Renewed Violence in Colombia-A Visit to FARC’s Jungle Lair
By Juan Moreno and Federico Ríos (Photo)
For three years, there has been peace between the Colombian military and FARC. Now, though, some of the leftist guerrillas are now preparing to resume their armed campaign. DER SPIEGEL visited a FARC training camp deep in the jungle.
The man who wants to bring war back to Colombia wears a moustache, has dark eyes and has a 9-millimeter pistol shoved into his belt. His name is Danilo Alvizú, and he’s wearing camo pants, a Che Guevara T-shirt and rubber boots. “This is a historic moment,” says Alvizú. He sounds impressed by his own words.
It’s the middle of a week in late August and 20 men and women have gathered before him somewhere in the oppressively humid jungle of southern Colombia, not far from the border to Ecuador. Many of the men and women standing in front of Alvizú are wearing green fatigues and black boots, just like their commander, and some are holding automatic rifles. The air is stiflingly hot and everyone is sweating profusely. Monkeys are screech in the treetops.
Alvizú is the commander of a newly mobilized combat unit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Marxist guerrillas who laid down their weapons in Colombia three years ago after decades of fierce fighting and negotiated a peace agreement with the government. After fighting for FARC in the jungle for many years, Alvizú had even moved to the capital Bogotá and been given a job with the FARC Party, where he experienced politics up close. But he didn’t like what he saw.
Colombia, Alvizú says, is a mess. Drug gangs rule the jungle, he says, and the farmers, whose interests FARC fought to defend for many decades, are still as poor as ever. He feels betrayed by a government that promised to treat the former guerrillas well and integrate them into society. Alvizú and many of his comrades are angry. They are disillusioned with peace.
They want to return to war.
If that happens, if FARC manages to reactivate its old fighters and attract new recruits, Colombia is in danger of falling back into dark times. It has become possible that a forgotten conflict — a guerrilla war for political control, for land, money, power, resources, weapons and cocaine — could flare up again. It would mark the rekindling of a clash that finally seemed as though it had been resolved.
Back in Business
Alvizú’s fighters have gathered in Putumayo, a largely inaccessible region feared by Colombians. It is where drug baron Pablo Escobar grew cocaine back in the 1970s, and the region is ideally suited for illicit activities. There are only a few small towns and hardly any roads to go with large tracts of jungle, thousands of kilometers of river arms and fertile soil.
Alvizú agreed to give DER SPIEGEL access to his group of guerrillas. He wants the farmers of Colombia to know that FARC is back in business and intends to once again take up arms. He also wants to get the word out to the government in Bogotá, to the military and, of course, to the drug cartels.
In addition to access to the fighters, he promised transparency and security, which is sorely needed in this region. In March of last year, former guerrillas murdered two journalists from Ecuador and their driver. “A misunderstanding,” says Alvizú. The comment is meant to sound reassuring.
Colombia’s vast jungle remains a dangerous area. For over half a century, the Colombian state battled FARC here in the longest guerrilla war in recent history. Everyone fought against everyone: the Colombian military, the right-wing paramilitaries, Mexican drug cartels involved in cocaine production, ordinary criminals and left-wing FARC fighters. The military bombed the jungle and hunted down FARC members. The guerrillas responded with terror.
Millions of people were displaced in the war and more than 250,000 died, 80 percent of them civilians. Over 27,000 people were abducted. Colombia became mired in chaos.
But there were also profiteers. The Colombian armed forces were backed by the U.S. government, which was trying to stem the cocaine epidemic in North America while at the same time supporting the American arms industry with deals in Colombia. FARC cashed in on the cultivation of coca and controlled cocaine production.
Daniel Alvizú had been a member of an armed FARC unit for 17 years when its leaders decided to begin negotiating with the government in 2012. He watched from the sidelines as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos negotiated with leading FARC members, including Rodrigo Londoño, known as Timochenko, and Luciano Marín, known as Iván Márquez, first at meetings in Norway, then in Cuba. In the end, they forged a shaky compromise.
More Work than War
The war officially ended on June 23, 2016 with a ceasefire followed three months later by a peace treaty. Colombia’s president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; FARC became a political party and devoted itself to policy. It looked like a victory for Colombian democracy. The EU removed FARC from its list of “terrorist groups,” while the international community dropped the country off its to-do list, sat back and watched “Narcos” on Netflix and helped spark a boom in tourism for Colombia.
