Today, Jake and I spent the morning interviewing demobilized combatants. “Nothing more relaxing on a Sunday morning than talking to the FARC,” as Jake likes to say (jokingly).
Over the past few months, we have interviewed a total of 10 demobilized combatants (two from Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN), four from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and four from the Paramilitary). To give context, all ten of these interviews were with people who had voluntarily demobilized, but each group has a distinct role in the conflict and a unique relationship with the Colombian government. The Paramilitaries participated in a collective demobilization process organized by the Colombian government between 2003 and 2005, while those who have demobilized from the FARC and ELN have done so individually, as these armed groups are still operating in many areas of Colombia (don’t worry, we don’t hang out in these areas, nor take our visitors there). The FARC is currently in negotiations with the Colombian government in Havana, Cuba and there are rumors that the ELN will open its own peace process sometime very soon.
Anyways, a question we ask during the interview is the following: “Why did you decide to join an armed group?”
We have received a variety of answers, many of which are complex and sad (and often challenge the label I have in my head of the interviewee as “victimizer” or “bad guy/girl”). For example, one girl explained that she had joined the ELN after being sexually abused by her own father, trying to escape him, and running away to a nearby city at 17 only to have him force her to go back at home. At 19 she had the opportunity to join a group that could protect her from her father and she spent the next 6 years living in the Colombian jungle, with a group of other ELN combatants who “became her family” and a commander who she describes as “the father she never had.” She said she learned to use a computer while living in the jungle.
A few weeks ago we interviewed an ex-combatant who had joined a paramilitary group when he was 12, after being denied entry for two years. He was young, didn’t see any economic opportunities or any other ways to help his family and so he joined the group. Can you imagine making that type of decision at that age?
Finally, a young man we interviewed today joined the FARC after nearly his entire family (8 brothers and his father) was killed in a massacre 15 years ago by the Colombian army. They were farmers, living off the land, growing corn, yucca, and coffee, not involved in the conflict. The army accused them of being part of the FARC front that operated in the area. The soldiers then dressed the bodies of his loved ones in camouflage and presented as fallen FARC combatants so the soldiers could earn rewards such as vacation time. (This was a tactic that army members used in the area we research, as they had quotas of FARC combatants they needed to capture or kill. This “false positives” occurred on a systematic level, it is one of the most horrible human rights abuses of the Colombian conflict in my opinion). The irony in this case is that the incident prompted the young man we interviewed and his brother to join the FARC because they had no family left and nowhere to go.
Other people we have interviewed simply joined an armed group because “they didn’t have any other way to pay for their children’s notebooks for school” or any means “to put breakfast on the table for their family.” Only two answered that they liked the “adrenaline” of using guns. One had previously operated in Escobar’s gangs here in Medellin and the other had done two years of military training with the Colombian army (but wasn’t allowed into ranks after their training). Both looked for “career” opportunities with the paramilitaries that would use skills that they had learned previously and give them a living wage.
The stories we hear are not those of terrible people, and after hearing them, I often ask myself if I would have done the same in their situations. The complex stories also emphasize an argument that will hopefully come through in my dissertation – that the Colombian conflict is not a war between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” but rather that there are structural conditions such as severe economic inequality (one of the highest in Latin America) and political exclusion, which incentivize people on both sides to take up arms. While negotiated peace accords may be necessary for Colombia to achieve lasting peace, the structural conditions that caused the conflict in the first place also have to be addressed.
Another relaxing weekend here in Colombia :).