More than five years after the peace accords were signed, former FARC fighters are frustrated. They doubt that Colombia’s new president Gustavo Petro and his leftwing coalition will be able to deliver the changes they so badly want. With violence continuing, many feel that disarming was premature.
People feel they’ve been tricked’
On 7 March this year, 200 former members of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) marched in Bogotá for ‘life and peace’. They wore white T-shirts and shoes instead of combat fatigues and their usual rubber boots, which some carried filled with flowers instead; today’s FARC are all about legal protest and pacifism.
They carried placards with black-and-white photos of murdered comrades. One read, ‘Manuel Antonio González Buelva, 1988-2019’. After 12 years in the FARC, Buelva had been working as a motorcycle taxi driver and had just become the father of a baby girl. His father, who was carrying the placard, had dedicated 27 years to armed struggle; he is now a regional representative of Comunes (Commons), the political party formed by the FARC after the 2016 peace accords.
Since President Juan Manuel Santos’s government (2010-18) made peace with the FARC, some 320 former guerrillas have been killed, 2.5% of the 13,000 signatories to the peace accords. To date, no one has been brought to justice and in January Colombia’s Constitutional Court took the unusual step of declaring an ‘unconstitutional state of affairs’, citing constant, large-scale violation of the fundamental rights of former FARC combatants and the government’s failure to take remedial action.
The government has recruited 1,800 bodyguards, mainly former FARC guerrillas, to the National Protection Unit (UNP). But Julio César Orjuela, aka Federico Nariño, once a FARC commander and member of the peace accord negotiating team, said, ‘Assigning a bodyguard to every comrade isn’t the answer. We wouldn’t need them if the government respected the peace agreement: they haven’t disbanded the paramilitary groups suspected of involvement in the killings and there’s been no progress on finding alternatives to coca-growing.’
Colombian society might seem to be growing more progressive. In 2021 the National Strike movement opposed tax reforms that threatened to worsen social inequality. This March the Constitutional Court partially decriminalised abortion. And in June the country elected its first leftwing president, Gustavo Petro, and a vice-president of African descent, Francia Márquez, at the head of a broad coalition known as the Historic Pact for Colombia, which ranges from far to centre-left.
Violence and armed conflict persist
However, Petro’s predecessor, Iván Duque (2018-22) of the rightwing Democratic Centre party, a loyal heir of Álvaro Uribe (2002-10), who had opposed negotiating with the FARC, had halted the peace process. Only five of the 107 laws needed to implement the accords were passed during Duque’s mandate and Colombia is still a place of violence and armed conflicts.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has identified at least four ongoing conflicts between the Colombian army and non-governmental groups — combatants of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the People’s Liberation Army (EPL), former elements of the FARC’s Eastern Bloc who have not accepted the peace process, and paramilitaries of the Gaitanist Self-Defence of Colombia (AGC) (1).
I believe we didn't forget our values, and we'll gradually return to collective living. I needed to disconnect, too. I have my work, and a house, now I want to get more involved within our local cooperative. It fills me with hope
In 2021 the UN recorded more than 73,000 displaced persons and 150 victims of anti-personnel mines in Colombia. ‘Things have worsened steadily since 2017, when the fighting was at its lowest intensity in the past few years,’ said a close observer who asked to remain anonymous. ‘Paramilitary groups are less visible, but they’re growing stronger. Conditions are ripe for a new cycle of violence in the near future — maybe the very near future.’
This violence would not have political objectives such as revolution or building socialism; it would be about controlling territories abandoned by central government and taxing local economic activity, especially coca growing and narcotrafficking. The reintegration of former combatants into civilian society is tricky both politically and socioeconomically, with more failures than success stories.
