In the middle of what was once a sweeping and empty savannah, Colombia’s FARC guerrillas have erected a virtual city matching their political ambitions.
With massive tents, batteries of bathrooms, bunk beds, jungle camps and generators, the site is meant to house almost 1,000 troops, journalists and hangers-on. The complex, thrown up over the last month, is the headquarters of the 10th Conference of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the site where the 52-year-old guerrilla group is expected to vote on Friday to approve a historic peace deal.
But it's also a symbol of the group's muscle — moving both machinery and the masses — as it prepares to lay down its arms and enter politics. The site has a communications antenna (though it rarely worked), a full catering service — selling tequila and vodka — and even its own gas station.
During the opening of the meeting over the weekend, the FARC's maximum commander, Timoleón Jiménez, addressed his troops from a stage worthy of any halftime show and said the bloodshed was ending but the struggle for the fate of the country would continue.
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"Contrary to what our critics say, the [FARC] is far from being an exclusively military organization ruled by the whims of ambitious commanders," he said, as massive screens broadcast his image. "If something has characterized us since our birth it is, precisely, our rigorously political nature founded on the broadest of democracies."
Less than a mile from the loudspeakers, nightly concerts and glimmering lights of the pop-up city, the FARC's rank and file were huddled in rustic jungle camps — and worrying about life after the party.
Guerrilla safety net
During her 15 years as a fighter for Latin America's largest and oldest guerrilla group, Veronica Castro has never been to a movie theater, never seen the ocean or had a Facebook account, but she says she's never lacked anything.
"Out there it's hard to survive," said Castro, 29, nodding to the world beyond her makeshift bunk and mosquito net. "You have to pay for water and for yucca and if you go to the doctor. Here, everything is free."
The FARC leadership is trying to ease troop concerns, painting images of its estimated 6,000-7,000 armed fighters —excluding its urban militias — moving in lockstep to become a powerful political movement where everyone will play a role.
But how effectively the FARC and the government reincorporate the troops back into society — many of whom are from rural areas and without formal education — will be vital to the long-term health of the deal, and the guerrillas’ futures.
Castro, despite never having access to email, said she wanted to study computing and help support "the cause." But many at the gathering couldn't seem to imagine a workaday life beyond the ranks.
"We're not demobilizing — we're reincorporating into civilian life," said a squad leader known as “Cristobal 16,” who has been in the group for 20 years. "If we demobilize and everyone goes their own way, then we've betrayed the FARC...And all our years in the organization have been wasted."
The fears go well beyond the anxieties of joining the civilian workforce. Many recall the fate of the Unión Patriótica political party, which was established in 1985 after President Belisario Betancur signed a cease-fire with the FARC.
The party drew followers from across the left, though its primary purpose was to give the guerrillas a vehicle to participate in politics. But in the 1980s and 1990s more than a thousand UP members (more than 3,500 by the party's own count) were murdered.
For many, a return to those days is a real concern. As an all-guerrilla band, "The Rebels of the South," sang revolutionary salsa themes on the second night of the conference, commanders and troops mingled in the stage lights.
A FARC leader who goes by the nom de guerre Kunta Kinte, and who is one of the official delegates to the meeting, tried to enjoy the show, despite his anxiety.
"I'm afraid," he yelled over the music. "I'm afraid we'll be betrayed."
Back at the camp, Castro and some of her camaradas were watching the animated movie Ice Age on her laptop. But it didn't mean she was at ease.
"My biggest worry is that the government won't live up to the deal that it's made with our commanders," she said. "If people start getting killed or the problems remain, then we'll have to take up our weapons again, which is what has kept us in confrontation for the last 52 years."
For others the worries about the future are more mundane. One guerrilla, whose bunk overlooked a river full of bathing female journalists, asked a passerby: "How do you talk to a civilian?"
Others worry that loneliness will creep in once they're not living as a group.
If individual guerrillas face a tough time ahead, so will the FARC as a political organization. Even as most Colombians say they want peace, many are wary that the deal lets guerrillas off the hook and allows them to remain in politics. Colombia and the United States consider the FARC a terrorist organization, and for many, the guerrillas are synonymous with extortion, kidnappings and murder.
Willington, another member of the FARC, joined when he was 12 as his mother and 14 siblings struggled to make ends meet. Now 18, he said the guerrillas taught him how to read and write and gave him other skills. It's been a nurturing environment, he said, but he's worried about how civilians might perceive him.
"They say that we're murderers and rapists and drug traffickers, and it's all lies," he said, as he helped prepare food for 250 of his fellow soldiers. "The FARC are fighting to make changes. There are too many farmers who are poor and don't even have basic things like healthcare."
But it's not clear if the rural poor see the FARC as their political saviors.
Insight Crime, a think tank looking at organized crime in the Americas, has visited about 60 municipalities where the FARC have historically had a strong presence.
"What surprised us is the lack of political support the FARC have," said Jeremy McDermott, the organization's executive director. States like Tolima and cities like San Vicente del Caguán, long considered FARC strongholds, have elected officials with anti-guerrilla platforms.
And while the FARC have traditionally had the support of coca growers, the peace deal requires the guerrillas to help end the drug trade.
"My fear is that once the FARC start getting involved in crop-substitution and eradication, as laid out in the peace agreement, the support from that sector will evaporate," McDermott said. "Since coca is the main economic lifeblood of the local communities, the FARC are going to lose that political support. So I am not optimistic."
By all accounts, the hundreds of guerrilla delegates at the event will approve the peace agreement this Friday. Guerrilla leaders and government negotiators spent almost four years in Havana, Cuba, hammering out the deal, and Jiménez and President Juan Manuel Santos are scheduled to sign it on Monday in Cartagena at an event attended by more than a dozen regional leaders. On Oct. 2, Colombians will have the chance to approve or reject the peace pact in a national plebiscite, and polls suggest it will pass easily.
But what's certain is that the organization, and the country, will be entering uncharted territory. As one Colombian journalist pointed out, this week's gathering had the feel of high-school prom: a guerrilla last hurrah before the real world intrudes.
Before this week's meeting began, these plains were known as El Diamante and there was nothing here but a small clapboard restaurant. Now the guerrillas have other plans for the area. One local commander said the campground was carved into the shape of a Colombian map so massive that it can only be seen from an airplane. It's meant to be permanent.
What will happen to it after the peace deal remains uncertain, he said, but the group has one idea: "We've been thinking about making it a theme park where we could teach people about the FARC's history."