Even back then, Alvizú suspected that peace could sometimes be more work than war, but he wanted to give it a try anyway, he says. He found a girlfriend, applied for a directing scholarship in Cuba, which he never pursued, and finally landed a position at the FARC party headquarters in Bogotá. One of his jobs was to take photos of his former comrades who had switched to a career in politics and had begun making speeches. It was an odd experience.
Alvizú saw how Colombian politics worked, and how promises were broken. Contrary to assurances by the government, he says, former FARC rebels were persecuted and murdered, sometimes by gangs, sometimes by contract killers. He insists that only FARC respected the peace agreement, while the others did not.
Alvizú beckons to a small, wiry man in a Real Madrid jersey. “My name is William Wallace,” says the man — not his real name, but that of a Scottish freedom fighter from the 13th century. “I’m a big fan of ‘Braveheart,'” Wallace says, referring to the epic Hollywood film about the famous Scottish resistance fighter.
Wallace is one of Alvizú’s militiamen, as FARC calls its guerrilla fighters in an effort to maintain a respectable façade. Wallace is laid-back family-man who works as a farmer. He sometimes carries his pistol in his hand, at others, he jams it into his underwear. He seems pleased to have the opportunity to show his everyday life to a German reporter over the next few days. “I won’t hide anything,” he promises.
Regaining a Foothold
The farmers here live almost exclusively from growing coca. The state is hardly present here in Putumayo, but when the government does intervene, it sends in soldiers to set up roadblocks and uproot coca bushes. That, of course, draws the ire of the farmers, which makes it far easier for FARC to regain a foothold here.
Wallace, the militiaman, descends a narrow path to the river, where he has his dugout canoe with an outboard engine. He fires up the engine and heads out through the night to his wooden house. His three sons, Angel, David and Alejandro, are sitting on the terrace. There are weapons on the floor and in the room on the left, a young guerillera is treating a wounded comrade who was shot two weeks earlier. The bullet entered the side of his chest and exited through his back. The woman cleans his wound and gives him a tetanus shot.
The wounded man says that the attackers belonged to the Sinaloas, a group that has named itself after the Mexican drug cartel but which allegedly has nothing to do with the original — except, of course, that they are assassins, as he calls them.
Sitting at a table, another female comrade explains how they learned to care for and clean wounds while in the jungle, adding that “three doctors from the city were here to teach us.” Unfortunately, there was a danger that they would denounce the guerrilla fighters to the army, she said. “I felt really bad about the three of them. We shot them.”
She says it dispassionately, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to shoot some doctors. The message is that the new FARC is just as uncompromising as the old one. The situation is just like it was before: When FARC takes over an area, the locals have to do whatever the organization says.
Cocaine paste, the precursor of the final product, is only sold to dealers who cooperate with FARC. Whoever talks too much and endangers the guerrillas by doing so, must die. Those who can’t get shake their alcohol or marijuana habit, also must die. Those who steal cocaine are killed. And deserters? No mercy for them either.
In the past, the farmers were not allowed to vote in elections, but they will be in the future now that FARC is an official party. Though many party members officially reject rearmament, Alvizú is skeptical. More than that, he says that the parliamentary representatives are secretly delighted. He knows most of them personally, after all.
Fought for Long Enough
Just behind William Wallace’s stilt house is his coca field, which at just one hectare (2.5 acres, is relatively small. Some farmers have fields that cover 35 hectares, with one hectare producing slightly more than two kilos of cocaine paste every two months. FARC has currently set the gram price at 2,300 pesos, or around 60 euro cents. That adds up to over 1,200 euros ($1,335) per hectare every eight weeks — an outstanding income in Putumayo. The people who help pick the coca leaves earn less than 10 euros a day.
Wallace says he doesn’t want to return to the jungle, that he doesn’t want to fight anymore. He was 16 years old when he joined FARC, and feels that he’s fought long enough. As a militiaman, he is presumably one of the most important men in the entire operation, responsible for communications between the coca farmers and the guerrilla fighters. Wallace controls the finances. Without the money he brings in for the rebels, there would be no money to pay for recruits, uniforms, weapons and ood. Without him, there wouldn’t be a new FARC.
Wallace is proof that the rebels are gradually expanding their logistics network. And it is also becoming apparent just how fragile the 2016 peace deal actually was. Even after the agreement, the murders continued. The worst hit were those who sought to put the peace treaty into practice and implement the announced reforms — many of which greatly displeased large landowners, ranchers and entrepreneurs. Hundreds of activists, local leaders and small farmer representatives were shot — precisely those people that FARC had spent decades standing up for.