José Lisandro Lascarro, aka Pastor Alape, agreed to be interviewed at Lubianka, a bar run by former FARC guerrillas in the Teusaquillo district of Bogotá, where we drank bottled beer named Alapaz in his honour. He was commander of the Magdalena Medio bloc (one of the FARC’s seven geographically based military divisions, each divided into several ‘fronts’) and a member of the Secretariat (its military command). Today he represents Comunes on the National Reincorporation Council (CNR), which has equal numbers of FARC and government representatives. There were four bulletproof cars and eight security guards outside.
Incentives for ex-combatants
Microbreweries and bars run by ex-guerrillas are flourishing in Teusaquillo: a few blocks from Lubianka, the Casa Alternativa serves a beer called La Roja (The Red One) while the Casa de la Paz offers La Trocha (The Path), but the FARC’s peace accord negotiating team mainly aimed to get their fighters (mostly from smallholder farming backgrounds) reintegrated into the Colombian economy through agropastoral (mixed farming) cooperatives. The peace accords also include financial help for those hoping to start their own small business.
Whether the project involves a cooperative or a sole trader, every peace accord signatory is entitled to a startup grant of 8m Colombian pesos (around $1,800). ‘Late last year,’ Alape told us, ‘the CNR approved 116 collective projects involving 3,855 signatories. Around 80% were agropastoral and the total cost was 43.5bn pesos’ ($9.8m). Meanwhile, the state Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation (ARN) has approved just over 4,000 sole-trader projects; just under half of all former FARC combatants are thought to be involved.
Some projects, such as La Montaña backpacks, made in Antioquia department by former members of the FARC’S 36th front, are showcases for the peace process: billionaire Warren Buffet even wore yellow boots made by ex-combatants in Tierra Grata, Cesar department, to nonprofit Concordia’s annual summit in New York: a gift from Iván Duque.
State institutions have been quick to finance sole-trader projects doomed to failure, neglecting collective projects and undermining the work of ECOMUN, the institution run by former combatants that was initially to manage the funding of grants for cooperatives. Alape said, ‘So far, none of the collective projects have lasted. It’s worse for sole-trader projects. According to our follow-up survey, 90% are going under: 8m pesos is enough to buy three washing machines and set up a laundrette, or a few cows — little more.’
Cooperatives in the provinces, far from Bogotá, are only just getting off the ground as grants have been delayed. There are also problems with access to cultivable land. ‘Things haven’t changed much since the war started in 1964,’ said Erika Montero, former commander of the 34th front, who represents Comunes in the Territorial Space for Training and Reincorporation (ETCR) at Llano Grande in Antioquia department.
Agrarian reforms unclear
The house Montero shares with her husband Isais Trujillo, a former commander of the Northwest bloc, overlooks the ETCR camp, which lies in the heart of the Paramillo mountains. Trujillo pointed out that the agrarian reforms obtained by the FARC were to include regularising the status of seven million hectares of land cultivated by peasant farmers who had no title to it, and the government handing out three million more hectares to landless peasants (including former FARC combatants). The land register is still being compiled, and though the National Land Agency claims to have reallocated 400,000 hectares, a survey published in El Espectador reveals the true figure is less than 3,000 hectares.
Seven hours from Medellín by poor roads, the Llano Grande ETCR camp looks just like the 23 others scattered across Colombia — long sheds with sheet metal roofs and plasterboard walls. They were only built to last six months, but determined residents have painted some of them in bright colours and planted begonias and yuccas. On the steep slope behind the sheds there are chicken runs and vegetable plots. The camp’s agropastoral cooperative, Agroprogreso, has finally secured 250 hectares, two hours away by road, for a beef-and-dairy cattle farming project; it has yet to buy any livestock. It harvested its first crop of coffee this year and also plans to grow lemons.
Before the pandemic, Agroprogreso intended to develop ecotourism. It built a replica of a guerrilla camp where it wanted to offer guided tours and opened a small inn that occasionally houses naturalists visiting the Paramillo nature reserve. So far, these don’t make enough money for the camp’s residents to live on. A basic stipend (90% of the minimum wage, around $220) and food aid, frequently renegotiated, are not enough for households that have grown considerably since the war as children have been born and families have formed larger units (38% of Colombians were living in poverty in 2021) (2). Out of 320 combatants who came to Llano Grande to lay down their arms, fewer than 100 still live there.
