Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
News, June 2020
From Fighters to Avocado Farmers:
Former FARC Guerillas Find New Calling in Life in Colombia
June 5, 2021
Der Spiegel, June 5, 2021
From Fighters to Avocado Farmers: Former FARC Guerillas Find New Calling in Life in Colombia
By Nicola Abé in Colombia 13.05.2021, 19.53 Uhr
In a commune that one psychologist calls “the jewel of the reintegration process,” former guerillas in Colombia have set up an avocado farm with global aspirations. Despite initial success, they are haunted by the ongoing threat of violence and death.
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In the Colombian mountains, a man with crossed arms who used to go by the nomme de guerre "Nider” sits on a plastic chair and ponders whether he should make the complete transition to organic farming. "The Europeans want everything to be organic now,” he says, pointing to the hill on the other side with the avocado fields. Right now, he’s fertilizing several fruits with self-made fertilizer made of trout manure as part of a pilot project. "If all goes well, we’ll go 100 percent organic,” he says.
Nider, whose real name is Jhan Carlos Moreno, spent most of his life as a guerilla fighter in the Colombian jungle. Now, he’s the director of an agricultural commune comprised of 437 former fighters. Behind him, there are herb gardens and a vegetable field, and a few chickens scratch at the ground. A large German shepherd slinks around his legs.
A few barracks are located in the middle of the landscape, their walls painted with birds and fighters in camouflage clothing. This camp of former guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is a surreal place. To reach it, you follow a serpentine road through the mountains in Cauca, past bamboo forests and villages of clay houses, and up a hill until the road ends.
When FARC signed a peace deal with the government in 2016, several hundred former rebels founded a commune here, which they named Nuevo Mundo, new world.
But in many areas of Colombia five years after the Havana Treaty, peace is little more than a nice idea from the past. Some of the people living in the ex-rebels’ camp seem disillusioned, abandoned, at the mercy of others. "The state isn't abiding by the terms of the peace treaty,” says Leonardo González, who works with Indepaz, an NGO in Bogotá. "The ex-guerrillas are not being adequately protected.”
The trouble begins with the route to the avocado farm, which winds through enemy territory. FARC is scrawled on house walls, along with the name "Dagobert Ramos.” Ramos is the leader of a group of FARC dissidents who have now resumed fighting and are also calling themselves FARC. They mark their territory with graffiti. In the rural regions, the state – the police, the military – is largely absent. The vacuum has been filled with others: armed gangs of former guerillas who make their money from drug trafficking and paramilitary groups like the Aguilas Negras, the Black Eagles. They are hunting down the people who helped secure peace.
Former fighters who are now trying to live civilian lives are the targets of threats, they are excluded from society and they have a hard time making money, González says. "Most of the projects don’t work.” That’s why, he says, many are gradually joining the armed struggle again.
At the same time, Moreno says, "We have hardly lost anyone.” Instead, he notes how a few families have even joined the commune. So, what is it that makes this project so much more successful than others?
"Strategy and location,” says Moreno. While cuddling the shepherd, he explains that in 2016, they commissioned a market analysis and found that "the avocado had growth potential for the next three decades and increasing export opportunities with each passing year.” The Marxist ex-guerrillas’ 30-year-plan also includes 2,000 pigs, as well as a fish farm and a green power plant. Morena is currently looking for an engineer to help tackle these projects. He also wants to hire an outside marketing director, as well as five psychologists "to improve the well-being of our people.”
A man in a muscle shirt walks by, a former commander who lost an eye and a hand when he stepped on a mine. There are screws and a metal plate in his shoulder and upper arm to help a bullet wound heal. He nods in a friendly manner.
As part of the peace agreement, every fighter who gave up his or her weapons was to receive up to 8 million pesos from the state, around 2,000 euros. The commune founders invested that money in a communal fund so they could eventually earn their livings as avocado farmers. The fruits are to be sold on the international market, in France and Germany.
"This has nothing to do with capitalism,” Moreno says. "We’re transitioning the military structure into a business culture.” He also explains that it isn’t quite that simple given that his people are used to following orders but now have to take on personal responsibility.
Moreno has placed a family photo with his of wife and son inside the transparent case of his mobile phone. His six-year-old son is growing up with his grandparents, as had been the usual practice among the guerillas. They speak a lot on the phone and see each other once a year for his birthday. "We have hundreds of children,” says Moreno.
Many of the former fighters don’t sleep in the camp, but instead stay with their families in nearby villages and have some semblance of a normal life. "We are trying to be happy here,” says Moreno.
But 2021, so far, has been the bloodiest year since the peace treaty.
"Too many are trying to destroy the peace process,” Moreno says, "they're afraid of the truth.” He argues that the truth is slowly coming to the surface after 50 years of civil war. As former FARC fighters, he says, they are asking people to forgive them for the suffering they caused. Three times a week, ex-guerillas meet with people from the villages in the town hall of Caldono for a kind of therapy session. They light candles. The fighters talk about their lives and apologize to the mothers who lost their sons. Sometimes they even hug.
