Deep in the undergrowth, 200 yards from the edge of the Colombian jungle, a web of black nylon hides an oven of mud and stone. A rusted chimney pipe pokes its nose horizontally out of the canopy, the better to disperse smoke into the brush, undetectable by helicopters patrolling above the treetops. “Un horno vietnamita,” Mintú tells us. Just like the ones the Viet Cong used.
The oven and a few tent poles are all that remains of a guerrilla camp that, until two years ago, housed former members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the FARC. As part of the 2016 peace treaty signed by the leaders of the FARC and the Colombian government, those guerrillas traded their rifles and tents for a village of adobe and zinc and running water. Since then, the ex-combatants of Frente 33 have lived in Caño Indio in the Catatumbo region of northeastern Colombia on the border with Venezuela, growing yuca and raising cattle on an 86-acre plot, protected by a battalion of soldiers based a few miles away.
At the end of August, this peaceful scene might come to an end. Funding will run out for Caño Indio and 23 other camps around the country. These Espacios Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación, or ETCRs, were constructed by the Colombian government to provide safe havens and to reintegrate the former militants into the workforce and social life of their country during the transition from war to peace.
Along with the Jurisdicción Especial Para la Paz, or JEP, an independent court set up to try war crimes like murder, kidnapping, and rape by all the actors in the conflict, including the army and the government, the ETCRs are at the heart of the peace plan of former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, who was awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to over 50 years of civil war.
The current president, Iván Duque, has other ideas. Sworn in to succeed Santos in August 2018, Duque is a protégé of Santos’s predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, who has dedicated himself—from a position just off Duque’s right shoulder—to challenging the legality of the JEP and the basic wisdom of the peace process. Although the peace plan was the result of a negotiation between the Colombian government and an armed group that was never defeated, Duque says that the deal gave the FARC too much, including amnesty and positions in Congress. At root, he and Uribe would like to see the ex-FARC disappear, like the smoke from un horno vietnamita.
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On August 31, they might see their wish fulfilled. With the dissolution of the ETCRs, the protection that the army provides for the ex-combatants will also disappear. In addition to civilians seeking revenge, other guerrilla groups that have remained at war with the Colombian state, like the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL), are itching to recruit or eradicate the former FARC militants. Finally, many of the leaders of right-wing paramilitary groups dedicated to the destruction of the FARC have been released from prison after serving sentences following an earlier armistice. The United Nations estimated in 2008 that these paramilitary units have been responsible for 80 percent of the killings in Colombia since narco-traffickers began forming militias to fight the left-wing guerrillas in the 1970s—compared with 12 percent by the FARC and other left insurgents and 8 percent by the armed forces.
This fear has driven many of the younger ex-combatants in Caño Indio to slip away to the comfort of their families, for those who still have one, or to the anonymity of Bogotá. Others who have lost faith in the promise of amnesty and reintegration have rearmed. No longer protected by the terms of the peace process, these dissidents are now considered common criminals and may be eliminated by the armed forces with maximum prejudice.
At 59, Mintú is out of choices. He carries the potbelly of a grandfather and several pounds of shrapnel in his legs from 30 years of fighting in the jungle.
In this great mountain of concrete,
Sharing all in these events,
I remember the smile of hunger
Of the one who grows the coca and has no food.
Mintú wants to write poetry.
Cúcuta is the saddest place on earth. The bridge across the Río Táchira into Venezuela was like one of Doré’s prints of the entrance into the Inferno. Blocking the border were the burned-out carcasses of three flatbed trucks inadvertently torched in February as they took aid from Colombia to its starving neighbor. Dozens of people moved back and forth across the bridge in silence. A little boy, apparently with a stomach flu, wandered back from a makeshift toilet beneath one of the trucks, holding the waist of his unbelted jeans to keep them from falling down. Finally he settled on the curb in the middle of the bridge next to his mother, who was selling sweets. One year ago, she had a three-bedroom house with air-conditioning on Isla de Margarita. Now she has the sweets, very few customers, and no cure for her son’s fever.