As the cooperatives stall, the former combatants’ communal lifestyle is dying out. At Llano Grande, they rarely prepare meals together except at Christmas and New Year. At Pondores in La Guajira department, padlocks on toilet doors show housework is no longer shared. At San José de Léon in Antioquia department, Saturday morning repairs on the road down to the village, often damaged by weather, have stopped due to a shortage of volunteers. Montero recognises the transition from a hierarchical organisation to self-management is hard: ‘We weren’t prepared. When we were guerrillas, we used to call the FARC our mother and father. They used to provide everything we needed, even if “everything” wasn’t much: a backpack, a weapon, clothes, food and a good medic.’
Surprisingly, the ETCR camps have not become self-managed communist villages. Tanja Nijmiejer warned against preconceptions: ‘No, it’s not the same, but how could it be? It’s not like when we were all living together in the jungle. We’ve been thrown into a capitalist society, whether we like it or not.’ Nijmiejer joined the FARC in the 2000s. Originally from the Netherlands, she now lives out of the public eye, in the foothills of the Farallones de Cali mountains.
It was ‘everyone for themselves’
Since demobilisation, Nijmiejer has returned to university, teaches English online and has just published an autobiography in the Netherlands. She is still wanted by Interpol for her involvement in the abduction of three US military personnel, and can no longer leave Colombia, which has become ‘a beautiful prison’ for her.
‘At the end of the war, it was everyone for themselves for a while, but I believe we didn’t forget our values, and we’ll gradually go back to collective living,’ Nijmiejer said. ‘I felt a need to disconnect, too. Now I have my work and a house, and I want to get more involved in our local cooperative. It fills me with hope.’ Nijmiejer and her partner are setting up an online store to sell products from their comrades’ agropastoral cooperative.
On the other side of Colombia, near Cartagena, Audrey Millot, who spent 15 years in the FARC (their only French woman combatant) also believes that a social and solidarity economy will emerge: ‘During this process, we will have to compete with neoliberal capitalism. For the moment, that’s the only struggle we could possibly win,’ she said.
These women are unshakeably optimistic but have no illusions about the accords. Nijmiejer said, ‘We were naïve to surrender our weapons. It was supposed to be a negotiation — that’s the key word. In return, there were to be changes: agrarian reforms, the democratisation of institutions, a plan for the replacement of coca-growing... How can we insist that the government respect the accords now?’ Many former FARC members, including the older ones, share this view.
In Cali, Miguel Angel Pascuas said, ‘I believe that if Manuel Marulanda, Jacobo Arenas and Alfonso Cano had still been in charge of the FARC, we’d have accepted peace, but wouldn’t have surrendered our weapons. We’d have put them in storage and allowed monitoring. The government today isn’t respecting the accords and some people are going back to guerrilla warfare.’
Pascuas, 81, is the last living founder of the FARC. As his two daughters watched over him, he spoke quietly and sometimes hesitantly, telling us he had no regrets because ‘guerrilla warfare was the only option at the time’. He criticised armed groups today as ‘very disorganised’, with many ‘bandits’ in their ranks who kill innocent civilians when they are not shooting at each other. ‘I behaved properly during the war and I want to do the same in peacetime.’
‘We had set red lines’
Benedicto González, who was passing through the ETCR camp at Pondores, close to the Venezuelan border, was outspoken about the former FARC leadership. He came up through the Communist Youth movement and handled education and propaganda for the 41st front. He stayed behind in Colombia while the peace negotiating team were in Cuba and came to play an even more important role. ‘We had set red lines. There was no question of accepting a conflict exit process on the UN “disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration” model.
