Colombian rebels prepare for life after conflict

IN THE MOUNTAINS OF NORTHWEST COLOMBIA — The rebel leader known as Juan Pablo carries with him a new telescopic assault rifle and a heavy heart.

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As a commander of the 36th Front of the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, one of the most active units in a half-century of bloodshed, the paunch-bellied warrior has spent 25 years plotting ambushes and assembling land mines but has never been to the movies, driven a car or eaten in a restaurant.

Now peace is within reach as talks between the guerrillas and the government near conclusion in Cuba, and for the first time the 41-year-old is thinking about a future outside this jungle hideout. His dream: to return to the poor village he left as a teenager and run for mayor. But transition to civilian life will come without his girlfriend and comrade-in-arms who was killed six months ago in an army raid, underscoring the toll still being exacted by Latin America's last major guerrilla conflict even as it winds down.

"This war is going to end without victors or vanquished but lots of suffering on both sides," said Juan Pablo, the soft-smiling son of a street vendor. "It's false to say we arrived defeated to the negotiating table. They dealt us some heavy blows, of course, but 51 years of war against an enemy backed by the most powerful army in the world (the U.S. army) has not made us cower, because the injustices that led us to take up arms are still occurring."

That mixture of pride and trepidation about the future is common among the FARC's roughly 7,000 fighters, many of whom, like Juan Pablo, come from poor rural upbringings and struggle to imagine life outside the highly regimented ranks of the guerrillas.

The Associated Press made a rare, three-day visit to a secret FARC camp in Antioquia state in early January to see how the region's oldest leftist insurgency is preparing for a peace that looks more tantalizingly close than ever. AP journalists were directed to a remote meeting point and then escorted on an hours-long trek to the jungle site. The FARC insisted that the camp's location not be revealed to protect the lives of its fighters.

Decades of fighting between guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the armed forces has, according to government figures, left a toll of more than 220,000 dead, some 40,000 disappeared and over 5 million driven from their homes — the largest displaced population of any country after Syria.

But after President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba in September and shook the hand of the FARC's top commander, both sides feel confident enough to predict a final deal as early as March. This generation of FARC guerrillas would be the first to abandon its stated aim of overthrowing the government and instead fight for their ideals at the ballot box.

At the makeshift camp that was temporarily home to 22 rank-and-file fighters, four commanders and two dogs, the day starts at around 4:30 a.m. With the moon still hanging on the horizon, the jungle comes to life to the sound of metal pots clanging as breakfast is prepared, rain falling on giant fronds and rubber boots sloshing through the mud.

Thanks to a unilateral FARC cease-fire, it has been months since gunshots rang out in this remote corner of the Andes where the rebels share the dense forest with venomous snakes, 20 kinds of exotic frogs and South America's only bear species. Still, the rebels show no sign of letting down their guard after a decade-old government offensive that more than halved their troop strength.

They sleep with their weapons, restrict all conversation at night and use assumed names to protect their identities. Once-a-day radio contact with other units happens via code, and lengthier missives are saved to thumb drives and transported through a network of human couriers. Fresh in everyone's mind is the 2011 death of the FARC commander known as Alfonso Cano, hunted down and killed by the Colombian army thanks to a cellphone intercept.

Their wariness highlights one of the thorniest issues that negotiators must still work out: How and under whose auspices the FARC will demobilize, when experience has taught the rebels that politics can be just as perilous as war.

The guerrillas recall too well how during 1980s peace talks that ultimately failed, the FARC established a party known as the Patriotic Union as its political arm. In just a few years, more than 3,000 leftist activists, rebel sympathizers and two presidential candidates were gunned down by paramilitaries, often in cahoots with state security forces. It became a cautionary tale in a country plagued by political violence since its independence from Spain.

"We learned a lot from that experience, but who says the only way to practice politics is in Congress?" said Leonidas, another commander. "One thing is clear: In this new phase the FARC is not going to demobilize, we are going to mobilize" politically.

He said that activism would mostly involve work on behalf of the rural poor, a reflection of the FARC's 1960s origins as a self-defence force formed to protect farmer-run "independent republics" from the military.

While peace may be in the air, the rhetoric of conflict is hard to shed.

Rebels call superiors "comrades" and deserters "traitors," and harangues about "oligarchs" and the U.S. "empire" oppressing working-class Colombians are a daily trope. Forget cheap romance novels or literary classics; the only reading material at the camp includes volumes like the collected speeches of Fidel Castro, biographies of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara and journalistic accounts of paramilitary land grabs. Juan Pablo, for one, is capable of reciting verbatim from Castro's speeches.

But if the FARC can appear stuck in an ideological time warp, the rebels say the group rescued them from poverty, taught them to read and provided a "family" and sense of belonging. In hours of conversation during the AP visit, none showed any outward sign of discontent or criticized the peace process.

They also tried to downplay the FARC's deep involvement in drugs — a lucrative trade that could prove a powerful economic incentive to remain armed, especially for midlevel commanders. Families living in the remote valleys that the 36th Front lords over acknowledge paying a war tax to protect their coca plantings, but the rebels say they will help develop alternative crops if an accord is reached.

As a confidence-building gesture, the FARC has renounced ransom kidnappings to fund its insurgency. And while abuses such as recruitment of minors and civilian massacres will be judged by special peace tribunals, the rebels note that human rights groups blame the paramilitaries for most of the killings during the conflict.

Even as the camp maintains a wartime footing, the guerrillas have begun holding twice-a-day peace assemblies.

On a recent day the first one, before breakfast, was led by Yira Castro, a commander whose nom de guerre honors a noted Colombian communist. Under the shade of a tree, she read from a 63-page sub-accord that was recently signed in Havana.

Castro, a sort of mentor to other women rebels, has spent much of the last three years with the talks in Havana, and her relative worldliness shows in her Cuban-inflected Spanish and new orange laptop.

Listening attentively was Juliana, who joined the discussion after butchering a pig that would feed the camp for several days. Like many others, her path to the FARC was born as much from personal tragedy as political ideology. At age 16, after she says she was raped by her stepfather, she fled her impoverished home and followed in the footsteps of an uncle.

Juliana said that if she hadn't taken up arms she would have liked to have studied computers. But now she hopes to serve the FARC even during peacetime: "I want to prepare myself to get involved in politics and continue my association with the organization."

Amid the Spartan life of a guerrilla, she allows herself one small feminine indulgence: light-pink lipstick. Her companion, Alexis, spoke of what he sees as the banality of relationships in the outside world.

"In the FARC we never touch money. Everything is given to us, from medicine to cigarettes. That's why there is no dependency in which she expects me to provide for her," Alexis said, taking Juliana's hand. "Between us there is only love."

Talk came to an abrupt halt as an unfamiliar airplane flew overhead a second time, setting nerves on edge.

"Politics is a lot tougher than war," another commander, Anibal, observed from his hammock.

"You pay for a mistake on the battlefield with your life," he said, swinging back and forth, "but an error in the field of politics brings down an entire organization."


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