Venezuela is the big story in the region. More than 4 million refugees have fled the collapse of the economy and society; 1.3 million have crossed the border into Colombia in search of food and medicine.
But we flew from Bogotá to teach former guerrillas how to write.
As journalists, we had interviewed former combatants of the Colombian conflict. Now we wanted to try something else: giving the tools of writing to former guerrillas and paramilitaries, putting the power of storytelling into their hands.
We went at the invitation of the Agencia para la Reincorporación y la Normalización, or ARN. Launched under the Uribe government to help the ex-paras and guerrillas who deserted, the program was reworked in the wake of the 2016 peace agreement to integrate disarmed and demobilized FARC combatants. Since the course of reintegration never did run smooth, the ARN gave us a guide with guns.
Our Virgil for the descent into Caño Indio was Gen. Diego Villegas, the comandante of Batallón Vulcano. A moon-faced optimist with a graying cowlick, he has appeared before the JEP for episodes that occurred in 2008. At the time, he was the commander of a battalion in Antioquia that has been accused of killing innocent civilians—falsos positivos—in order to inflate the body count and augment the apparent success of the army’s battle against the FARC.
But when we walked into his air-conditioned office, we found Villegas standing at the head of a conference table, leading 20 executives in a recitation of Psalm 27:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.
Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: Though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident.
The host encamped in Catatumbo is, without a doubt, a challenge. The region, in the state of Norte de Santander, is a paradise for smugglers. For decades, the FARC and the ELN controlled large swaths of the territory, protecting narco-traffickers and thousands of small-farm coca growers. It is a land without roads, without electricity, without order.
“If you don’t believe in God,” Villegas said as he greeted us, “it’s hard to survive emotionally in Catatumbo.”
His congregation that April morning included executives from Ecopetrol, the national oil company, as well as intelligence officers and foot soldiers tasked with protecting the industry that helps drive the national economy. In the first four months of 2019 alone, the ELN placed more than 10 bombs along the Caño Limón pipeline, which connects the oil fields of Catatumbo to the Caribbean coast, causing not only economic losses but also huge environmental damage.Armed with a whiteboard and a PowerPoint button, the 50-year-old Villegas presented the challenges and opportunities of Catatumbo with the assurance of a McKinsey consultant. On the one hand, there are four mountain ranges, ideal sanctuaries for bandits and guerrillas to run their drugs south to Cúcuta and north to Maicao, a notorious smuggling hub. On the other, there are great opportunities for legitimate development. Cacao, corn, rice, plantains, and oil palms grow there as easily as coca.
“What’s missing are roads to bring the crops to market,” he said. Roads would make it easier for small farmers to replace coca with legal substitutes and more difficult for bandits and guerrillas to harass them. “Eventually things are going to change. I am an optimist. But if they don’t, my job is, at least, to make sure they don’t get worse.”
His job was also to ensure that we arrived at Caño Indio. Since the roads are not safe, he entrusted us to the care of Lt. Col. Alejandro León and a Vietnam-era Huey.
“You gringos don’t need these anymore,” Villegas said. “But they are very useful in Colombia.” We threaded our arms through cargo straps as the helicopter lifted off. As we tracked a snake of a river, León pointed to different shades of green below—cacao, oil palms, “and yes, coca,” he said. After 20 minutes, we descended toward the army base. Two soldiers with us stood at either side of the helicopter and pointed their mounted machine guns at the jungle below. How easy it would be, we thought, to hide in the chaos.
At the entrance to the ETCR of Caño Indio there is a restaurant, advertised with a placard painted with a pastoral scene—a steep-humped Zebu bull and a giant rooster guarding a chicken. Another huge chicken roosts on the mural of a building nearby, a guerrilla riding victoriously on its back, while former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez looks on beatifically from a painting hanging on a tree. Agriculture is at the heart of the 86 acres that the former combatants have been given. After decades in the jungle, many of them still believe that Chávez’s brand of petroleum socialism is the solution to hunger.