In Congress, where Alvizú briefly worked, the agreement became a political football. Last year, Colombia elected conservative politician Iván Duque Márquez as its new president, a man who wanted to put an end to the deal. The Márquez administration did everything it could to sabotage the work of Santos, his predecessor, with budgets being slashed or eliminated and previously agreed initiatives postponed. To date, the majority of the draft laws outlined in the peace treaty have not been passed by parliament, and some have not even been introduced.
Shortly after 6 a.m. the next morning, a man toting black garbage bags drops by Wallace’s house. The man is a farmer, and the bags are full of brittle lumps. It’s coca paste, which looks like white chocolate when dried.
Reorganizing in the Jungle
Wallace slips an electronic scale out of his backpack and places it on a tree trunk. Coca paste consists of up to 70 percent cocaine. Of course, there’s a strict ban on buying and selling it. Wallace and the farmer could face decades in prison if they are caught.
Wallace heats a small amount on a spoon, dips his finger into the resulting liquid and wipes it on the back of his hand, producing a white line. Wallace is satisfied.
Production of the paste is not complex, but it requires the use of chemicals that must be correctly mixed. First, farmhands pick the coca leaves from the thin branches of the bushes. Then the leaves are shredded and sprinkled with compounds, including fertilizer. Gasoline is added to the mixture and, after it is pressed, the pulp is treated with various chemicals, brought to a boil and dried to paste.
Further processing into cocaine hydrochloride powder — in other words, cocaine — takes place in larger laboratories. An efficient laboratory produces several tons per month, with the drug then finding its way to cities around the world via distributors, transporters and dealers. In early August, 4.5 tons of cocaine, with a street value of 1 billion euros, were confiscated in the port of Hamburg.
“This stuff is good,” says Wallace. It tips the scales at just over seven kilos. He jots down the number, reaches into his backpack and pulls out a wad of cash. The farmer smiles. Then Wallace asks if he needs anything else. FARC is happy to help out.
In the jungles of Colombia, the cocaine business is simple — and that’s part of the problem. The farmers know how to grow coca plants, and the FARC rebels know how to convert them into money. They are reanimating the old business model.
This flies in the face of the 2016 peace agreement, which also aimed to make cocaine production less attractive. The state wanted to pull the farmers and the rebels back onto the right side of the law. After years in the jungle, the rebels were offered rehabilitation programs, and the farmers were to receive financial aid. In Putumayo, it’s obvious that the government has failed on both counts.
The farmer who sold the white paste to Wallace is satisfied. He’s glad the guerrillas are back, he says. Ever since FARC regained control of the area, order has prevailed, he says, adding that he can even leave his chainsaw hanging on the outside of his house without it being stolen. When the government turns its back on people here, they cling to others who can provide security.
Working for the Peasants
The next morning, Comandante Alvizú musters his troops for a busy day. In the evening, a buyer will come and purchase the entire lot of coca paste for 2,600 pesos per gram, with FARC earning a profit of between 10 and 15 percent. Four more militiamen are also due to arrive. It’s their job to extort money from entrepreneurs, including a construction company that has been contracted to build a road to larger town nearby. Alvizú wants a list of the project costs so he can determine how much money FARC is entitled to receive. But before he proceeds, he has to talk with his guerrillas.
In the past, newcomers received basic training lasting several months, but everything has to go more quickly these days. This also applies to indoctrination and propaganda. The guerrillas wear green uniforms with the classic FARC armband in the Colombian national colors — yellow, blue and red — including the name of the division to which they have been assigned. In this case, it bears the moniker of Carolina Ramírez, whom Alvizú says was a FARC doctor who died in the last government bombing just before the end of the war.
He speaks of the revolution, that is now continuing, and of a new beginning. We must never forget the hearts of the campesinos, the peasants, he says. As long as they stand by FARC, betray no one and show solidarity with the cause, victory is possible, he tells them. It is for them, for the campesinos, that FARC is going into battle he says. As he talks he gazes into the serious, young faces surrounding him.
In the front row, on the left, for example, stands Lorena, a 15-year-old with long dark hair and a grave expression on her face, a Kalashnikov gripped firmly in her hands. She has been with this unit for eight months and during that time, she has gained more combat experience than large segments of the German military.
