With peace in sight, a guerrilla in Colombia faces a choice. FARC or family?

Young rebel deals with "normalization" after being raised by the FARC

A member of Colombia's FARC guerrillas since she was 11 years old, Yuliana Reyes, now 23, has been living in a guerrilla “normalization” zone near the town of Icononzo since December.
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A member of Colombia's FARC guerrillas since she was 11 years old, Yuliana Reyes, now 23, has been living in a guerrilla “normalization” zone near the town of Icononzo since December.

When Yuliana Reyes was just 11 years old, she slipped away from her home in Colombia’s cattle country to join the hemisphere’s largest and most notorious guerrilla group. With that single impetuous act — one she still can’t quite explain to herself — Reyes abandoned her mother and forged a new family as a soldier in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Now, more than a decade later, a historic peace deal is forcing Reyes to make a difficult choice: Stay with her guerrilla foster family or try to reconnect with the mother she barely knows.

Her dilemma reflects the tensions within the guerrilla group as it tries to inch its way back into society. May 31 is the deadline for the fighters to hand over their weapons and begin their lives as civilians. But it’s becoming clear that many plan to stay in isolated enclaves close to their guerrilla brethren rather than face the dangers and uncertainty of the world at large. And that decision will likely have a lasting impact on this country’s ability to forge peace after more than a half century of civil conflict.

Since December, Reyes and almost 7,000 other FARC fighters have been living in 26 “normalization” camps scattered across the country. When the peace deal was hammered out in November, the government emphasized that the camps were temporary — short-term havens where the newly minted civilians could learn life skills before blending into society.

But there are indications that reintegration might not happen — at least not anytime soon. Colombia’s constitutional court recently ruled that congress can potentially alter the terms of the peace agreement. That’s raising concerns in guerrilla ranks that a future administration might undermine the pact. And amid reports that families of guerrillas and FARC sympathizers are being targeted for murder, many say it’s too dangerous to venture out of the camps.

Reyes, like others, says she has nowhere else to go.

“The FARC raised me,” explained Reyes, now 23. “Ever since I was a little girl I have been with them and I feel like they’re my family. I can’t leave them.”

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Reyes’ camp site, called Antonio Nariño, is about four hours south of the nation’s capital. Here, more than 300 guerillas have gathered in makeshift tents, or caletas, strung across a muddy hillside as more permanent cement homes are being built along the ridgeline.

Colombia's FARC guerrillas coming out of a morning meeting at a “normalization” zone near the town of Icononzo. The camp is one of 26 where the FARC have gathered as they begin the transition to civilian life in the wake of a historic peace deal last year. PEDRO PORTAL

In a camp full of grizzled veterans and wounded warriors, Reyes doesn’t fit Hollywood tropes of a longtime guerrilla. She keeps her long brown hair pulled back in a red banana clip, she has a dolphin pendant and crucifix hanging on her neck and she has rapid-fire, slang-filled speech that wouldn’t be out of place in any urban setting.

But there are also signs of her upbringing. She has her nom de guerre, Reyes, tattooed across the knuckles of her left hand, she keeps up a grueling exercise routine, jogging up and down muddy slopes in rubber boots, and she remains deeply suspicious of social media and TV.

“I don’t like the television,” she explained. “Because the television shows all these things that turn you into an idiot....And the more you watch it, the more you want to watch it.”

For many Colombians, the FARC is synonymous with bloodshed. The group, which began as a peasant army in the 1950s, morphed into a hardened fighting force that relied on kidnapping, extortion and narco-trafficking to finance its war. When Reyes joined in the mid 2000s, the group was in Washington’s cross-hairs for the 2003 kidnapping of three U.S. civilian contractors and Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who weren’t released until 2008.

But the FARC members, including Reyes, see themselves as defenders of the rural poor. They believe they were forced to take up arms by a government that wouldn’t bend to reason. Their zeal gives them some of the hallmarks of a cult: individuality is sacrificed for the greater good and orders are followed with few questions.

To this day, Reyes struggles to articulate why she decided to join the guerrillas at such an early age. The FARC organization was part of the fabric of life in her town of Puerto Limón, Meta, in central Colombia. When pressed, Reyes insists she wasn’t running away from anything but instead was lured by the sense of camaraderie.

“I liked the way the guerrillas interacted with the villagers,” she explained. “It was like they were part of the family and little by little I was drawn to them.”