In addition to the restaurant, there is a bar with a foosball table and blocks of whitewashed barracks kitted out with iron cots topped with children’s mattresses, sheets decorated with Transformers and airplanes, and checked camp blankets. The doors have jungle locks—strings leading from the inside latch and dangling inconspicuously outside. Sometimes they work.
Karina has sent her bodyguard to pick us up. As one of the two ex-comandantes of the FARC’s Frente 33, she has been given protection, mostly to escort her to and from her appearances at the JEP. Although we drive in the bodyguard’s Toyota, half a dozen soldiers decide to tag along. Her barrack is at the edge of the camp, and as we approach, more soldiers appear from the forest, radio packs on their backs, rifles in their arms, patches of sweat on their camouflage in the late-afternoon tropical heat.
At the age of 54 with a graying bun of hair, Karina is one of the ETCR’s elders. Raised on the Caribbean coast in a family of over 10 children, she joined the FARC in 1985. After fighting for 19 years in Catatumbo, she directed the first socioeconomic census of the FARC after the peace treaty was signed and is one of the 111 members of the newly formed FARC political party.
Karina built a patio outside her barrack on a cracked concrete slab, fenced in with two-by-10 boards and covered with a zinc roof. A bottle of cooking gas leans in the corner of a makeshift kitchen, with a yellowed plastic tube stretching inside to draw water. Flowers hang from the patio roof in planters made of plastic bottles cut in half. Every time she returns to Caño Indio after traveling on FARC business, her companion, Cristo, surprises her with a new addition to the house. After over 30 years in the jungle, she has begun to believe in the permanence of this home.
Karina offers us coffee. León and Captain Castañeda accept. For an hour and a half they talk, possibly for our benefit, to show that there are no hard feelings between two groups of combatants who, for half a century, waged bitter war. Karina speaks in economical but flowing sentences, thought out but full of passion. The passion and the makeshift kitchen have a single message: She won’t be leaving Caño Indio on August 31.
“I will look for all the possible legal means to stay on this land,” she says, with more emphasis on “legal” than on “land.”
Casteñada and León nod. They swap jokes as a young woman appears with a newborn. There is a baby boom in all the ETCRs, after decades of FARC protocol strictly forbidding more children. Cristo dandles the baby. A brown and white dog, anesthetized by the heat of the air and the cool of the concrete, sleeps through our chatter and the call of the crickets. All is peace and tranquility. But as the air cools and the jokes grow spikes, the dog wakes up and begins to circle under our plastic chairs, scratching his backbone in agitation as he passes.
“Please,” Karina asks the soldiers as they stand to leave, “don’t force us off the land.” Castañeda and León say nothing.
We ate dinner in the restaurant with Violeta, one of only two non-ex-combatant residents of Caño Indio.
When the disarmed FARC members arrived at Caño Indio, they decided to name their ETCR after a fallen comrade. They voted to commemorate a much-loved comandante who had recently been killed in an ambush along with his companion while the peace accord was in its final stages of approval. His nom de guerre, El Negro Eliécer Gaitán, is memorialized in a painted sign across from the restaurant.
In 1948 the original Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was running as the Liberal candidate for the presidency of Colombia. One of the central themes of his campaign was land reform, an issue that has stymied Latin America since the time of Simón Bolívar. Small farmers who have been driven into poverty and famine by the consolidation of large farms in the hands of the few have limited choices. They can abandon their land and move to the city, they can die of hunger, or they can revolt.
According to a possibly apocryphal story, Gaitán asked the Conservative candidate Laureano Gómez how he made his living.
“From the land,” Gómez answered.
“And how did you get this land?” Gaitán asked.
“I inherited it from my father.”
“And where did he get it?”
“He inherited it from his father.”