‘In practical terms,’ he continued, ‘that meant we wouldn’t surrender our weapons, just lay them down, like the IRA [Irish Republican Army]. We wouldn’t demobilise, because we would be remobilising at a political level. We didn’t need to reintegrate, because we’d never been cut off from society. But in the end, that’s what happened. People feel they’ve been tricked, and the leadership are partly responsible.’
González, who temporarily replaced Jesús Santrich (3) in Congress, resigned from the national council of the FARC’s political party because he felt he no longer fitted in: ‘The party has abandoned its objective of taking political power and became a chameleon, changing its message according to its surroundings. It’s even abandoned parts of its manifesto. For example, it no longer makes any mention of tackling the multinationals or improving access to land.’
The party was originally known as the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (FARC) but was renamed in 2021. Its president Rodrigo Londoño, aka Timochenko, said ‘I suggested a change of name because people associated the word ‘FARC’ with conflict, war and desolation.’ The former FARC combatants have abandoned armed struggle and their historical name, but do they still want a communist revolution? ‘The name Comunes shows they haven’t abandoned that ideal,’ saidCarlos Antonio Lozada, aka Julián Gallo, a former commander of the Eastern bloc and member of the FARC Secretariat.
Gallo had just been re-elected to the Colombian Senate, as chief candidate for Comunes. A few weeks earlier he was campaigning, handing out leaflets bearing the new party logo — a dove and red rose — to Sunday strollers on Bogotá’s Park Way. The peace accords gave Comunes ten seats in Congress (five each in the Senate and House of Representatives) for two four-year terms, but party activists campaigned regardless in an attempt to build an electoral base ahead of the 2026 elections.
‘We want to democratise Colombian society. From Europe, it doesn’t look much like a revolutionary idea, but here it totally is,’ Gallo said. He then gave us an orthodox Marxist analysis of his country’s economy: Colombia was still at a pre-modern stage of development — as could be seen from the ‘feudal’ latifundium (a large estate in ancient Rome) model of land ownership. Colombia therefore needed to ‘start by developing capitalism before talking about a post-capitalist society’. ‘That’s still our goal,’ he said, ‘but we can’t achieve it at present. Anyone who says we can is kidding themselves.’
The FARC brand doesn’t sell
His explanation of why Comunes had done poorly in the 2022 legislative election (only 52,000 votes, 0.15% of all votes cast) was similar: given that Comunes’ seats in Congress were guaranteed, its supporters had decided to give Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez’s Historic Pact for Colombia a chance. Comunes members of Congress refuse to see this as a rebuff. But it’s true that even after 50 years of fighting to defend Colombia’s poorest, the FARC brand doesn’t sell.
In the 2019 municipal elections, Julian Conrado was the only ex-FARC combatant to be elected mayor in a town of any size. He stood as candidate for the centre-left Colombia Humana (Humane Colombia) movement in Turbaco (population 70,000), near the Caribbean coast, and dropped his former comrades’ slogan ‘Peace with social justice’ for the more accessible ‘Through love, we will overcome’.
The ravages of 50 years of war, the prevalence of a media narrative presenting the FARC as ‘narcoterrorists’, and the demographic shift from country to town has cut off the FARC, who are essentially rural, from part of Colombia’s population. Meanwhile, the loss of a hierarchical organisation has widened political divisions among the ex-combatants. Congress members and former FARC commanders Victoria Sandino and Israel Zúñiga left Comunes in 2021 to found their own movement, known as Agrupar para Avanzar (Gather to Advance), as well as a ‘Round Table for Autonomous Reintegration’, which they present as a forum for direct dialogue with the government. A growing number of signatories to the peace accords no longer feel represented by Comunes.
