Dispatch

As Colombia’s Peace Crumbles, Female Guerrillas Wonder What’s Left for Them

Many joined the FARC to escape traditional gender roles. Now they’re being forced back.

Greicy Estefania, the 6-year-old daughter of ex-combatant Esmeralda Ranjel, and her friend Desiree ride their bicycles past a mural of female ex-combatants of the Colombian rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Pondores, Colombia, on Oct. 3.
Greicy Estefania, the 6-year-old daughter of ex-combatant Esmeralda Ranjel, and her friend Desiree ride their bicycles past a mural of female ex-combatants of the Colombian rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Pondores, Colombia, on Oct. 3. Megan Janetsky for Foreign Policy

PONDORES, Colombia—When Esmeralda Ranjel took up arms against the Colombian government as a 13-year-old girl, she did it because she said she saw no other option as a woman in rural Colombia. Ranjel grew up in a poor family along the Caribbean coast and wasn’t able to attend school past the sixth grade. In a culture where women are expected to cook, clean, and have children, she saw her life turning into a dead end.

“I left school after elementary, and well, what could I do? Pop out a bunch of babies?” she asked.

When guerrillas with the leftist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) arrived in her community in 1993, she saw them as an escape. FARC women regularly recruited minors like her to fight in the group’s more than half-century war against the Colombian government, declaring men and women in their ranks were equal. “The women would give girls talks to get you to join,” she remembered. “And they told you that everything was equal there. … You could see that you could do something different.”

PONDORES, Colombia—When Esmeralda Ranjel took up arms against the Colombian government as a 13-year-old girl, she did it because she said she saw no other option as a woman in rural Colombia. Ranjel grew up in a poor family along the Caribbean coast and wasn’t able to attend school past the sixth grade. In a culture where women are expected to cook, clean, and have children, she saw her life turning into a dead end.

“I left school after elementary, and well, what could I do? Pop out a bunch of babies?” she asked.

When guerrillas with the leftist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) arrived in her community in 1993, she saw them as an escape. FARC women regularly recruited minors like her to fight in the group’s more than half-century war against the Colombian government, declaring men and women in their ranks were equal. “The women would give girls talks to get you to join,” she remembered. “And they told you that everything was equal there. … You could see that you could do something different.”

Ranjel joined the group, donned a camouflage uniform, and spent the next several decades roaming the jungles near the Sierra Nevada mountains with her pistol. At war, where men would cook and clean just as often as women would march into combat, Ranjel and other women like her felt—at least on the surface—a level of liberation they never experienced before.

But five years after the FARC signed a historic peace deal with the Colombian government, women like Ranjel have crash-landed into a harsh reality. The traditional gender roles they once took up arms to escape have snapped back, and former FARC fighters have faced a moment of reckoning as the narratives of gender equality they once pushed fall apart.

As those peace accords begin to crumble, female guerrillas wonder what is left for them.

What some observers have described as a post-peace plan’s feminist backsliding is not just found in Colombia. Academics have studied similar phenomena everywhere: from Nepal and Sri Lanka; to Guatemala; to African countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

“They experienced this equality, agency, and empowerment in armed groups. Then they set down arms, and they’re just supposed to go back to their old gender roles,” said Sanne Weber, a researcher with the University of Birmingham who has spent years studying ex-combatant women.

“The women change, but society doesn’t really change.”


A mother walks with her toddler as ex-combatants watch a game of soccer in a FARC reintegration camp in Pondores on Oct. 3.

A mother walks with her toddler as ex-combatants watch a game of soccer in a FARC reintegration camp in Pondores on Oct. 3. Megan Janetsky for Foreign Policy

The FARC was formed in 1964 by small farmers and land workers who declared they were “the people’s army,” dedicated to fighting societal inequalities. Their ranks reached 20,000 combatants at the height of their power, an estimated 40 percent of whom were women.

In 2016, guerrillas signed a peace pact with the government, considered a historic opportunity to consolidate peace in the South American country.

Thousands of ex-combatants moved to temporary camps in isolated parts of Colombia, where they were supposed to learn how to reintegrate into society after decades in combat and develop economic projects to sustain themselves. Others took their chances in cities, often alone and facing stigma for their roles in the rebel group.