After a little more serve and volley, Gómez finally admitted that his family “took the land from the natives.”
“We want to do the opposite,” Gaitán said. “We want to give the land back to the natives.”
Gaitán’s assassination in Bogotá on April 9, 1948, is the Kennedy assassination of Colombia, with just as many conspiracy theories. It sparked 10 hours of riots, known as the Bogotazo, which saw the deaths of 3,000 people. In the 10 years after the Bogotazo, the pitched battle between Conservatives and Liberals continued. Over 200,000 people died in that decade, and over 1 million were displaced from the countryside to Bogotá and other cities.
Many Colombians believe that if Gaitán had not been murdered, he would have led the country into agrarian reform. Others think he would have developed the excesses of other populist leaders, like Argentina’s Juan Perón. The FARC, born in 1964 with land reform at the center of its militant agenda, was a child of Gaitán’s assassination.
“The armed fight had to stop,” Violeta says, as the waitress brings us the plate of the day: some kind of meat, a scoop of broken rice, and yuca. Lots of yuca. “Back in the days when the farmers needed weapons, the FARC gave them weapons. Now the country needs peace, so the comandantes are giving them peace.”
The daughter of a FARC leader, with a violet streak across the top of her pixie haircut, Violeta saw her father on only a handful of occasions before he died in battle 11 years ago. After spending 16 of her 23 years in Cuba, studying ballet as a young girl and history later on, she returned to Colombia. The community adopted her and put her in charge of educational programs in the region. Her library at Caño Indio includes about 1,000 volumes—mostly political theory, with a sprinkling of Dostoyevsky and Stendhal and a Spanish translation of Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. She began merchandising FARC T-shirts and baseball caps. And she started a reading and writing group, partly as an excuse to write a memoir.
As Violeta cuts the meat from the gristle, she struggles to figure out where it all went wrong. In the 1970s, the drug trade exploded in Colombia. To fund its revolution, the FARC turned to protecting narco-traffickers and kidnapping wealthy Colombians and strategic foreigners.
“Caño Indio started with over 300 ex-combatants,” she says. “But some have slipped away. Back to their families.” She won’t say how many have rearmed. But there are reports of a new Frente 33 on the border with Venezuela.
León picks us up early the next morning for a road show. The army has just completed a 10-mile stretch of road from Tibú to La Gabarra. We climb into a Chevrolet D-Max with the officer in charge of the project, Col. Luis Pineda Huertas, a middle-aged manager more at home with asphalt than assault. We stop regularly to admire the three-ply surface of the road, the 15-foot retaining walls, the bridges. We learn the definition of “box culvert.” And every time we step out of the truck, 14 soldiers fan out from two other vehicles in front and behind, rifles at their hips. Even the soldiers hoisting picks and shovels in the midday sun have guns slung over their backs. In the past month alone, four bombs went off along this road. Two weeks before our arrival, a mine exploded, killing two soldiers and two civilians passing by on a motorcycle.
“One of the soldiers had just buried his 2-month-old baby,” Pineda says. His soldiers give presents to local children on Christmas and Halloween. They try to solve little emergencies—driving villagers to the clinic in Tibú after accidents, fixing problems caused by winter floods. The colonel and Karina help each other. One time, she lent him Caño Indio’s diesel generator. “We are so close, I tease her that we’ll end up getting married.”
“The colonel almost lost his job over the mine,” León says as he shows us the escape route the bomber took between two farmhouses. “Everyone knows who did it, of course, but no one’s talking.”
The new road passes through villages like El Mirador, with graffiti daubed on doors testifying allegiance to the ELN. The new road also leads to a one-room schoolhouse, a long, low, green-painted barrack in the shade of a grove of palm trees, now more accessible thanks to the road. There are 30 children, ranging from 5 to 10 years in age, all in uniform, some sitting in front of computers. Four of the children dream of being soccer players. One wants to be a palm oil engineer.
