Colombia’s Former FARC Foot Soldiers Sow Seeds of Peace

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Published on: 19 January, 2022

Cauca historically bore the brunt of Colombia’s five-decade conflict. Now, the department is home to many of those trying to shore up the fragile peace.

For the thousands of men and women who made up Latin America’s longest running leftist insurgency, the last five years have been a different kind of revolution. In 2016, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), a Marxist guerrilla movement founded in 1964, agreed to lay down arms as part of a landmark peace agreement. In the time since, roughly 14,000 men and women ex-combatants have re-entered civilian life. This is the first-person account of one of those individuals, Jacinto, a former FARC member and photographer now living in the Pacific Coast department of Cauca.

Jacinto lives in El Estrecho, a strip of land on a straight road in a swelteringly hot valley near the River Patía. When fighters first handed over their weapons in 2017, they did so in two dozen rural concentration zones, some of which are known today as Territorial Spaces for Capacitation and Reincorporation (or, based on the Spanish term, ETCRs).

About a quarter of the reincorporated fighters have remained in these areas. Guarded only with a red metal gate, the houses in the El Estrecho ETCR are painted brightly and enveloped in unruly gardens. Colombia’s government built the infrastructure in most reincorporation zones – often uniform rows of concrete houses and shared bathrooms – but El Estrecho is different. Former fighters there had originally laid down arms in an inhospitable camp in Policarpa, Nariño, and relocated to Cauca in hope of finding better conditions. Ex-combatants in El Estrecho constructed their own homes and water system. To support themselves, residents grow watermelons, and they soon hope to have cattle and orchards of Haiti limes.

Jacinto has dedicated himself to documenting his community’s journey back into civilian life. He photographs the lives of reincorporated colleagues as well as nearby coca farmers, many of whom had hoped a peace process crop substitution program would help them transition away from a livelihood that exposes them to violence. This is the story he shared.

“My name is Jacinto”

It started as a nom de guerre, but I barely recognise my birth name after living my entire adult life this way. I joined the FARC in 2002 and bore arms for 15 years. My life’s goal was to be a part of the revolution and I always believed it was a permanent commitment. Today, that means fighting for our ideals in peace.

Ex-FARC combatant Jacinto has opted to keep his identity anonymous because of security threats to former members of the guerrilla movement.

I grew up enamoured of revolution thanks to my older cousin Manuel. I am not from Colombia; I grew up in a city in a neighbouring country in the Andes region. In urban life, I felt incomplete. I never wanted to be an ordinary person, working to build his house and grow a family. Manuel was the only one who seemed to see the world outside of these terms. He spoke about justice and change, and from a very young age it made an impression. I started seeking out membership on student councils and reading books that Manuel would pass to me when he finished them.

After laying down their weapons, Jacinto and his comrades started a new and peaceful life.

By the time I was 15, I had announced to my family that I wanted to be a guerrilla – that I wanted to fight for others. My mother laughed and then she worried. I knew that in my country, there were no rural guerrillas. What we had were part-time revolutionaries, who led normal lives but fought when they had free time. Manuel by then was involved in urban militia movements and he had some connections with the FARC and the ELN [National Liberation Army] in Colombia. One day, I built up my courage and told him that I wanted to join. “You have to finish studying first”, he told me. “Then, we’ll see”. He disappeared shortly after that and I never saw him again.

By the time I was 15, I had announced to my family that I wanted to be a guerrilla – that I wanted to fight for others.

I threw myself into studying – not only at school, but also at home. On the internet, I tried to learn everything I could about the FARC. I found articles detailing their history and news reports describing where in Colombia they operated. I started to train myself for the jungle. Each night after my mother had gone to bed, I would move out of my room and sleep on the hard concrete floor of the kitchen with a thin mattress. I woke up before dawn and moved back to my room so that no one would realise what I was doing. I taught myself to see at night.

After Manuel’s disappearance, I knew I wanted to join the FARC, but I was at a loss as to how. I imagined travelling to Colombia and simply walking up to a FARC checkpoint and asking to volunteer. Then one day, walking the city streets, I ran into one of Manuel’s friends. Please, I begged her, help me join. “You must be sure, because there is no going back”, she told me. I already knew revolution was a 100 per cent commitment. Even my parents knew by then. When I announced my departure, my mother simply said she wished I would reconsider.