In that brief moment of hope came a baby boom among the FARC, when ex-combatants saw a future where they could raise a family they were never able to have while fighting. Ranjel became pregnant with a fellow rebel as the armed group began negotiations with the Colombian government, deciding to keep the baby—now a 6-year-old girl named Greicy Estefania—with the hope that peace would pull through. In Ranjel’s camp of Pondores, one of 24 camps scattered across the country, 89 babies were born in the wake of the accords.

But over the past five years, those peace accords have crumbled. A right-wing Colombian government that campaigned against the peace pact, saying it was too lenient on guerrillas for their crimes, has failed to implement key parts of the accords, such as rural development and establishing state presence in zones once controlled by the FARC. A smattering of armed groups has fought for control of those areas, spurring new waves of violence. Reintegration efforts have stalled and nearly 300 ex-combatants have been assassinated, according to Bogotá-based think tank Indepaz.

“They’re killing us,” Ranjel said. “Little by little, but they’re still killing us.”

The failures of the peace process have disproportionately affected ex-combatant mothers, said Geiner Arrieta, who goes by the alias “Henry” and is a leader in Ranjel’s camp. It has created a vicious cycle for women, further hampering their already fraught efforts to reintegrate into society. Since the baby boom, many ex-combatant fathers have left the mothers of their children for civilian women in rural areas who are more accustomed to historic gender roles, Arrieta and other ex-combatant leaders across the country told me.

Ranjel dresses Estefania outside their small living space in a reintegration camp in Pondores on Oct. 3.

Ranjel dresses Estefania outside their small living space in a reintegration camp in Pondores on Oct. 3. Megan Janetsky for Foreign Policy

“Many guerrillas have had their relationships dissolve because of the style of the society,” he said. “One woman is prettier, so it doesn’t matter if you leave a pregnant woman to go off with another woman. That’s what’s happened here.”

Despite still going by her nom de guerre “Andrea,” Ranjel’s former life feels like a world away. Now a single mother, Ranjel runs a pink comb through Estefania’s hair outside their two-room plywood living space in the camp, which is located in the sweltering northern region of La Guajira. Food sizzles from their portable stove inside, smoke gathering under the tin roof as she pulls her daughter’s hair into a pink scrunchie.

“Pink is her favorite color,” Ranjel said, pointing out the pink princess sheet pinned up on the wall to hide its metal pillars and the stuffed animals in the corner of Estefania’s bed. She’s tried to make the camp a home for her daughter, but it’s hard with the stark living conditions.

Mothers like Ranjel often carry the burden of child care. The small monthly allowance she receives from the Colombian government as an ex-combatant goes to clothes, food, and education for her daughter. Although there was once child care in the camp, the facility closed during the pandemic. In the past four months, food deliveries from the Colombian government have stopped arriving. Job-creating projects have failed to take off, leaving families with scarce sources of income.

As the blistering sun sets in, many men in the camp travel off to local fields and towns in an attempt to strike up work. Children bounce around the camp, riding bicycles through dirt pathways while mothers swaddle toddlers in their arms.

Ranjel wanted to get an education but has been unable to while caring for her high-energy daughter. “It’s already not easy to get work. Around here, not everyone will give a job to someone with a baby,” she said. “It’s also not easy because I didn’t study. … If I study, I can’t take care of my baby. And if I take care of my baby, I can’t study.”

I spoke to dozens of ex-fighter women across the country in both rural reintegration camps and big cities who faced similar realities.


A man drives a motorcycle down a dirt path separating stucco wood buildings where demobilized FARC fighters live in Pondores on Oct. 3. Megan Janetsky for Foreign Policy

A man drives a motorcycle down a dirt path separating stucco wood buildings where demobilized FARC fighters live in Pondores on Oct. 3. Megan Janetsky for Foreign Policy

As the South American country grapples with the brutal truths of war and former fighters run into roadblocks as they try to reintegrate, that “romanticized” narrative of the FARC’s gender equality has increasingly been called into question, explained Weber, the researcher. “[Men and women would] both cook, wash their clothes, stand guard, so people really remember this experience of equality,” Weber said. “It’s not that women were actually equal, but they did experience this sense of equality.”