Farther down the road, half a dozen UN officials in blue vests have commandeered a local community center made of cinder blocks and zinc. About 100 coca farmers are sitting with the officials on plastic chairs around plastic tables.
“The farmers don’t want to grow coca,” Leon tells us as we walk in, “but they do it because the harvest is small. It fits in a suitcase, and everyone has a motorcycle. Better roads are the only way to advance peace and get other products to market.”
The farmers are well dressed, wiping their faces in the heat with ponchos draped around their necks, sipping Pony Malta, a popular soda, from liter bottles. They have come here to sign the final agreement to replace their crop with legal cacao. They don’t have much choice. Those who don’t sign would find the army spraying their fields with the herbicide glyphosate.
In Colombia, eradication is as elusive a dream as land reform, but it matters to the United States. While President Trump has refrained from criticizing Duque’s opposition to the peace process, he did complain in March that when it came to cutting the coca supply, Duque “has done nothing for us.” Although Colombia is the United States’ strongest ally against Venezuela, the threat of financial disaster is the not-so-hidden message.
“We don’t want any more problems,” one local leader says. His left hand grips a copy of the agreement while his right cuts the air in impatience. On one side there is the army; on the other is the ELN, threatening them if they stop supplying it with coca. The farmers are caught in the middle. They can’t grow their crops; they can’t live in peace. They are being killed for obeying one side or the other. They are the ones who have lost in this war.
“I went to the ELN to talk to the comandantes,” the farmer continues. “I told them that if they wanted to kill me, here I am. Otherwise, let me do my job.”
At Caño Indio, Jimmy Guerrero wants to speak with us. Born Erasmo Traslaviña Benavides 61 years ago, during his 18 years as comandante of Frente 33 in Catatumbo, Jimmy planted car bombs, blew up electrical towers, masterminded the bombing of Caracol Radio in 2010, and worked with the leader of the EPL, who went by the name Megateo and until his death in 2015 controlled the drug traffic in Catatumbo, according the Colombian news site La Silla Vacía. Jimmy has been described as the second in command to the last leader of the FARC, Rodrigo Londoño, alias Timochenko, who is currently president of the FARC’s political party.
“When we arrived at Caño Indio,” Jimmy tells us, “all the soldiers had old photos from the years they hunted me. They made jokes and told stories about the times they almost killed me. And I told them about my escapes.”
Once famous for his long white beard, Jimmy today is clean-shaven and looks more like a farmer than a revolutionary.
“I never meant to be a militant,” he says. “I took up arms just in defense.” The only blood he lost during his 35 years in the FARC, he boasts, was from insect bites and leishmaniasis. “I was protected by my mother’s prayers.”
Jimmy is the only ex-combatant who refused to occupy the barracks that the government built for the FARC at Caño Indio, preferring the tent of his fighting days. The perimeter is lined with a stove, a microwave, a refrigerator with an ice machine. In the center of the space, cartons of dry goods sandbag a well-made double bed.
“We need title to this land,” Jimmy says. “How can we raise cattle, how can we plant yuca if we don’t know if we’ll still be here in four months?” Although petroleum is a major business in Catatumbo, Jimmy worries that palm oil companies have their eye on the property. Yet it’s the government that concerns him the most. “This president is not interested in peace. The families of Duque and Uribe have never lived in the middle of war. Instead, they’ve made money. Put them through two hours of combat, and they’d make different decisions.” (Uribe’s father was kidnapped and killed by the FARC in 1983.)
There’s a rumor that, after August 31, the government will move the residents of Caño Indio to an area in the south controlled by their old enemies, the paramilitaries. Since taking office, Duque has attempted several times to have the JEP disbanded and essentially gut Santos’s peace process.
Jimmy is too old to take up arms again. “We promised to help the community,” he says. “We can’t abandon them.”
Karina is less sanguine. “If the army turns against the FARC after August 31, that would be terrible for the history of the country. Betrayal means we start again from zero. But soldiers, after all, are employees of the government. We can’t count on the military. If we’re not respected, we’ll reorganize.” She doesn’t say “rearm,” but one wonders.
