For more than 50 years, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas have lived in some of the most inhospitable places on the planet: deep in the jungle, surrounded by threats and far from the nearest amenity.
But almost four months after the government and the FARC signed a historic peace deal, some of the fighters are chafing at living conditions in government-provided camps that they say are, in some ways, even worse.
In an extensive interview last week with La FM radio in Bogotá, guerrilla commanders said the administration’s inability to provide the demobilized guerrillas with even basic amenities at “concentration zones” is undermining morale.
The peace deal has helped bring Colombia’s murder rate to its lowest levels in 40 years
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Under the peace deal, almost 7,000 FARC members have moved to 26 rural camps scattered across the country where they will be spending six months receiving training and counseling as they prepare to reenter civilian life.
But despite months of planning, many of the camps don’t have adequate potable water, bathrooms, cafeterias, recreational facilities and other amenities that the guerrillas say they were promised.
The perception that the government doesn’t care “is a matter of daily and permanent discussion” among the troops, said FARC Commander Carlos Antonio Losada. “It has been creating tensions inside the rank and file.”
In one of the transition zones, known as La Lima, in Tolima state, about two hours south of the capital, 287 guerrillas were living in makeshift tents on the side of a bare hill.
Paula Sáenz, a spokeswoman for the group, said they didn’t have enough drinking water and there were not even temporary toilets.
“The government, for all practical purposes, has built nothing here,” she said. “We’re living in worse conditions than when we were in the depths of the jungle.”
The administration acknowledges the problems. Last week, key cabinet members began a tour of some of some of the two dozen concentration zones in hopes of overcoming the obstacles.
“When you visit these areas and witness the peace in the region — and the willingness on both sides to implement this accord, despite the enormous difficulties and despite being in places that are so remote — you realize that peace in Colombia is a reality,” said Agriculture Minister Aurelio Iragorri.
And the problems are not uniform, with some of the 26 camps being far more developed than others.
The FARC attitude has also generated push back. Many wonder how a hardened group used to jungle living can complain about not having toilets. But Losada said the real issue is government obligations and broken promises this early in the process.
Using a rural Colombian saying, he said many of the troops are asking themselves, “If this is breakfast, what’s lunch going to be like?”
The camps are just the beginning of what will be a long transition fraught with pitfalls. Over the course of the next six months, the guerillas will be gradually handing over their weapons to the United Nations before emerging from the areas as a political party ahead of the 2018 presidential race.
In many ways, that could be one of the most delicate parts of the transition, as the government will have to provide security for the rebels in a country where leftist political leaders are targeted for assassination. (The United Nations has records of 64 rural and human rights leaders being murdered in 2016 alone.)
After years of negotiations, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Commander Timoleón “Timochenko” Jiménez signed a definitive peace deal on Nov. 24 that put an end to their half-century conflict. The deal has helped bring Colombia’s murder rate to its lowest level in 40 years and won Santos the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.
Victoria Sandino, another FARC commander, said she still has faith in the government and thought that many of the problems were simply a matter of day-to-day inefficiency and bureaucracy.
“It’s like, welcome to civilization,” she said.
El Nuevo Herald photographer Pedro Portal traveled to Colombia on a fellowship sponsored by the Washington-based International Center for Journalists.