Another major disappointment for ex-FARC combatants is that gender equality has declined. When 13,000 people from an organisation in which gender equality was the rule returned to civilian life they could have brought those values with them. It was not to be. Yudis Cartagena, vice-president of the Pondores ETCR camp said, ‘Some of our comrades formed relationships with civilian women, who were too accustomed to being submissive, and they soon forgot that in the FARC men and women shared all duties equally: cooking, laundry and fighting.’ She looks after her father, disabled daughter and granddaughter alone. Former women guerrillas are finding it hard to adjust to Colombia’s macho and patriarchal society, where they have gone ‘from rifles to saucepans’.
‘No provision for children’
The baby boom that followed the peace has forced them to return to women’s traditional role. During the war, having children was forbidden. In 2016, with the peace accords on the horizon, bombing and long marches through the jungle ceased. ‘When the women arrived at ETCRs to lay down their weapons, many were pregnant or carrying babies. But there were no nursery facilities, no provision for children. So they found themselves with sole responsibility for bringing them up and caring for them,’ said Sandino.
She admits she was slow to realise that the equality between male and female combatants stemmed from wartime necessity rather than a deep-seated belief in egalitarian socialist ideals. The influence of traditional rural society and social pressure, especially within larger family groups, may also have contributed to the regression women are experiencing. ‘We can’t yet quantify it precisely, but it’s huge in terms of education: women have abandoned their studies to look after their children.’ Though some manage to juggle housework, education and co-op responsibilities, it’s not easy.
On 8 March Sandino was in Bogotá with Nijmiejer and other ex-FARC women for an International Women’s Day march. On her left wrist she wore the green scarf of pro-choice activists; on the right, the fluorescent orange scarf of Agrupar para Avanzar. Her T-shirt bore a portrait of Mariana Páez, the first woman to join the FARC’s high command, in the 2000s. Though gender equality has declined, Sandino believes feminist movements were strengthened by the dialogue at the Gender Sub-Commission in Havana, between women combatants and civil society organisations.
She maintains this not only made ex-FARC women aware, sometimes painfully, of the limits of equality in their own organisation, but resulted in the peace accords taking account of gender, for instance by adopting a differential approach to access to land for peasant women and recognising them as victims of conflict, measures designed to combat sexual and gender discrimination.
‘I’d go so far as to say — though it’s also a result of changes in society — that the gender views we put forward in Cuba have produced an impressive number of new expressions of the feminist struggle, led by young women. Our role today is to support them.’ The fact that Colombia now has an African Colombian feminist, Francia Márquez, as vice-president seems to prove her point.
Will Petro keep his promises?
People in the ex-FARC camp were overjoyed at the Historic Pact for Colombia’s victory. For a former M-19 guerrilla and a former maid to be leading the country is the biggest step forward in Colombian politics since the major setback of 1948, when presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated. Gaitán was the first Colombian politician to talk about social inequality and access to land, and his death triggered a civil war that produced the first Marxist guerrillas, the FARC. But are Petro and Márquez capable of leading real social change?
On election night, Petro, who had won 50.44% of the vote, promised to bring change and peace, called on the attorney general’s office to release demonstrators jailed during the general strike and, in a powerfully symbolic gesture, handed the microphone to the mother of one of Colombia’s ‘false positives’ — young peasants whom the army executed and then dressed as ‘guerrillas killed in combat’, just to meet numerical targets.
Petro’s victory speech reflected the Comunes manifesto but was above all intended to reassure business owners, who had raised the spectre of Venezuela during his campaign: ‘We are going to develop capitalism in Colombia. Not because we love it, but because we first have to overcome pre-modernity, feudalism, the new slavery.’ With Congress still dominated by the right and far right, the new government will have little room for manoeuvre and will face many obstacles to reform. The former FARC combatants know things will not be easy, but hope that the peace accords will be respected and that they will, finally, be able to move forward.
(1) ‘Colombia: Five armed conflicts — What’s happening?’, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, 30 January 2019.
(2) Source: Government of Colombia National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE).
(3) A former FARC commander and member of the peace negotiating team who believed in taking a firm line with the government and was killed by mercenaries in May 2021.