San Vicente del Caguán is a small town on the edge of the jungle that runs from the Andean foothills of Colombia down to the Amazon river basin. It has a sunstricken central square—a patch of dust and a few mango trees—with a graceless modern church on one end and a nondescript municipal building on the other, and around it a grid of narrow streets laid out in Spanish style. The layout is traditional, but San Vicente has the look and feel of the kind of frontier town where people have been lured overnight by the promise of money. There are loud cantinas; fleshy women in too much makeup under the glaring sun; block after block of storefronts selling boom boxes, high-heeled shoes, glitter eye shadow, and telephones shaped like hot dogs. More boom boxes and plastic jewelry are offered for sale along the narrow sidewalks. Mules, motorcycles, and roaring pickup trucks compete for space on the gutted road.

Beginning in the 1950s, the region was populated by poor campesinos from other, war-ridden, parts of the country, who cleared patches of land here and started a new life. Many hundreds pressed deep into the jungle and were never heard from again. The luckier ones survived to become modestly prosperous cattle ranchers. In the last ten years or so, however, a new wave of poorer and even more adventurous settlers arrived. They were looking to plant coca, the tealike shrub from which cocaine is processed, and thanks to high prices for this illegal crop the region’s economy flourished. So did the finances of Colombia’s oldest guerrilla group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym as the FARC. For years, the FARC had been involved with coca growers throughout the country, offering protection from government anti-cocaine patrols in exchange for a tax levied on the sale and transport of coca and cocaine paste.

Thanks to the 1990s cocaine bonanza San Vicente prospered, and so did the guerrillas. The most widely quoted estimate of how much protection money the FARC takes in each year from the coca business is $500 million. With these funds, the FARC has severely escalated its thirty-five-year war against the state, and brought the government of President Andrés Pastrana to the negotiating table.

In June of 1998, when he was still running for the presidency, Andrés Pastrana announced that if he were elected he would order military forces to withdraw from a portion of territory in the sub-Amazon region around San Vicente, in order to guarantee the FARC leadership safety so that the government’s peace negotiations with the group could begin. The territory, referred to as the zona de despeje, or cleared zone, would include five municipal districts, each one with only a few hundred thousand inhabitants, but each with as much territory as a small European country. All told the area in question added up to 26,250 square miles—twice the size of El Salvador. San Vicente, which sits on the edge of the cleared zone closest to Bogotá, would be the center for the talks. And the FARC guerrillas, who for all practical purposes already controlled the rolling countryside around it, would be allowed free rein in San Vicente. Six months later, in December 1998, the withdrawal of the military began.

With a handful of other passengers, I boarded a commercial flight from Bogotá in January to the undeclared capital of the zona de despeje. I wanted to request an interview with the leader and founder of the FARC, the aging Manuel Marulanda, whom I had met once before. In 1986, with a group of Colombian journalists, I made the arduous trip on horseback and on foot to the FARC’s command center, deep in the canyons and rain forest of the Andean piedmont. Marulanda had received us then in his spartan compound, where he tended a vegetable patch and the war, surrounded by his private guard, which was composed principally of young women. Marulanda, a campesino from the Andes who had been fighting the government for twenty-two years by that time, was a stubborn and patient man, I thought then. And I was struck by his troops; a surprising number of them were girls, and although the FARC’s leadership was graying, the guerrilla soldiers were remarkably young.


When I arrived in San Vicente, I headed for the FARC headquarters on the town square. A boy with a fuzz of hair above his upper lip opened the door to let me into an enormous, bare, and unkempt room, where a handful of kids were slumped on the floor and on gimpy plastic chairs, watching a Bruce Lee movie on a television set that had been placed on an upended crate. There were machine guns—FALs and AK-47s for the most part—propped against the wall, but the boy who opened the door carried his rifle on his shoulder. The girls had obviously been shopping on main street, and I wondered where they had gotten the money for mascara and nail polish.


