARC has strict rules against sexual discrimination, although they have not always been observed.
For many city-dwellers in Colombia, the country’s left-wing rebels are bogeymen — kidnappers, drug traffickers, and assassins. But people who live in the vast areas of Colombian countryside controlled by the FARC tend to have a different view of the rebels. For them, the FARC replaced governments that always favored Colombia’s rich elite: The rebels have kept order, administered justice, built roads, and raised taxes. As part of the peace process the FARC has renounced kidnapping and has made commitments to abandon its involvement in the cocaine trade, historically two of its main sources of revenue.
During the long and violent civil war FARC units have carried out massacres of civilians and selective assassinations, such as the 2009 killing of 27 members of the indigenous Awá people, including women and young children. Still, the bogeymen view of the FARC owes much to the country’s mainstream media, following the government’s lead. Colombia’s biggest newspaper, El Tiempo, is owned and run by the family of President Juan Manuel Santos, who was also defense minister in the previous administration. Foreign governments and media have frequently taken the same line. The United States declared the FARC a terrorist organization in 1997 and has still not lifted that classification.
Many FARC members fear that after they disarm they will be vulnerable to assassination by pro-government paramilitary groups in a repeat of the movement's last attempt to enter civilian politics in the mid-1980s. Then, around 3,000 members of the FARC’s Patriotic Union party were murdered by right-wing death squads.
After four years of slow peace negotiations in Havana, Cuba, the FARC and the Colombian government are in an unprecedented honeymoon period. They have signed a bilateral ceasefire and provisional accords, and they are due to sign a final agreement on September 26. Combat commanders from both sides have met up, without guns, to talk about how they may work together in the future.
The Colombian people will vote for or against the agreement in a plebiscite on October 2. FARC delegates are holding a conference September 17–23 in the southern state of Caquetá to discuss the treaty, and they will almost certainly approve it.
I first reported on the FARC when I lived in Colombia in 1985–86, traveling several days on horseback to their mountain headquarters. Peace negotiations with the FARC began in 2012 in Havana. I flew there early this year and asked permission to visit their camps in Colombia. The FARC allowed me to photograph and interview whomever I wanted. The rebels I met were friendly, disciplined, thoughtful, and, apparently, idealistic.