Inside FARC’s Postwar Jungle Camp Finishing School

Inside FARC’s Postwar Jungle Camp Finishing School

YARI PLAINS, Colombia — At dawn in a jungle clearing in southern Colombia, rebels wearing pixelated fatigues, berets, and Lenin badges form up in a loose parade before the start of their school day. They belong to the country’s largest and oldest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which reached a peace agreement with the government last month after more than 50 years of civil war — morning military training has thus been replaced by classwork.

After a shout of “Viva Colombia!” the guerrillas, ranging in ages from 18 to 59, disperse into improvised classrooms formed by camouflage tarpaulins stretched between trees. There is some awkwardness when they put down their guns and pick up the textbooks that are the key to the new phase of their struggle.

“We are going into a new type of battle, and politics requires just as much training as war,” said Paula Sáenz, 26, a group monitor at the FARC’s Isaias Pardo school, which was set up in 1984 to train the movement’s top command. Sáenz, whose job is to turn her fellow fighters into party operatives, says the FARC’s aspiration to conquer the hearts and minds of their countrymen will collapse “if we don’t understand the issues that the country faces or how to get across our political message.”

After more than 50 years of fighting, and four years of tense negotiations, the FARC and the Colombian government signed a peace agreement on Sept. 26 in the colonial city of Cartagena, Colombia. The deal will be put to a public referendum on Oct. 2, after which the group hopes to cease its existence as a Marxist guerilla movement committed to overthrowing the state and begin a new life as a leftist political organization prepared to compete in elections.

The Isaias Pardo school is at the center of the group’s current preparation for civilian life, but the FARC’s emphasis on education is nothing new. “Our motto has always been ‘first you arm a guerrilla’s mind, then you put a gun in his hand,” said Frankie, 29, as he made notes in his cartoon-covered textbook. “If you don’t prepare a guerrilla ideologically, culturally, and politically, he won’t know what he is fighting for, and just as easily as he can fire that way, he could fire back this way.”

Unassuming and timid, Frankie left school in the city at age 13 after a pulling a knife on a teacher who was about to hit him, and sold candy and recycled trash on the streets of Bogotá before joining the FARC one year later. He said most FARC guerrillas had little or no education when they joined the movement. According to government figures, more than 1.5 million Colombians are illiterate; that’s more than 3 percent of the population. “I’ve had to teach people who arrived at the FARC and didn’t even know how to spell their name,” he recalled. “In the villages where they lived, if they worked they couldn’t study, and if they studied they couldn’t eat.”

FARC recruits would go through two years of basic education in literacy, ideology, and the movement’s command structure at local training camps. Their military training– courses in explosives, intelligence, and sniper shooting –was typically preceded by classes in reading or writing. Those recruited for the top command would be sent to schools like the Isaias Pardo Mixed School in the Yari Plains jungle camp, one of a handful of national training camps.

The FARC has now developed a “pedagogy for peace” curriculum to create a new cadre of political leaders. Unit commanders from across the FARC’s eastern bloc have marched for hundreds of miles to attend the Isaias Pardo school’s nine-month course. Frankie walked for five weeks from the north across the Cordillera mountains; Paula came from the southwest, trekking through dense jungle.  

“The [Isaias Pardo] school has always had a strong ideological component grounded in Marxist-Leninism from the beginning,” explained Victoria Nariño, 34, who joined the FARC’s urban guerrilla 12 years ago after studying social sciences in Bogotá and has been the camp’s main professor for the past nine months. “But since the peace accords began, the military training has disappeared and political training has intensified ahead of the huge, transcendental step — from armed fighters to civilians — that we are about to take.”

The daily routine begins at dawn with national and international news headlines and circulares — updates from the central command at the negotiating table in Havana. “Listening to news on the radio is such a ritual for us like praying is for Christians,” Victoria explained. “We do it everyday.” In the morning twilight the guerrillas drink tinto — sweetened coffee — to stay awake and keep warm. Banners emblazoned with the faces of the FARC’s leadership and other Marxist figureheads hang from the eaves of the large hut where they gather for lectures under a roof made of plastic sheeting and palm leaves.

In rough rows of eight, rebels sit on benches or stools crafted from logs. Their guns are always by their side, placed on the dirt floor or hanging from tree branches just outside the shelter. They spend most of their time immersed in left-wing political theory and cultural history: classes in party structure, philosophy, history and political economy. They discuss supply-side economics in terms of crops: plantains, coffee, and yuca, the starchy root vegetable typical of the Andes. The work by historian Renán Vega on social movements in Colombia — class struggle, unions, and the fight against state terrorism — was recently added to the curriculum.

Ahead of the plebiscite on the peace accords, the FARC will have to convince a skeptical public that they can indeed do peaceful politics. It is unclear at this stage whether the FARC will form its own political party or — more likely — join efforts with other leftist groups, especially in rural areas where they have their strongest support base.

Recent polls have swung between approval and rejection of the FARC’s political future, reflecting deep polarization in Colombia. If the deal passes in the referendum, the FARC still has to contend with vehement opposition. According to an Ipsos poll, 79 percent of respondents said FARC leaders should not be allowed to participate in politics, even though they would be allowed to under the accords.