To jog Marulanda’s memory about my long-ago visit I had brought a picture I took of him then, smiling into the camera. The commander-in-chief of the FARC does not, as a rule, give interviews, and as it turned out I would be no exception this time around, but the photograph was useful nevertheless. I knew that journalists could spend days waiting for any contact with the high command, but compañera Nora, a trim, agreeable woman in charge of the FARC’s liaison with the public, and the only adult in sight, examined the picture and immediately wrote down my interview request. A courier was leaving in a few minutes for the camp outside town where the FARC commanders live, she said obligingly, and I could send the photograph with him, along with a note. Soon the guerrillas in the room also noticed the picture. They nudged one another and took silent reconnoiters around my chair until at last one of the girls—small, chubby, droll-looking—took it from me and held it up close. Her expression was dreamy. “You love him a lot too, don’t you?” she said.

There were no signs of a personality cult on the walls. In fact, there were no posters, no slogans, no banners—hardly anything at all. In the small office where Nora received visitors there was a creaky desk, a fan, a couple of chairs, and a lone photograph of Marulanda in conversation with Victor G. Ricardo, Pastrana’s peace commissioner. A second framed picture could only have come from the former Soviet Union: it was a full-length pastel-tinted lithograph of Lenin, in which Vladimir Ilyich was portrayed with unusually small hands and feet, standing on a mound of flowers and gazing upward—looking for all the world like the Virgin Mary ascending. A third photograph, a blurry snapshot of the FARC’s deceased ideologue, Jacobo Arenas, graced the entrance hall. There were in conversation no references to Marulanda’s teachings or to his superior wisdom, and yet the more I talked with the round little girl who loved him so much—I’ll call her “Claudia”—I wondered what kept her going if it wasn’t a kind of absolute faith.

Her family was from the region, I soon found out. She had taken to bumping up against me and squeezing me every time she found me chatting with Nora in the little office, with a persistence I was beginning to find alarming until I thought to ask how old she was. “Seventeen,” she answered. And how long had it been since she’d seen her mother? “Four…no, five years,” she said. She had left home to join the guerrillas when she was twelve. Later I listened while she told her best friend—also seventeen and as lively and doll-eyed as Claudia—how on a recent day, in a moment of daring, she had taken a taxi to her home town, which is outside the demilitarized zone. The access roads to the zone are patrolled by the army and also by members of a paramilitary detachment that operates in the neighborhood. But Claudia felt sure she would pass unnoticed because she had grown up so much since she’d left home, and because she was wearing civilian clothes.

“I just thought I’d like to say hello to my mom, you know?” she told her friend. “But when I got to the last checkpoint I saw one of the soldiers staring at me and I thought, sonofabitch! I didn’t take off my bracelets! All the soldiers know that we guerrillas like to wear these little black elastic bands—they’re expensive! One thousand five hundred pesos [about seventy-five US cents] just for one, and if I take them off now he’ll suspect something. I said to the taxi driver, ‘Turn around, take me back to San Vicente right now!’ and the taxi driver kept saying, ‘You’re a guerrilla, aren’t you? I’ve seen you before.’ ‘No I’m not,’ I said. ‘Take me home now!’ I was scared.”

About 30 percent of the guerrillas’ troops are estimated to be female. Nora, who is thirty-three, told me how she too had joined the guerrillas as an adolescent eighteen years ago. “It was something I wanted to do since I was little,” she said. She came from the highlands, or so I guessed from her sharp Andean features and her accent, and when she was ten a guerrilla column with women fighters passed through her village. Nora says that she saw the brisk young women, in uniform and carrying guns, and thought they were the most powerful and glamorous creatures she had ever seen. When she turned fifteen, she persuaded her parents that she had to join them. I wondered if she had missed her family, and if she hadn’t found the life unbearably hard at first. “Not really,” she said. “There were so many of us children. It wasn’t like our mother had time to baby us.” And as for the hardship, “maybe if I’d been some middle-class momma’s girl,” she glanced up at me and corrected herself, “maybe if I hadn’t been of campesino origins, I would have suffered. But I was so used to hard work that what I had to go through felt easy.”


