My image of a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla was not a small-framed pretty girl in a jean-jacket, hands bangled in silver rings and white-sparkling nail-polish, with a silver cross hanging down a low-cut t-shirt and high heeled black sandals that evidently cut in her feet (she kept fiddling with the straps). Yet that was Maria, the young woman who agreed to meet me in downtown Bogotá to discuss her experience in the FARC, as well as her new life in Colombia's de-mobilization program -- a program designed to encourage guerrillas to give up their arms and reintegrate.
Maria, age 19, had not actually needed much encouragement. She had decided on her own to quit the FARC after she was forced to give birth, with labor-inducing drugs, to her child before full-term, and listen to the baby scream as it was murdered. Babies are frowned upon in the FARC, which makes sense as it is a co-ed army, with the majority of the "soldiers" in their teens and twenties.
This was the surprise of the FARC: that so many begin as child soldiers. While Maria was on the young side when she was recruited -- at age eight -- it turns out that forty percent of FARC guerrillas, like child-soldiers around the world, enter when they are in their teens. The FARC banks on the fact that many children in the poor rural areas of Colombia dream of the security, adventure and thrill of being in a military force. Schooling is difficult for poor rural children (Maria had to walk three hours to get to school), and food, nurture and comfort hard to come by. Family abuse is also typical: Maria's own father had beat her.
"I wanted to be a guerilla," Maria told me smiling, her hair pulled back neatly in pink barrettes. "I dreamed of holding a gun. Then a FARC guerrilla came to recruit me, offering me a radio, so I left my father and stepmother."
Towards the end of our interview, Maria added, more familiarly and with a provocative grin, that what she had also dreamed of was "the pleasure of watching blood flow" -- "and knowing her own hands had done it."
"Yet you did not like killing the family with the three kids at the lake," I pointed out. "Isn't that true?" She had told me that the "battles" were okay, but the individual murders, she did not like.
Maria nodded, twisting in her seat (as she did constantly), putting her ringed-fingers over her face (as she also did constantly):
"No I did not like that."
"And the mother and the toddler?"
Maria had followed the command to shoot a mother in the face, then her baby. The mother, Maria told me, had cried out for her not to shoot her, to save "the little one." She had shot the mother first, then the one year old.
The commander had made this order, as part of the policy of keeping "terror" in the villages, so the campesinos would not cooperate with the Colombian military. The war between the Colombian government and the FARC (and the paramilitaries, ELN, etc.) has intensified recently under "Plan Colombia"---whose aim is to have a governmental presence in every municipality -- so the FARC has become even stricter (and Colombia much safer) : which is why Maria later opined it was not a good time now to join the FARC. Now, if she were to speak to children excited about joining the FARC -- to fly helicopters and shoot! -- she would warn the little ones that it is not so much fun.
"The mother and baby..." Maria started to smile, repeating her "sangre corriendo" comment, but then her voice dropped and she turned her eyes: "No I didn't like that. And I don't want to answer anymore questions about the people I killed. I speak enough about them with the psychiatrist I see. I don't want to see them. I don't like to see their faces--their gestures as they died." She winced, looked down at the table and began to play with her cell phone.
"You remember their faces?"
"Each of them." She flushed and put her hands to her face, the white nails sparkling in the fluorescent light.
As it turned out, aside from the thrill of using a weapon, life in the FARC didn't sound very thrilling at all. The platoons -- each about 54 in number -- had to move every three days or so, to find a new camp, and at night, would sleep under plastic-stretched between trees either alone, or, if married, in a couple. Although, oddly, Maria -- who had "married" at age ten -- shook her head "no" when asked if she had slept with her companion, "Jose" (father of her dead baby), the only person -- she later told me -- she cared for in the world. "No queria a alguna persona," she repeated three times with a proud lolling voice.
The rules too were strict: up before sun-rise, military line-up, checking of weapons, debriefing for the day (there were battles as often as twice a month), breakfast of "hot chocolate, bread and soup" and then "indoctrination." There was no freedom whatsoever: one had to ask permission to use the bathroom, even in the forest.
Each "guerrilla" was assigned to a special service: cooking, cleaning, recruiting, etc. Maria's service was financing. That means going to the peasants and buying the cocaine from them, for 3 dollars a gram, to later be sold to middle men for the cartels--and eventually the United States, at a few hundred dollars a gram.
"So you got to know all the coke farmers?"
"Yes," said Maria, with a confident nod.
Cocaine. What makes these child-soldiers (aka these young FARC guerillas) distinct from other child soldiers around the world is the boon of the cocaine industry. The guerrillas have access to money, and can even send cash back to their families: they have a steady coke-for-money or arms business going on -- while also stealing, extorting and killing for a percentage of their income. The kids don't need to raid for their food (as they do in Africa): they buy it. Each commander had a computer; and some guerrillas (those with special duties) even had cell-phones.
Maria admitted that she still talked to friends back in the FARC, with her cell-phone. And the Commander had called her a couple times, trying to convince her to come back -- although, "nah," she said, looking away, she would not. She liked her life in Bogotá, where she lived in the "Casa de Paz", the transition home for ex-guerillas.
Maria's is a success story -- so far. She is one of 20,000 guerillas demobilized since 2002, when the demobilization program began. The hope for peace, according to the various Colombians I met in Bogotá (called the "crystal city' by inhabitants, because quite frankly, it looks pretty good!) -- a political scientist, a UNHCR aid, an NGO director -- is to get it back to some kind of stability, through military control, education, and economic incentives, a stability the US has an investment in as well.
Demobilization is key to this plan. Administrators cleverly try to reach and convince these guerrillas -- many of whom cannot read -- by using public means of communication that advertise the phone number to call: a video in brothels (apparently, a popular outlet for FARC males) which shows a happy demobilized man; a CD of Colombian vallenato ballads crooning that "freedom" does not lie in the FARC, a traveling play about a brother and sister, one who joined the FARC, the other the Colombian army, who eventually reconcile rather than kill each other.
"Guerrilero hay otra vida!" reads one poster. "La desmovilizacion es la salida." [Guerilla, you have another life ahead of you! Demobilization is the way out."]
It is an attractive prospect. When a guerrilla like Maria gives up her arms, she is given money, a place to stay for up to six months -- a "House of Peace" -- and then supported, to some extent, in housing, schooling and job-location. Although of course they cannot go home, for fear of reprisal from the FARC.
Maria told me she enjoyed her new life in Bogotá now, and one day might like to be "a secretary." She also loved playing soccer, and was good at defending the ball. And no, she did not have flashbacks from the trauma of violence, but she did hear a male voice, from time to time, consoling her, as he had in battles.
As for whether she regretted having "wasted" her youth in the FARC, she said honestly and succinctly, as was her wont: "No I did not waste my life in the FARC. I lived the life I once wanted and chose."
"And the meaning of life for you?" I said. "Now that you have gone through all that you have gone through."
"The meaning?" Maria opened her hands. "Life is bonita!"
"Because it is!" she grinned.
But then she pointed at me.
"Can I ask you a question?" she said boldly, for the first time directly facing me.
"Why are you asking me all these questions?"
I explained that maybe many people have no idea what it is like to be in the FARC, and she was helping to communicate the story to people far far away.
She smiled, for the first time, a rather childlike smile, almost accepted a parting kiss on the cheek -- and then went back to playing with her pink cell-phone.
The Crystal City