Colombia’s imprisoned guerrillas see freedom ahead — and a new political path

Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, gather for a jailhouse meeting in Bogotá, Colombia. Under the terms of a new peace deal, hundreds of guerrillas will receive amnesties or alternative sentences.
Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, gather for a jailhouse meeting in Bogotá, Colombia. Under the terms of a new peace deal, hundreds of guerrillas will receive amnesties or alternative sentences. Courtesy FARC

For the last 15 years, Jhonier Andres Martínez has been locked up in some of Colombia’s harshest prisons serving a 36-year sentence for terrorism, homicide and rebellion.

But if all goes as planned, sometime in the next days or weeks, Martínez, 37, will find freedom of sorts — as he becomes a beneficiary of the country’s sweeping peace deal with the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Under the terms of the peace pact, hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas will be released and moved to 26 concentration zones. Those charged with nonviolent crimes will benefit from a blanket amnesty passed in December. Those accused of having blood on their hands, like Martínez, will be able to seek reduced sentences that keep them confined but out of jail.

Speaking by phone from inside Bogotá’s high-security La Picota prison, Martínez, who’s better known as “Caliche,” said prison hasn’t changed his convictions even though he’s spent most of his adult life behind bars.

“I have not quit being a rebel and I haven’t given up the fight to take power,” he said. “The purpose of the peace deal is to give us [the FARC] the judicial and political guarantees ... to continue our struggle and allow us to do it following a political path.”

Colombia’s hard-fought peace deal is aimed at ending a half-century conflict that has left more than 220,000 dead and forced more than six million to flee their homes. And while the deal has been praised around the world (it earned President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Prize last year) it remains controversial in certain quarters.

Last month, federal lawmakers from Florida said they were concerned that the amnesty law was a whitewash, and they objected to the fact that the peace deal will allow FARC members convicted of serious crimes, including narco-trafficking, to participate in politics. They also urged the U.S. State Department to keep the FARC on its list of designated terrorist groups.

READ MORE: A Former U.S. FARC hostage shares his peace deal doubts

Martínez said he didn’t understand why factions in the United States and Colombia could be opposed to a deal that will save lives and open up routes for nonviolent political change in the long-troubled country.

“Violence isn’t just generated by people picking up guns but by large parts of society being stigmatized,” he said.

Martínez said that when he joined the FARC, members were referred to as “rebels” or “guerrillas.” But during the U.S. war on drugs they were relabeled “narco-guerrillas,” he said, and after the 9/11 attacks they were rebranded yet again as “narco-terrorists.”

“Politicians have always tried to distort what our mission is about,” he said. “The FARC have never behaved like terrorists or criminals. We rose up in arms, legitimately, like any man could, against a state that had unjust policies and forced inequality on its citizens.”

Even so, the group has acknowledged that it has made “mistakes” in kidnapping people, murdering innocents and terrorizing the country with a bombing campaign. Under the peace deal, FARC members must confess their crimes to a truth commission in order to qualify for the reduced sentences, which will confine them to areas the size of small hamlets.

“We’ve made mistakes and we’re not going to hide from them,” Martínez admitted. “We’ll ask for forgiveness whenever necessary; we’re going to take responsibility.”

Survival strategy?

Like many of the guerrillas, Martínez joined the rural army almost as an act of survival.

When he was 12, his parents were forced to flee their home in Yacopí, Cundinamarca, by right-wing paramilitary violence. The family ended up on the streets of the capital, sleeping in cardboard boxes. But the threats eventually followed them to Bogotá, Martínez said, and he and his mother moved to the coast on their own, where she had family.

There, at age 14, he reconnected with his uncle who was a member of the guerrilla group and started doing odd jobs for the FARC: helping patch uniforms and cleaning weapons. At 15, he became a full-fledged member of the guerrilla’s 37th Front, which was part of the Caribbean Bloc that operated in the southern part of Bolivar Department.

All of that came to an abrupt end in 2002, however, when he was part of a FARC team that planted bombs in the tourism hot spot of Cartagena to coincide with the arrival of then-President Andrés Pastrana.

The blasts killed three people and injured 10. Martínez said he was not directly involved with the bombing and only found out about it after the fact. In court, he argued that the police illegally held him for two days before they issued an arrest warrant.

Prison organization

Inside his section of La Picota prison, Martínez said there are 153 active members of the FARC. By all accounts, they’re a disciplined cohesive unit, holding group exercise drills, political-ideology courses and organizing hunger strikes and other civil disobedience measures. They have their own unit commander and Martínez is one of the group’s official spokesmen.

He said members are under constant pressure to renounce the organization and provide information to the police.

Shortly after his capture, Martínez claims he was approached by judicial officials from Florida who offered to reduce his sentence and grant him and his family protection in the United States if he provided information about his commander, Martín Caballero, who later died in combat in 2007.

“My principles wouldn’t allow me to betray him,” Martínez said. “They’ve sent the military, psychologists — everyone — to get me to desert. They’ve sent me to the worst prisons and put me in isolation. But I will always defend rebellion and my membership in the FARC.”

Once he’s freed, Martínez said he plans to reconnect with his three children, two of whom he hasn’t seen in nine years. But his main goal will be to work for the political organization that the FARC has said it will form to pursue political power.

Martínez said he hopes Colombia will see the new political organization as a way to resolve long-standing issues of inequality and rural poverty that have been kindling for the conflict.

“We’re the answer to tyranny,” he said, “and all of us have to work together to build a new Colombia without violence and with a durable and stable peace.”