Perhaps only a Colombian campesino could survive the hardships imposed on the FARC troops, but it didn’t seem to me that Claudia, sturdy and young as she was, found her life easy. Life for the guerrillas has changed, in any case, since Nora’s days as a foot soldier, as a result of the FARC’s decision to shift away from traditional guerrilla ambushes and hit-and-run operations. Since August of 1996, when the FARC overran a government military base for the first time and took sixty soldiers prisoner, the guerrillas have been waging something very like real war against the Colombian state. Attacks on police stations in small towns and military bases in the countryside are now the norm. The element of surprise is key to the attacks, and from what I could understand, Claudia might have been part of one of the FARC’s two mobile columns, whose specialty is marching cross-country at such speed that they have attacked and retreated before the military intelligence services can even detect their movements.

I gathered this about Claudia’s posting one morning when I failed to drink most of a glass of soda pop. “Me, I would never do that,” Claudia said. “If you were with the guerrillas you’d learn to drink up. Otherwise you’re on campaign some day, and it’s broiling hot, and there’s nothing to drink and you remember that last little gulp of ice-cold soda you left behind the last time you went through a town and you really regret it. I swear to God you can feel the bubbles on your tongue!” Her best friend joined in. “And what about those cross-country marches?” she said. “Nine hours with no rest stops, and you’re not allowed to carry water because it’ll weigh you down, and you’re humping all that goddamned equipment on your back and the load is killing you and you think you’re going to pass out from thirst…sonofabitch! It’s hard!”

The absence of any decoration or sense of order at the FARC headquarters seemed logical after talking to Nora and Claudia. Ten years ago, when the army bombed the FARC central command, called Casa Verde—this was where I had interviewed Marulanda, in the Andean foothills less than a hundred miles from Bogotá—the guerrillas lost their only permanent base. Only the leadership had lived in Casa Verde year after year, in any event, and not the troops, who are currently estimated to number between fourteen and twenty thousand. Nora told me that she had a steady compañero for many years—until he was killed—which is more stability than most of the guerrillas seem to achieve. But it did not strike her as odd that their relationship should have been lived out in a series of shacks and plastic tents, and that the only fragments of their life together she could hold on to were what she could carry on her back: she had been homeless her entire adult life.

I asked Nora what the FARC’s policy was with regard to romance, and she reeled off a dizzying number of birth-control devices, including condoms, that are distributed to all the girls. The guerrillas are free to take up with anyone they choose inside the organization, she said, but I wondered how little Claudia, as starved for attention and physical affection as she so evidently was, made her choices. And what if, despite the IUDs, pills, patches, diaphragms, condoms, and jellies, she got pregnant? Nora herself had a fourteen-year-old daughter, she answered proudly. Like all guerrilla children, she had been sent away to her grandparents shortly after she was born. Nora kept in touch with her as best she could. I told Nora that I found it difficult to understand why anyone would choose the life she had, and she gave me the same answer, almost word for word, that I had heard from the guerrillas in Casa Verde so many years ago, and that I would hear often enough in San Vicente. “It is because there is so much injustice in Colombia, and one has to struggle against it.”

There is considerable evidence that not all the FARC troops, particularly the boys, are volunteers. Runaways have said that they joined because the guerrillas threatened to punish their families if they didn’t, and, in other cases, that their families offered them to the FARC when they couldn’t pay the taxes that had been levied on their produce—whether it was coca or some other crop. In any case it makes sense, from the FARC’s point of view, to recruit the very young; they are malleable and strong enough to survive the punishing physical demands that are routinely made of them. And although there has been some outcry recently, in Colombia and abroad, about the FARC’s adolescent army, and although the guerrillas are now anxious to polish their international image, Manuel Marulanda himself quashed any discussion of increasing the guerrillas’ recruitment age to eighteen.