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On paper, the FARC doesn’t recruit minors, but its ranks are filled with people like Reyes, who joined when they were just children. During the height of the conflict, desertion was sometimes punished by death, but Reyes claims that she was given the chance to leave and wasn’t exposed to combat until she turned 15.

She describes those early years like an intense boarding school, with lessons focused on the FARC’s communist ideology.

“When you’re 11 there’s not much you can do,” she said, “but there’s a lot for you to learn.”

Eventually she heard that her mother had been killed. She didn’t know why or by whom — simply another victim of Colombia’s decades-long struggle that has claimed more than 220,000 lives.

Even so, she had no regrets about her decision. “Of course I missed my mother because she’s family,” Reyes said. “But I never thought that this wasn’t the path for me.”

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Reyes says that when news surfaced in 2012 that peace talks would begin in Havana, she thought it might be a government trick to destabilize the guerrillas. But late last year, in the wake of a hard fought and controversial peace deal, her unit moved from the central plains of Meta to this transition zone and, suddenly, peace began feeling like reality.

“Here inside the zone it’s so tranquil. There’s no war,” she said, before correcting herself. “I mean there’s no war being fought with bullets, because we’re fighting a political war every day.”

Reyes’ camp is about an hour away on rough roads from the nearest town of any size. But, thanks to a small television set and cell phone service — items they didn’t have regular access to before — the camp is providing a crash course in civilization.

A group of Colombia's FARC guerrillas watch a soccer match at a “normalization” zone near the town of Icononzo. The camp is one of 26 where the FARC have gathered as they begin the transition to civilian life in the wake of a historic peace deal last year. PEDRO PORTAL

On most afternoons, fighters — some still wearing their olive green uniforms and berets — gather under a plastic tent to watch soccer games, dubbed karate movies or the nightly news. Reyes steers clear.

Her weakness is social media. In the jungle, cell phones were considered a potential “death sentence,” she said, because the government sometimes homed in on mobile signals to bomb rebel positions. But in the five months that she has been in the camp, phones have become windows to the world.

Early in her stay, Reyes created a Facebook profile without really understanding how it worked. When a stranger asked her for a picture, she sent one of the few she had: her posing with an automatic rifle. The photo spread like wildfire, she says. She was afraid it would be used as anti-guerrilla propaganda.

“I really thought I had screwed up and I felt so guilty — and it was all because of lack of experience,” she said.

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Despite the civilian perks, in many ways this is still a military outfit. The troops gather in formation and do calisthenics before dawn. They spend their days in a regimented schedule, studying math, communications and FARC ideological manuals as they take turns doing chores.

Reyes says she misses the simple life of jungle fellowship, sleeping when it got dark and waking with the sun. Here, naked light bulbs glow inside tents and the dwellings — little more than plastic tarps strung between wooden poles — seem isolating.

“It’s not that I miss war or that I like war but that was our way of life, and this” — she gestures toward the camp —“feels strange.”

And she clearly feels trepidation about moving further into civilization. “If we will feel a little bit pressured here by the rhythm, imagine what it’s like in the city,” she said.

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The FARC leadership insists the group isn’t dissolving. Rather, it’s morphing into a new political party. The prospect of guerrillas in politics was one of the reasons Colombians rejected the initial peace deal during a referendum last year, forcing the administration to pass a slightly modified version through congress.

When the fighters are pressed on their future, most talk about working for the eventual political party.

“I want to be working inside the political party that will give us the guarantees to study and contribute,” said Reyes, who also wants to get a high-school diploma inside the camp. “I want to support the political party to the maximum and stay here.”

After years of believing her mother was dead, Reyes recently received word that she might be alive. She’s trying to contact her mother, even though she knows it might put her revolutionary ideals to the test.

“Families will say anything,” to get back their children, Reyes explained. “They’ll say ‘come home mamita or papito, I’ll give you anything you need,’ but it’s a lie...[We’ll] be going hungry along with everyone else.”

Instead, Reyes said she’ll try to convince her mother to join her in the FARC camp: “I’ll explain to her that it’s much more necessary for her to come here and help us.”

For the FARC, these individual decisions — to stay with the familiar or go into uncharted territory — will likely determine how strong the group will be as a civilian organization and political party. And while Reyes realizes many will feel the pull of long-lost family, she says knows where her loyalty lies.

“I hope nobody leaves,” she said, “but I can’t think for everybody else.”

Follow me on Twitter @jimwyss