In January 1999, newly-elected Colombian president Andres Pastrana ceded an area of southern Colombia the size of Switzerland to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas as part of an agreement to begin peace talks. Although there is no cease-fire agreement while the talks are being carried out, the Colombian Armed Forces have withdrawn all their forces from the region known as the Zona de Despeje (Clearance Zone). The FARC’s headquarters in Los Pozos, a small village located 18 miles from San Vicente del Caguan in the Zona de Despeje, has been host to the peace talks as well as public conferences where all sectors of Colombian society can come to participate in discussions about Colombia’s future. On June 14, 2000, I traveled to Los Pozos to interview Simón Trinidad, a FARC commander and a spokesman for the guerrilla group. Trinidad was a professor of economics and a banker before joining the FARC 16 years ago.
Q. What is the current status of the ongoing peace process?
A. In May 1999, the FARC and the Colombian government established a common agenda consisting of twelve points. This agenda was created with an agreement that both parties would bring their proposals to the negotiating table–things that they considered important in the discussion and in the search for a resolution to the conflict and to make the changes that Colombia needs.
At the moment, they are only discussing one item: unemployment. There have been 13 or 14 public conferences here in Los Pozos about this topic featuring businessmen, workers, university students, teachers and rectors. This Friday there will be a conference with the African-Colombian communities. On June 25 there will be a conference with unemployed women and on June 29 there will be one on illicit crops and the environment. The FARC and the government are discussing all these items that they consider important in the search for a political solution to the social conflict in Colombia.
Q. Why do you think the United States is focusing on the FARC and campesinos that cultivate coca here in southern Colombia instead of the paramilitaries and the narco-traffickers?
A. That’s a good question. Because the FARC is the only political organization that is in opposition to the Colombian oligarchy that keeps Colombians in poverty, misery and a state of underdevelopment. We are fighting for a change in the Colombian economic model and for a new state. For a state that has at its center the men and women of Colombia and to provide a better life and social justice for Colombians. With the riches in this country and after 180 years of republic living, Colombians must live better. We’ll make better use of the natural resources and provide jobs, healthcare, education and housing so that 40 million Colombians can live well.
Who are those that are opposed to these social, economic and political changes? They are the people who monopolize the riches and resources in Colombia. A small group that monopolizes the banks, the industries, the mines, agriculture and international commerce, including some foreign companies, especially North Americans. For these reasons we are the principal target in the war against narco-traffickers. But we aren’t narco-traffickers and the campesinos aren’t narco-traffickers, they are using it as an excuse for fighting against us.
If the United States government really intends to combat narco-traffickers, all the people in Colombia know where the narco-traffickers live. They live in Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla. Therefore, to seize the narco-traffickers the police have to do certain things. They have to leave their houses and search for them in order to put them in prison. But no, they confront the poor campesino with repression that not only hurts the illicit crops, but also legal crops like yucca, bananas, and chickens and pigs because the fumigation kills everything. It damages the earth, the vegetation, the water and the animals.
Those responsible for making Colombia a producer of narcotics are the people who have become rich from this business: the narco-traffickers, and they are happy. Who else benefits from narco-trafficking? The bankers and those who distribute the drugs in the cities, universities, high schools and discos of North America, Europe and Asia, the greatest consumers of marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Who else benefits? The companies that make the chemicals for processing cocaine and heroin. These companies are German and North American. They are industries in the developed countries. It’s a great business for the chemical companies.
The poor campesino has lived in misery for many years and will continue to do so. The war is for them and for us. We are planning a different solution for the problem of narco-trafficking. It consists of providing a better life for the poor campesino through agrarian reform, by giving them good lands, technical assistance and low-interest loans to change from growing illicit crops to legal crops; such as, coffee, yucca, bananas, sugarcane and ranching. An alternative development that facilitates commercialization for these products. But it’s a slow process to change them, it´s not just destroying the illicit crops and then telling them to grow different ones. We have to educate the campesinos about how to produce them. Give them tools, credits and time so they can make a living from these crops and become a different kind of campesino.
Q. Last year, FARC spokesman Raul Reyes claimed that the FARC could eradicate coca cultivation in the regions it controls in five years. However, there have been accusations that the FARC is forcing campesinos to grow more coca here in the Zona de Despeje.
A. This is the story of the police, the army and the narco-traffickers. We live in the country, and it is in the country that the coca, marijuana and the poppy have been grown for thirty years. We know that the campesinos grow illicit crops out of necessity. It is specifically a socio-economic situation. They are obligated to cultivate illicit crops because of a government that has neglected them for many years. We have made it clear that we will not take the food out of the mouth of the poor campesino. We will not leave them without jobs. They work with the marijuana and coca leaf because they don’t have any other work. This problem is caused by the economic model of the Colombian state, and it is the state that has to fix the problem. We are the state’s enemy, not their anti-narcotics police. The state has to offer people employment, honest work, and social justice to improve their lives.