Last January, in the course of one of his extremely rare public appearances, he declared, first, that the FARC would soon be calling in some of the “little debts” the press has with the organization, and, second, that fifteen would remain the recruitment age, “because we have a norm that says we recruit from age fifteen up.” After all, forcible conscription of adolescents, particularly in the countryside, was until a few years ago how the government army found its combat troops.


On the evening that I arrived in San Vicente I found myself sitting in a crowded, noisy restaurant, drinking guanábana juice with one of the FARC’s principal spokesmen, discussing the guerrillas’ approach to human rights. I wanted to know about kidnappings, since Colombia now has the highest kidnap rate in the world—eight a day in 1999—and, together with a rival guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, the FARC is responsible for most of them. Money raised from protecting coca growers, money from kidnappings, and extortion money paid to ward off the threat of kidnappings are the main source of financing for the war. The guerrillas, who see themselves as the legitimate authority in areas they control militarily, regard the ransom and extortion money as income tax. Now that approval in the US Senate of a $1 billion military aid package seems imminent, the rate of kidnappings appears to be soaring as the guerrillas prepare for a brutal escalation of what is already a brutal war.

To give the FARC spokesman due credit, he did not obfuscate or fudge or gloss over what I had expected to be an explosive topic, except at the very beginning. “Don’t call them kidnappings,” he told me. “We call them retenciones.” (Rosa, a woman I later talked to who is closely connected to the high command of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia—the right-wing paramilitary troops who wage war principally against the civilian supporters of the guerrillas in rural areas—made a comparable objection when I asked her about the paramilitaries’ policy of mass murder of civilians: “Don’t call them massacres,” she said. “We call them multiple military objectives.”) “Kidnappings are a violation of human rights,” the FARC spokesman went on to explain. “Retenciones aren’t. When people don’t pay taxes to the government, they are put in jail.1 Since we don’t have jails, we take our prisoners away somewhere. A lot of people pay without any problem. They come to us and say, ‘How can we work this out?’ Others send in their money without our even asking for it.”

A portly gentleman who was one of the small group sitting at our table listened quietly to this explanation. It had been startling to find him at FARC headquarters, for he was a prominent Latin American politician. Visitors from all over the world have made publicized journeys to San Vicente in recent months—the travelers from the United States include the chairman emeritus of America Online and the president of the New York Stock Exchange2—but the politician was here on a very private visit. He would be identified only as “someone with long experience in Latin American peace processes,” and he was here because his government, like others among the more powerful countries in the region, was deeply concerned that the peace talks in San Vicente should progress. As far as he could see, if the US military aid package were approved, the talks would founder, the war would escalate into a bloody stalemate, and regional politics would feel the impact. But how were the talks proceeding?

After a year of stalling, the government delegates and the FARC negotiators sat down together at last in January and hammered out a schedule and an agenda for their talks. The headquarters for the dialogue—a prefab compound in a small village an hour away from San Vicente—were officially inaugurated. At the scheduled sessions, procedural questions are discussed and views are exchanged on what both sides have agreed will be the central topics of the talks: the economy, “humanitarian agreements” regarding the conduct of the war, and political reform. So far, fifteen months after the talks were officially inaugurated, a real negotiation has yet to begin. It is easy for warring parties, under pressure from their constituencies and the international community, to establish a ritual encounter in peace negotiations, celebrate that encounter on a regular basis, and call it progress—this is usually referred to as a “peace process,” as opposed to peace talks—and there are signs that this is what is happening in San Vicente. At the current rate, years could go by before any agreement affecting the actual conduct of the war is reached, and even this would depend on certain conditions: that the successor to President Andrés Pastrana, who will be elected two years from now, will have a mandate to proceed with the talks; that the guerrillas will also decide to continue talking despite the escalation of the war against them that the US military aid package will bring, if approved; and that the army will remain neutral.