“I persuaded my comrades to join the peace process,” Jimmy says. “I’m sorry I couldn’t deliver.”
“I’m only sorry,” Karina says with a smile, estimating our ransom value, “that I didn’t meet you a few years ago.”
Two weeks after we left Caño Indio, a very bad thing happened. On April 22, local villagers discovered soldiers from Villegas’s Batallón Vulcano in the act of burying the body of a demobilized FARC combatant named Dimar Torres. He’d been tortured and his body mutilated before the rushed burial. Defense Minister Guillermo Botero immediately denied that the armed forces had anything to do with the killing, claiming that Torres had died accidentally while trying to steal a soldier’s rifle.
Over the past two years, nearly 130 ex-combatants like Torres and over 400 social leaders like the ones we met in Catatumbo have been killed. There are nearly as many explanations for these deaths as there are corpses. The Santos administration pointed to crimes of passion and jealousy. Duque blames the ELN, although many of the killings occurred in regions overrun by paramilitary splinter groups and with little ELN presence.
“Everyone wants to be a social leader,” León told us at the community center in April. “They have lots of privileges.” When we suggested that the constant threats and killings didn’t seem like privileges, he was silent. But he acknowledged that the government is mainly absent from the region and that the army has been tasked with something different from its original mission to guard the national territory against foreign enemies.
“The police,” he said, “should be doing the job of keeping the guerrillas at bay.” According to one soldier, the government orders the army to go into certain places and then turns a blind eye, telling the soldiers to “solve the problem, we don’t care how.” Normally, in a country used to the army acting with impunity, Torres would have been just another statistic, another falso positivo.
Instead, something unusual happened. Villegas turned up at a visit to the area by members of the Colombian Senate. For 10 minutes, he took the microphone and apologized. Yes, it was members of his battalion who killed Torres. Yes, they would be punished. Turning to Torres’s friends and family, Villegas asked for forgiveness.
It was an extraordinary performance, one that he perhaps had to give, since he was being called up by the JEP for an extrajudicial crime from years ago and was under oath to tell the truth and not engage in any more crimes. Nevertheless, Villegas drew the anger of Uribe and a high-ranking military commander who reportedly told him “to retire and join the guerrillas…so that the army may have the honor of hunting you down and taking you out.”
June brought more surprises.
In the middle of the month, the leaders of the ARN traveled to Caño Indio to officially inform the ex-combatants that they would be moving at the end of August. Jimmy and Karina and the 80 others listened. Then they spoke.
“Most of us have yuca patches,” Karina told the ARN. “Plantain trees, cattle. It may not be a lot, but it means a lot to us, and it’s everything we have. We didn’t come here expecting to leave in a couple of years to try our luck someplace else. We came here to stay and invested in the land. Finally, we have roofs over our heads, and I don’t think the government is going to build houses for us again.”
She spoke about the promises they made to help the community, the promises the government made to help the local farmers.
“We have built a relationship with this community,” Karina said. “We trust each other, watch each other’s backs.” Because of the ex-FARC, she continued, the government promised to bring in electricity. The army built roads that benefit the entire community. “If we leave Caño Indio, the government will turn away its gaze and forget about these people.”
And lo, the ARN agreed to give the residents of Caño Indio an extension until August 2020 to purchase the land.
Will they raise the funds in time? León reported that Howard Buffett, a son of financier Warren Buffett, has donated to similar social causes in Colombia. Will the peace process last? June also brought an about-face from Duque, who advanced the law establishing the JEP—albeit only after the Constitutional Court ruled against his objections.
And after a short leave, Villegas was back at his post at Batallón Vulcano.
When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.
Before we left, we asked Karina why she hadn’t written a memoir of her two decades in Catatumbo with the FARC. “I want to,” she said, “but I’m waiting for a happy ending.”