“So, what are you planning to do while you’re in our country?” asked the President, taking the time graciously to have a cup of coffee with the visiting correspondent after their interview.
“Mr President, I came to see you, to hear from you how this peace process is going,” replied the correspondent, pausing before adding: “and we’ve just had another baby, I promised my wife no more adventures.”
The President chuckled, picked up a phone (it was not red, or some other memorable colour), issued a series of rapid commands in a semi-whisper, then returned to the conversation. “You’re on a plane to the FARC this afternoon, my friend. As a journalist, I know, you must see everything.”
FARC’s Marxist-Leninist army was incredibly well-funded by the noses of New York, London and Paris
The year was 2001, the country Colombia, the President one Andres Pastrana. Yes, he did know, he was once a journalist himself. And the FARC, Fuerzas armadas revolucionarias de Colombia, was the most successful, hence tragically the most murderous, army of insurrection in Latin America’s modern history. Think kidnapping politicians, aid workers, and journalists for years on end, killing some along the way. Think the FARC seizing control of vast swathes of Colombia, especially the rural hinterlands where coca — the plant source of cocaine — grew, so making their Marxist-Leninist army of revolution incredibly well-funded by the noses of New York, London and Paris. Think the FARC terrorising peasant communities, executing those who opposed, as a way of turning occupation into absolute control. Think more than 200,000 lives lost over half a century of war.
For years I had made a point of visiting Colombia from my base in Washington DC, for ITN/C4News, to report the brutal war that beautiful country had suffered since the 1960s. Now I found myself snookered. How on earth could you say no to a President who wanted you to go see his enemy? How to say no to such a rich tale? And yes, how could you not report all sides to a conflict? But also, how were you going to explain this to your wife?
The decision took itself and that afternoon we flew south of Bogota on a government plane to San Vicente del Caguan, a medium-sized town that had been ceded to the rebels, the capital of what was their “zone” in the peace talks. A zone the size of Switzerland. We checked into a FARC-controlled hotel, had dinner in a FARC-controlled restaurant, and went to bed under guard from young men and women brandishing Kalashnikovs. You couldn’t keep your door shut, because there was no door. Well, let’s just say that after years of covering wars from Mogadishu to Beirut, from Baghdad to Tripoli, this was decidedly different.
One striking element lay in the number of young women in uniform with sub-machine guns
As were the following three days with the FARC (try saying that acronym repeatedly in a TV commentary — if you’re not careful it will breach the rules on foul language). We met the legendary leader, Manuel Marulanda, nom de guerre “Tiro fijo”: “Sure shot” to you and me. Not much left to the imagination there. If ever, over decades of being a foreign correspondent, I’d met a leader who didn’t want to spend time with me, this was the fellow. He might have sat down with President Astrana just a few days before and had his picture taken as they talked, but he didn’t want to sit with me. No, Sirree. He declined an interview and handed us over to his deputies.
First came Simon Trinidad: tall, languid, smooth-talking ex-banker, scion of a Colombian landowning family, who had become immersed in left-wing politics at university and returned to the revolutionary fold in his 30s; by all accounts stealing millions from the bank as he fled to the hills to become one of the FARC’s revolutionary council and a lead negotiator with the government.
It was not hard to sense his negotiating stance. “Any idea of bringing us to justice is a bourgeois fantasy,” he told me. “All we’ve done is to fight for the rights of the majority of Colombians condemned to poverty and suffering by the country’s ruling class.” Then the warning, muscle writ large on his face. “If they try to attack from the air, fumigating the coca or poppy fields, the livelihood of our people, I can assure you our response will be a shock to all.”
As we poked about at FARC headquarters (as you would), one striking element lay in the number of young women in uniform, fatigues, berets and sub-machine guns. Marta, a lanky, bright-eyed teenager, talked openly about being conscripted in her home village when she was 15 years old. “My parents told me to go, that it was best that way for all,” she revealed, with little trace of sadness. “We fight for what is right for my village.”
And then we came upon the internet hall, a purpose-built home to 20-25 young men and women working computers to stay in touch with so-called “loyal friends abroad”, mainly gathered in old Europe and the European left: support groups in Holland, Italy, France, and the Scandinavia triangle of Norway, Sweden, Denmark. “They understand our humanitarian cause and give us money and support,” said supervisor Francesca. “They understand.” Of course.
I still pity a wonderful country subjected to a war that inflicted so much suffering on so many
Not sure we did. On day two of our stay we had Raul Reyes, number two in the FARC hierarchy, son of the rural class, now key operator. “Negotiation is normally about give and take,” I ventured. “Not for us,” he replied. “We have given everything, sacrificed everything, to win this battle, now we must turn victory into fruits of victory.” He dismissed any discussion of the way the FARC had generated tens of millions of dollars for the “popular, armed struggle” via their control of the coca-producing regions, and their levies on producers. “Not so. Next question.”
After 72 hours with the FARC (say it slowly), we returned safely to Bogota and I kept a low profile as we headed home to Washington, finally confessing to my wife why I hadn’t been in touch. I knew the call was coming from the Presidential Palace, wanting to know what I thought. Let’s just say I kept it very diplomatic, thinking to myself I had heard no evidence of either serious bargaining or admission of responsibility for the war. “Please tell the President I’m grateful for the experience, and I wish him well in the search for peace, a tough road ahead.”
Within a matter of months, the peace talks collapsed. Within a few years, Simon Trinidad was extradited to the United States and jailed for taking US citizens hostage. Raul Reyes was killed in a bombing raid as the Colombian government, backed by the Americans, took the war to the FARC under George “Dubya” Bush.
I forgot about that memorable trip (maybe that was best for my marriage) until my old boss, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, looked for me in 2015 when he was about to visit Cuba and join the latest round of peace talks between the Colombian Government and the FARC. Mr Annan remembered me telling him about my time with the rebels. Not my place to do anything more than wish him good luck, but he insisted on getting a read. “Sir, I concluded I was talking to war criminals,” I said finally. To my relief Kofi Annan, as ever the master-diplomat, emerged from seeing the FARC leadership and warned: “There may be war crimes here, and now they know that.” Shortly after, the FARC signed a peace deal.
Pity the Nation, the title of a book about Lebanon written by a confrere there from my Mideast days, the late Robert Fisk. There’s peace in Colombia, sort of. But I still pity a wonderful country subjected to a war that inflicted so much suffering on so many.
David Smith was an award-winning foreign correspondent for ITN/C4News, then served as an adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He now lives in Latin America and writes for The Economist.
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