Next to her stands Alejandra, 13, who joined the revolution two months ago and is also armed. Her mother has uterine cancer and nine other children. She doesn’t know where her father is. She joined the rebels because she fell in love with a young guerillero.
A short distance from them stands Carlos, who is not even 20. He is very eager to have a Kalashnikov like Lorena’s, a comrade having told him that there’s no better rifle for the jungle. Unfortunately, those rifles are currently hard to find, so Carlos has to make do with an American M16.
Murder and Extortion
Boyaco, front left, is simply glad to be here. There’s a warrant out for his arrest because one day when drunk, he boasted about shooting his victims twice in the head: once in the back of the head, once in the temple. That was his trademark, he proclaimed. When several people were found who had been murdered in exactly that way, word got around. Boyaco, whose fled to the jungle and joined the guerrillas. When asked if he really did murder those people, he says: “Not all of them!”
Alvizú straightens his back. “Comrades, what do we still need in terms of equipment?”
Lorena and Alejandra, the two girls, speak up: “Commander, we have no underwear.”
Then the squad runs through the jungle, does push-ups, jumps up and down — all in brutal heat. Slowly, their uniforms turn a darker shade of green.
Meanwhile, Alvizú summons the four militiamen who had arrived. They are the only ones in the camp who we are not allowed to photograph. After all, they travel to the city every now and then — a good 10 hours by boat — and engage in reconnaissance missions and special assignments, including targeted killings.
There are four of them, all in their early 20s. The most haggard of the bunch says that they extorted 6 million pesos from a big landowner not far from Puerto Asís. The blackmailed man said to tell FARC that he would be grateful if, in return, the organization would keep the other criminals at bay.
“We’ll take care of it. Anything else?”
The road project was proving difficult, they said, adding that the head of the construction company wants to talk directly to the commander — and that he couldn’t say what the road would cost. “He’s lying,” says Alvizú. “I’ll contact him.”
Then Alvizú asks what FARC could do for the farmers. One of the men seems to have been hoping for an opportunity to answer this very question. He says that farmers in the area have been waiting for years for a wooden bridge to be built, but nothing has ever happened, so he has taken matters into his own hands and now the bridge has been completed. “Fantastic,” says Alvizú.
That evening, Alvizú sits outside with the comrade who was treating the gunshot wound. She is 19. Comandante Alvizú has got hold of a bottle of Havana Club, Cuban rum. He’ll drink no other, he says.
Alive Until Christmas?
It’s a peaceful moment. You have to wonder if Alvizú believes that he’ll still be alive this Christmas. He has powerful adversaries and the military possesses state-of-the-art weapons and communications technology that is so advanced, he doesn’t even have a clue that it exists. By contrast, his fighters don’t even have enough underwear.
“Two things will happen,” Alvizú says at some point. “There’s half a billion pesos on my head. What would a general do who knows where I am? He’ll wait a year and then it’s a billion. He can keep half of it.”
According to Alvizú, the hardliners in the military have a vested interest in the new conflict. Does anyone really believe, he asks, that the army is willing to give up its helicopter flights and carpet-bombing? “They’ll let us expand in peace. They won’t miss this opportunity,” he says.
What does he want, and what does FARC want?
“To rise to power, the victory of the masses, that’s what it’s about.” He’s serious. But he says that as times change, FARC has to change with them. “Forty percent of our forces must operate in urban centers, as small cells that know nothing of each other and perform actions independently of each other.”
“Combat,” says Alvizú.
One day later, a viral online video makes the rounds in Colombia. It shows Iván Márquez, long one of the best-known guerrilla leaders in the country who went into hiding over a year ago, surrounded by uniformed figures and speaking into a microphone. “As long as there is the will to fight, there is hope for victory,” proclaims a banner behind him.
The announcement came on the last Thursday of August, with Márquez announcing that FARC was ending the peace process and taking up arms again. No one knows whether Márquez is acting alone, a man with no followers. But there are reasons to believe he has comrades-in-arms.
Alvizú says that in Putumayo alone there are 500 armed guerrillas ready for action, and supposedly 2,000 of them throughout the country. Nobody can reliably verify these numbers. It is known, however, that ELN, a smaller guerilla force that refused to join the peace process, has already announced its intention to cooperate with the new FARC. That would be about 3,000 fighters.
Colombia, in other words, is once again at war.