Q. The FARC has introduced its own system of justice in the Zona de Despeje. What are the codes of justice and how are they implemented?
A. It’s not true! We haven’t introduced a justice system in the Zona de Despeje. For 36 years we have been working to solve the social problems of the campesinos that have a relationship with us. For many years the state hasn’t been present in many regions. There have been no state judges, no justice system and no public administration in many regions of the country. The society has had to resolve their own problems because they don’t believe in the ministry of work, they don’t believe in Colombian justice, they don’t believe in the Colombian army and police. They came to us and we were there for them in the country.
For example, there was a conflict between two people regarding land and cows. The cows belonging to one of them entered the other person’s land and destroyed his crops. He came to us looking for a solution to this problem. They don’t go looking for a state functionary because they don’t come to the country. So we told him to come here tomorrow with his neighbor to talk about the problem. We listened to both versions and we asked them for a solution. If they don’t find a solution, we propose some solutions in an attempt to apply justice. We want to see that they can resolve their own problems. We are a witness to their agreements.
Another example is a bad marriage. When the husband drinks all the money, hits the wife and leaves his wife and children. They don’t have the money to travel to a city where the family court is located in order to resolve this problem. The process takes one, two or three years before he is told to provide milk for his children. We call the mother and father and tell them that he has to give part of his salary to his wife and children and that he can’t drink too much anymore. We come to an agreement.
Workers in factories in the cities that were dismissed from their job without reason and without severance benefits go to the jungle in search of the guerrillas to resolve this problem. We send a note to the administrator, boss or owner telling them they have to come and talk with the guerrillas to resolve the problem. Some don’t come, but others do come and we listen to them. We don’t always believe the workers, we listen to the businessmen because maybe the worker is lazy, or a drunk, or a liar, or irresponsible. We resolve these kinds of problems for people who live in the country and the cities. We do this in other regions of the country where the guerrillas are.
Here in San Vicente del Caguan, when we created the Zona de Despeje, the campesinos stopped the guerrillas in the street for solutions to their problems. Now, people have to go to the Oficina de quejas y reclamos (Office of Claims and Complaints) and we listen to both sides of the problem. We didn’t create this system now in the Zona de Despeje, historically the FARC has done this where the state has lacked a system of justice and where a majority of people don’t believe in the Colombian justice system. We are doing it in the Zona de Despeje in an office. The people come and the guerrillas listen to them and find a solution. It is not only about money.
For example, who gets custody of the children when parents get separated? If the mother is a prostitute, doesn’t care about her children and consumes drugs, then the care of the children is given to the father. These are the types of problems we resolve. This office also resolves problems concerning guerrillas when they are bad. For example, if they go out and get drunk. Sometimes we make mistakes and we like it when other people tell us where we failed.
Q. What will happen if the United States Congress authorizes increased military aid to the Colombian Armed Forces and they launch an offensive against the FARC here in southern Colombia?
A. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think about it. We have more faith in a peace process with dialogue. I don’t want to think about a war in this region of the country. The war won’t resolve Colombia’s problems. Colombia has 18 million people living in absolute poverty. These people don’t have electricity, water, jobs, land, education and healthcare. Another 18 million Colombians are poor with a salary that doesn’t cover all their necessities. They live restricted lives. In many cases the mother, father and one or two sons have to work to provide transport, housing and clothes.
We are 36 million Colombians living poorly out of a total of 40 million Colombians. Of the other four million Colombians, some are rich and others have a good life working in industries, businesses and farms. They have a solution to their problems of healthcare, education, vacation, work and social benefits. Is the war going to resolve these problems?
If this is about the narco-trafficker problem then you know where the narco-traffickers are. For example, the governor of the department of Cesar, Lucas, is a narco-trafficker and he is governor for the second time. His brother is a senator in the National Congress and is in alliance with the president of the Congressional Assembly, Pomanico, who is being investigated for stealing $4.5 million from congress. There is an alliance between narco-traffickers and common politicians, both Liberals and Conservatives. Also, between paramilitaries and the narco-traffickers, everybody knows this.
If you go to Barranquilla the people will tell you where the narco-traffickers are. The police and the commanders of the army battalions and brigades know this. Will the war waged against poor campesinos solve these problems? The war won’t resolve the problems for the hungry and unemployed in Colombia.
Q. How will the FARC effectively implement its new political front, the Bolivariano Movement, if its members remain anonymous?
A. The idea of the Bolivariano Movement is not ours, it doesn’t come from us. It was born with many Colombians 16 years ago when the members of the Patriotic Union were assassinated. It was a legal movement, a democratic movement that participated in the presidential, congressional and municipal elections. And then they began to get assassinated.