I planned to disappear from home with my closest friend Maximiliano. “I’m sure they will send us to a cold climate”, I told him. We packed our heaviest clothes and crept out of our homes before sunrise to a meeting point. From there, we were taken to Ipiales, put in a canoe, and sent to Tumaco. Imagine us there, adorned in our warmest jackets and tennis shoes. The commander told us to dump our clothes and start walking.

Everyone who entered the FARC in those days went through basic training to learn about the history of the organisation, its ideals, the rules and orders. From there, each member started to specialise.

Everyone who entered the FARC in those days went through basic training to learn about the history of the organisation, its ideals, the rules and orders. From there, each member started to specialise. The commanders had an eye for seeing talent. One day, my commander noticed I knew how to use a computer and from that day forward I worked in communications. In 2006, he sent me to Cauca for a training session on capturing photos and video. These courses were rare; mostly, I had to teach myself. I learned how to burn CDs to distribute songs and propaganda. We designed communiqués and printed them. In Tumaco, we ran a community radio. Later on, we started to produce more sophisticated videos. The work was exhausting. I always said that being in communications meant I had a double job as a guerrilla. I had all the same duties as everyone else, but I also had to document our lives.

It was through my work in communications that I started to realise that secret negotiations were underway between our leadership and the government in 2012. When the news became public, we shifted our work toward distributing information to the rank and file. If the commanders were in Havana, I believed it was because we could achieve something real. I imagined FARC becoming the governors or mayors of areas where we operated. Wherever we had arrived, we brought progress for the community – built roads and schools. This is what I imagined from peace.

In May 2015, I traveled to Guapi, Cauca, to take part in a course about the peace process. The military found out about our gathering and bombarded the camp. Thirty-two of us died that day, and I was gravely wounded. The FARC sent me to my home country to recover and to this day, I have metal rods in my back from where the blast struck.

The FARC sent me to my home country to recover and to this day, I have metal rods in my back from where the blast struck.

I distrusted everything after that. But our commitment was to peace and it remains firm today. My unit was meant to lay down arms in Policarpa, Nariño. The site was high on a mountainside, far from anything else, and the government said it would be impossible to build real infrastructure there. Through our connections from the insurgency, we found this plot in El Estrecho, in Cauca, where the owner agreed to let us rent. After our relocation, the government paid the rent. But they never built anything.

At first, we constructed houses with sticks and tarps atop a small hill in a shaded patch to avoid the piercing heat of the sun. We had no water, no electricity and many left – especially those with families. Those of us who stayed built all of what you see today ourselves. We asked merchants nearby to donate concrete and took sand from the Rio Patía. With our own hands, we dug the foundations, laid the concrete, and slowly constructed houses. To support ourselves, we are growing Haiti limes and watermelon.

Unlike in other reincorporation sites where the government built most infrastructure, the community in El Estrecho built their settlement themselves.

I could leave this place and things would be easier for me. I could open a photography studio in Popayán [a nearby city] and earn my keep. But we are part of a process that started the day I left my home as a teenager and continues here in reincorporation. We are resisting in our own way by staying put and working to rebuild.

Part of that work involves reconciliation. I felt so much hatred toward the military when we arrived. There were moments during the reincorporation process when we were both armed; now they are armed and we are not. With time, we have found ways to relate. The soldiers and policemen are the same as us; we are all poor people fighting because of a lack of opportunities.

Today, photography is my personal revolution. I capture images of persistence here in reincorporation: women collecting harvests, men working under the sun. These are expressions of their commitment to peace. When I visit coca fields, I try to capture the way that their colours enrich the landscape with their cascades of leaves. Coca is also part of this story of survival; the cocaleros (coca farmers) were promised support in the peace agreement that has never arrived.

Peace is difficult. It is a constant work in progress. We in FARC have stories and identities and if I can share them with the world, I will be contributing to our project of change.

This text was prepared by Elizabeth Dickinson on the basis of interviews with Jacinto.

Jacinto’s portraits of endurance