Recruiting women was less a practice of equality and more a tactic to bolster ranks, Weber said. Women did experience a degree of liberation in the lower ranks, but they rarely penetrated the armed group’s higher leadership. Women fighters of all ranks were often required to use contraception. If they became pregnant, as many did, they had to choose between having an abortion or handing off the child to civilians to raise, something the FARC defended as a necessity of war.

In 2019, Colombia’s high court made a landmark decision, declaring a women who had been recruited by FARC at the age of 14 and forced to have an abortion by commanders could be officially considered a victim of Colombia’s conflict and included in the Victims’ Registry (which provides victims with resources like monetary reparations, health services, and more) alongside more than 9 million others.

FARC leadership insist such cases are outliers, but Mariana Ardila, the lawyer representing the woman, is continuing to argue before war courts that forced abortions were widespread. “This was generalized. There were a lot of cases,” she said. “But it was also systematic. It was part of a policy that was imposed by the commanders of all the organization.”

Other forms of gender-based violence were pervasive in the FARC’s tactics. Like many armed actors in Colombia—including right-wing paramilitary groups and the Colombian military—rebels often used rape as an instrument of war to sow fear in the communities they dominated. Yet many ex-combatants I spoke to continue to insist the FARC was characterized by egalitarianism. “They’re willing to admit to lots of horrific things but not admit to rape and other sexual violence,” Ardila said.

The accords were hailed internationally for being the first comprehensively gender-sensitive peace agreement in the world, including providing reparations to victims of sexual violence and participation of women in peacebuilding. But gender provisions have been far less implemented than the rest of the accords, according to the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and much of the political initiatives by ex-FARC women have stalled. The institute noted ex-combatant women were among those most affected by implementation gaps.


Ledis Madarriaga cares for her small garden outside her living space in a reintegration camp for former FARC fighters in Pondores on Oct. 3. Madarriaga has decided not to bring her family to the camp or have children because of peace process failures.

Ledis Madarriaga cares for her small garden outside her living space in a reintegration camp for former FARC fighters in Pondores on Oct. 3. Madarriaga has decided not to bring her family to the camp or have children because of peace process failures. Megan Janetsky for Foreign Policy

For 42-year-old Ledis Madarriaga, alias “Dirlyns Sanchez,” the pathway forward is to just go it alone.

The ex-combatant said she joined the FARC at age 19 after members of the Colombian military accused her family, who lived in a small town in the northern Cesar Department, of being guerrilla fighters and tortured her brothers, none of whom had joined. As a FARC rebel, Madarriaga gravitated to medical work, acting as a camp nurse. For years, she had romantic partners in the guerrilla movement, but after setting down arms and moving into a reintegration camp, she knew civilian life would look different.

Although many ex-combatants reunited with families, bringing parents, children, and siblings to live with them in the camps, Madarriaga lives a solitary life in a half-empty living space. Violence against ex-combatants has stopped her from reuniting with her family after more than 20 years, as she worries they’d also become targets. “I don’t bring family here. I live here alone … because the conditions we’re living under here are really unsafe,” Madarriaga said. “There aren’t any guarantees for safety when a family member leaves to go to town. Because we’re ex-combatants, we run risks.”

Mirian Claro Moreno, a former FARC fighter, cradles her 2-year-old son, Octavio, in a reintegration camp in Pondores on Oct. 4.

Mirian Claro Moreno, a former FARC fighter, cradles her 2-year-old son, Octavio, in a reintegration camp in Pondores on Oct. 4. Megan Janetsky for Foreign Policy

Ranjel also feels the same worry, traveling hours every morning and afternoon on a motorcycle taxi through rugged roads to take Estefania to school in a nearby town.

Although she’s watched many of the women she once fought alongside struggle to care for their children, Madarriaga made the decision to focus on trying to launch an ecotourism project and take online skills training with the hope of someday leaving the camp behind.

“[A child] is just one more burden for a woman,” she said, sitting alone in her dimly lit kitchen, once a temporary refuge but now gaining a growing feeling of permanence. “Because a woman is the person who always has to carry that weight.”

Megan Janetsky is a Colombia-based journalist focusing on migration, human rights, conflict, and politics across Latin America. Twitter: @meganjanetsky

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