For Kristian Herbolzheimer, a conflict resolution expert with Conciliation Resources, an international nongovernmental organization which has consulted with negotiators in the Colombian peace process, the integration of the FARC into the democratic sphere will be the biggest test to the peace process. It bodes well that the group has already shown a willingness to moderate its ideology. “They have accepted private property, foreign investment, and abiding by a constitution and a legal framework they have been fighting against for decades,” he said.

Herbolzheimer also noted that FARC negotiators in Havana had shown flexibility on their initial demands and won significant concessions on land rights and retribution — original objectives of the insurrection — as a result. But the FARC’s commitment to disarm and enter formal political channels is a “fundamental but insufficient condition,” he said. The main question is how existing political parties will respond and engage with a new political player.”

Meanwhile, in the jungle camp, Frankie and his fellow guerrillas still follow the motions of armed insurgency: Armed lookouts stand guard among the bushes, listening for unexpected sounds, their eyes scanning the darkness for an enemy that is no longer searching for them. Many still dig trenches beside the huts where they sleep — a precaution from the days of heavy bombing raids.

But there is also a growing spirit of ease. Frankie emphasized that the movement has always been a “military-political” organization. “The political agenda only took a hit when the fighting got really tough during Plan Colombia years,” he added, referring to a U.S.-backed military campaign against the rebels that began in the late 1990s. In October 2015, the FARC announced it had stopped military training and was now actively preparing its fighters for legal politics.

Today, many students at the camp spend long stretches of their afternoons reading for pleasure in hammocks tied between their caletas, the wooden and palm beds they sleep on. Novels and short stories that “lift the revolutionary spirit” are circulated in the camps, with Mikhail Sholokhov’s One Man’s Destiny being a camp favorite. On the few available laptops, Charlie Chaplin films among more typical Hollywood fare.

The guerrillas at the camp say they are more interested in grassroots activism than state politics. “Everyone is expected to carry their political militancy with them even if they don’t aspire to office, explained Victoria. In addition to being a farmer, I might be the chairman of the community action group of my village and affect change that way, from the bottom up,” she said, listing actions against multinational companies and extractive industries.  

Days before the announcement of the peace deal in September, Carlos Antonio Lozada, FARC’s urban commander who is now preparing to lead his organization into politics, arrived at the camp to answer rebels’ concerns about the process of demobilizing as a military group. He answered a wide range of questions in the school’s main lecture shelter.

After the plebiscite on Oct. 2, the FARC will move to 23 U.N.-monitored concentration zones to begin the demobilization and disarmament process, and they will remain there for up to six months. Lozada assured rebels that their families could visit them in these areas and that the group was still negotiating to allow the children of FARC members to live with them during this period. He also explained that FARC members who committed or ordered atrocities but confess to their crimes will avoid serving their sentences in jail, instead performing “community service” projects and acts of reparation.

His audience seemed confident they will eventually enjoy political success outside of big cities. “We already have a lot of popularity in our areas,” said Frankie. “We have relied on that support base and would have been defeated long ago if it didn’t exist.” In the Yari Plains region, there are few traces of the central government. Bridges and roads have been constructed by the FARC and the local population tends to see the guerrilla organization as their most dependable form of local government. Many locals doubt the central government’s capacity to make good on promises of investment in infrastructure and development projects. They also tend to see the FARC as preferable to the organized paramilitary groups, which were born from a botched demobilization process in the early 2000s of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a federation of right wing paramilitaries, and are growing in power.

Among the guerrillas at the Isaias Pardo school, violence from these paramilitary forces is considered the biggest threat to the peace process and their personal safety. The previous FARC attempt to enter peaceful politics in the 1980s was undone by similar groups. Close to 3,000 party members, including two presidential candidates, were murdered and many of the remainder fled the country. In a break from her duties as class monitor, Paula Sáenz said that paramilitaries beat her uncle to death in front of her when she was a child and forced her family to abandon their home. “Paramilitarism is not the ghost everyone wants it to be; it’s real and every guerrilla is terrified it is coming to kills us just like before,” she said.

In the school, students, divided in their squadrons that will later become political cells, spend much time discussing both the fine print of the peace agreement and broader questions about their future lives. Many know they will soon begin work as farmers, and wonder what they will do for food while they wait for their crops to grow. Eliodoro Suarez, 58, one of the camp’s veterans, explains they will receive a minimum-wage salary from the government following demobilization. “That is an answer we can work with,” says Miller, 43, his assault rifle lying across his lap. “Crops don’t grow overnight.”

The vast majority of the FARC’s rank-and-file is on board with the peace deal. Only one unit, the 200-strong Armando Ríos First Front in the southern central province of Guaviare, has said it will not disarm but continue to fight. The FARC quickly responded by rejecting the unit from the movement as military airstrikes against it began.

Paula Sáenz said she understands that many of the FARC’s fighters see little alternative to returning to war if their comrades start disappearing or being murdered. But she says she trusts the FARC’s promise that the movement will not raise its rifles again. “We were born without these guns so we can’t say they define us” she said, wrapping her textbooks in plastic to protect them from the jungle humidity. “It might be difficult to leave them behind, but it is the path to peace.”

For now, there is a spirit of optimism in the Isaias Pardo school: The future brings the possibility of political rebirth. And while the model of armed struggle may be ending, Sáenz insists the FARC will remain. “No one is going to fight for 50 years, hand in their gun and say, ‘Give me $17, and the story ends here.'”

Photo credit: LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images