"But we also know what we didn’t do,” Moreno says. According to the United Nations, much of the killing of civilians is the fault of the paramilitary groups. The military also committed human rights crimes, many of which still haven’t been resolved to this day.
"They are killing everyone who can help solve them,” Moreno says. In all, 261 former FARC fighters have been murdered in Colombia in the past five years. Human rights activists are fighting against amnesty for the perpetrators, but the right-wing government of Iván Duque rejects that.
The situation has claimed several of Moreno’s people. In November of last year, assassins ambushed one of his comrades, who was earning some money on the side for his family by delivering food on his motorcycle. His killers placed a fake order and murdered him with machine guns.
Moreno points to the forested mountains. "They’re up there somewhere and they keep trying to poach us.” He says the armed groups offer between 500 and 2,500 euros a month as a wage depending on how high you once were in the FARC hierarchy. If you refuse, he says, they threaten your family. "Who are they?” he asks. The guerillas never paid wages, he says, because it was always about the cause.
"They will never stop making us offers. They know we have the best fighters.”
Moreno walks into his kitchen, where his wife Alba Valencia, 39 years old and a FARC member for over two decades, is preparing coffee. They met back in the jungle and have been a couple ever since.
The walls are covered in maps. Moreno points to where his fields and stables are located in the area – but also to where they are not. "I can’t go here, it’s all full of coca fields.” He points to a region circled in red. "You can’t go there either, there’s a train line being built, we already know there’s going to be violence; you can’t go here either, multinational corporations are planting palm oil here and they’ll send the paramilitaries and drive us out.”
A red pin is stuck in one point on the map. Moreno says they had a choice of where to start their commune and they opted for a strategically optimal spot on a clear hill, just six hours from one of Colombia’s largest ports, in Buenaventura, and in a protected zone with a strong indigenous presence.
The indigenous Nasa community controls the area around the small town of Caldono. They don’t tolerate commercial coca cultivation or weapons on their territory. Their Guardia Indigena serves as a kind of police force, albeit unarmed, that tries to keep out criminal groups.
Ninety-five of the commune’s ex-guerillas have indigenous roots in the Nasa community. "The indigenous people have decided to take the fighters back in,” says Carolina Buitrago, 24, a psychologist from Bogotá with severe glasses and perfect makeup, who suddenly appears in Moreno’s kitchen. Buitrago works as a volunteer for the state agency that cares for former combatants in the "reintegration zones,” as they are referred to here. "This is the jewel of the reintegration process and the indigenous people are key,” she says.
The commune is under the control of local Nasa leaders, and they come up the hill carrying their traditional wooden sticks and woven bags to meet Moreno and Buitrago, whose job is to "strengthen the social fabric between ex-combatants and indigenous people.”
A little indigenous girl sits at the kitchen table eating a saltine cracker. "The children here are all taken care of together,” Buitrago says. More than 20 live in the camp. The youngest are still babies. Many of the former fighters had children during the fighting that they had to give to grandparents or neighbors in order to protect them.
Even now, they can’t be with them because they still fear for their safety. "The women suffer a lot,” Buitrago says, "but having children in the commune also allows them to express their maternal instincts.”
A few kilometers down the valley, Miller Fernandez, 34, opens the gate to the commune’s pigsty amid the animals’ loud squeals and grunts. The floors and animals are clean and the side wall is open, revealing a view of banana palms and forested hills. The pigs are divided into pens by age, with the older ones to the left and the young ones to the right.
"Before, our job was to fight, now it’s our job to produce,” Fernandez says. He was 13 years old when he joined FARC. And what he does now "is barely even work" compared to what he had to do back then. He says he has learned a lot about the pigs and is amazed at how much they need to be tended to. He likes animals because they are "sensitive creatures,” and he feels sorry for them because they get slaughtered in the end. "I try to make their lives as comfortable as possible,” he says. He washes them down with a hose each day.
Sometimes, in the quiet moments, memories from the conflict intrude on Fernandez’s thoughts. "In the jungle, you were always tense,” he says. "Now, I relax and then the images come.” He says his family is helping him to put the past to rest and focus on the future. Besides, he says, he is proud of his work and of improving the lives of the group.
"We don’t have psychological problems,” says Moreno, the commune’s director.
"Many are suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, but as a culture, they don’t show it,” says psychologist Buitrago.
Then, at the end of March, Dagoberto Ramos’ group sent a letter to the municipality of Caldono. "We declare the mayor, indigenous police and all the leaders of the local Neighborhood Watch to be military targets,” the group wrote. "You have 42 hours to leave the territory – otherwise we will have to take up arms. Greetings from the mountains.”
"Todo tranquilo,” Moreno says – everything is OK. Soon, he says, the first avocado harvest is due and the municipality plans to pay out wages worth about 330,000 euros.
Moreno says he expects nothing from the politicians. But FARC has decided to make peace. It’s their job now, he says, to keep the peace process alive. He believes it’s about healing the country.
Sometimes he thinks of the many people who have died. The relatives, friends and comrades he has lost. Then he imagines that the dead are alive and ponders how he could best put them to work on his farm, whether they would be better at planting onions or harvesting avocados, feeding the pigs or taking care of the fish.
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