When the armed forces, police and paramilitaries began to kill the members of the Patriotic Union they came to us and said, ‘We want to work with you, we like the FARC’s policies. But because of this they will kill us.’ They wanted to work with us, but alone. But the FARC said, ‘No, you can’t work alone. You have to work with your father, your mother, your brother, your neighbor, your girlfriend, your wife, your co-workers, and your classmates. You have to organize, because if we are divided we can’t win.’
But to work in secret? They are right. At this moment was born the idea for the political movement. A political movement that works to recover Colombian society in secret, a movement that’s militant and clandestine. There will be campesinos, students, workers, women and intellectuals who will fight the political confrontation without saying they belong to the Bolivariano Movement. They will not participate in elections because there are no guarantees and conditions that they will not be killed.
First we have to change many customs in this country, like the oligarchy killing political contradictors. This is Colombian history. The world doesn’t know of another country where political contradictors are killed like in Colombia. All of them since we gained independence from Spain. They assassinated Sucre, they tried to assassinate Bolivar, and they assassinated many leaders of the nineteenth century in civil wars. They killed Rafael Uribe Uribe. They assassinated Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, Jaime Pardo Leal, and the Liberal guerrillas that laid down their arms under the government of the dictator Rojas Pinilla. They assassinated 4,000 members of the Patriotic Union, cleansed the Patriotic Union with bullets, and they have followed this practice to kill labor leaders, student leaders, campesino leaders, everybody that has opposed this tyrannic regime. For this reason the Bolivariano Movement remains clandestine.
Q. Many international human rights organizations have demanded that the FARC stop recruiting children. Where does the FARC stand on this issue?
A. In our statutes we have decided that we can recruit 15 year-olds and up. In some fronts there may have been some younger, but a short time ago we decided to send them back home. But what is the cost? In the last year a girl arrived at the office in San Vicente, 14 years-old and wanting to join the guerrillas. When the mother found out that she had joined she contacted the guerrillas and cried and said her daughter is only 14 years-old. In March she was sent back home because the FARC’s Central Command said they would return to their parents all those younger than fifteen. Two weeks ago I met this girl and asked her what she was doing. She said she was working in a bar from 6pm until sunrise. I asked what she was doing in this bar and she said, ‘I attend to the customers.’ When I asked in what way does she attend to the customers, she lowered her head and started to cry. She is a whore. She is 14 years old. A child prostitute. She was better in the guerrillas. In the guerrillas we have dignity, respect and we provide them with clothes, food and education.
And there are millions of others like this girl in Colombia that are exploited in the coal mines, the gold mines, the emerald mines, in the coca and poppy fields. They prefer that children work in the coca and poppy fields because they pay them less and they work more. It sounds beautiful when you say that children shouldn’t be guerrillas, but the children are in the streets of the cities doing drugs, inhaling gasoline and glue. They are highly exploited.
According to the United Nations: 41% of Colombians are children; 6.5 million children live in conditions of poverty, add to this 1.2 million children living in absolute poverty; 30,000 children live in the streets without mothers, fathers and brothers; 47% of children are abused by their parents; and 2.5 million work in high risk jobs. These children meet the guerrillas and they don’t have parents because the military or the paramilitaries killed them and they ask the guerrillas to let them join. We are executing the norm that no children younger than 15 years of age join.
Q. How many women are there in the FARC and what happens when they become pregnant?
A. Aproximately 30% of the guerrillas are women and the number is increasing all the time. The women guerillas are treated the same as the men. Some FARC units have female commandantes and the FARC office in San Vicente is run by a female guerrilla named Nora. Some of the women have relationships with male guerrillas and we provide contraceptives because we do not want pregnant women in the guerrillas. But some do get pregnant and if they don’t have an abortion it is necessary that they leave the guerrillas.
Q. What does the government have to do for the FARC to agree to a cease-fire during negotiations?
A. Stop the fighting on both sides. This cease-fire must be established for a specific time: a month or two months. And besides, it must be verified for both sides. This we understand to be a cease-fire. It was tried many times. Seventeen years ago with Belasario Betancur’s government, when we signed a cease-fire Manuel Marulanda Velez gave the order to all guerrilla fronts to suspend fighting on May 28, 1984, and the president did the same. But the next day, there was an opposing order from the Commander of the Army, General Vega Uribe, saying they won’t comply with the cease-fire order because they have to abide by the Constitution.
We have many times during this presidential period called unilateral cease-fires for Christmas, Easter, elections, many times. The most recent unilateral cease-fire was December 20, 1999 until January 5, 2000. But if we are going to discuss this theme it would be under bilateral proposals with defined times and mechanisms of control and verification. To verify who broke the agreement and why.
This article previously appeared in NACLA Report on the Americas