Once Were Warriors: Colombia’s Program to Turn FARC Fighters Into Civilians
On October 17, formal negotiations commenced in Oslo between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). They will be followed by further peace talks in Havana in mid-November. In the press, much has been made of who will be present to represent each side at the negotiation table. Yet the cornerstone of any eventual deal — the demobilization and reintegration of FARC rebels — has been curiously missing from the debate. Notably, there has been little public dialogue about the Colombian government’s nine-year-old disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate (DDR) program and whether it is equipped to process and successfully incorporate thousands of remaining FARC guerrillas into society should a peace agreement be reached.
Recently, I met with one former FARC commander who was not invited to the negotiation table. Elda Neyis Mosquera, also known as Karina, demobilized in 2008 at age 45, after 24 years with the FARC. The only female to reach the rank of front commander in her day, she is accused of killing some 200 military officials, police, and civilians. She is also charged with conducting dehumanizing treatment of prisoners and dismembering corpses. In popular rendition, she is an ugly, one-eyed, crazed-killer negra. Given the undercurrent of machismo, racism, and classism in Colombian society, Elda’s being black and “unattractive” has made it easy for the Colombian press to portray her as a monster. Perhaps that is why Elda’s alleged cruelties are the stuff of legend, whereas those of her male equals and superiors are not.
When I met Elda, I found her to be neither ugly nor crazed, although she did lose an eye during combat and wears a glass replacement. Her physical description, however, is woefully beside the point. Without excusing her crimes, she, like many minors who were recruited, was a child of the FARC. And Elda’s superiors clearly approved, if not encouraged, her actions. Otherwise, she would have been promptly relieved of her post and would not have climbed so high in the chain of command. More important, her infamy distracts from the fact that she, like other former FARC fighters with whom I have spoken, has invaluable insight into how the DDR, and any other demobilization program, should be improved.