This last condition is particularly difficult. Last May seventeen army generals and two hundred colonels threatened to resign over the issue of the zona de despeje, of which San Vicente is the unofficial capital. They were outraged about the size of the territory that had been granted to the guerrillas and, most particularly, about the limit set on how long the army will be kept outside the zone; that time expires in June, but it is indefinitely renewable.

Toward the end of last year there was a strong rumor that a large contingent of the paramilitaries’ best-trained men had gathered just outside the zone, ready to invade. When I talked to Rosa, the woman with close links to the paramilitary high command, she would neither confirm nor deny that this rumor was true. But she did say that if the FARC were to be granted legitimacy—a more or less unavoidable condition for any peace treaty—she foresaw that a great many officers, primarily captains and colonels, would defect into the paramilitary force. The largest paramilitary force, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, led by a man called Carlos Castaño, is said to number around six thousand. It is known to have close ties to the army field commanders who have been fighting the guerrillas—with atrocious violations of human rights—for years. At this stage support for Castaño is still either tacit or clandestine among the officer corps. No one knows how many officers might be involved, but the numbers are said to be high.

It can be argued that better training and equipment, and the improved morale that would come from better results in the field, would make it possible for the army to reform itself from within. This is the view of the US embassy, among others, and of a reform-minded Colombian major general I talked to, who pointed out that a portion of the US aid package—$1.5 million—is earmarked for human rights training for the troops. A larger question is what the social and political costs would be of canceling negotiations and pushing for an exclusively military solution to the war.

Alfredo Rangel, a military analyst who last year published a widely quoted book about the war and its various areas of stalemate, makes a point of reminding interviewers that the FARC has significant support in the regions where it operates. Rangel points out that the last time there was a major campaign against coca cultivation—in the area more or less comprised by the zona de despeje—the FARC mobilized one hundred thousand campesinos; for nearly three months, they blocked all the access roads to the area. Nationwide, the guerrillas have some form of influence in about six hundred municipal districts—more than half the total in Colombia. And if one judges by their military effectiveness, Rangel notes, the FARC’s ability to launch surprise attacks repeatedly, and in different parts of the country, is in itself politically significant. “In each case, a single warning by the civilian population would be enough to alert the army,” he says. “And it doesn’t happen.”

Defeating the FARC in the field necessarily implies taking on some part of the rural population, but Rangel is among those who thinks that the US Senate should approve the aid package for Colombia. The hope, Rangel says, “is not that the army will annihilate the guerrillas, but that the guerrillas will come to accept a peace formula under pressure from the improved military effectiveness of the army, as a result of the US aid package.” (This is, of course, not what the aid money is designed to accomplish. On paper, at least, it is supposed to help Colombia fight the cultivation of coca and the export of cocaine to the United States.)

The makeup of the FARC rank and file is another delicate issue: What is the cost, in morale and popular support, of bombing adolescents? Manuel Marulanda may well have had this particular point in mind when he insisted that the FARC will not increase the age for conscription into the guerrillas.

In view of the costs of escalating the war, the only thing worse than a stagnant, ritualized peace process is no peace process at all. As long as the talks go on, the guerrilla commanders who are involved in them are at last exposed to people, arguments, and problems that they never have had to deal with before. For the first time the guerrillas are coexisting with the citizens of a small town, and even having to get along with its mayor, a bluff politico called Omar García.

One sweltering day, as I crossed San Vicente’s central plaza, I heard what sounded like a terrible commotion coming out of the town hall. It was only the mayor speaking into the dreadful sound system, and everyone listening to him was calm, but García was saying some remarkable things. He took power in January of 1998 as the elected candidate of the Liberal Party, even though the FARC had called for an electoral boycott and San Vicente was then a focus of the war.

Six months later the mayor heard on the news that peace talks would be held and that his town would most likely be the headquarters for the guerrillas. He was never granted the meeting he requested with President Pastrana, but he was told that under the terms of the zona de despeje agreement, the autonomy of all the mayors in the area would be respected. Since then, he has been trying to make that agreement stick.

On this morning García was addressing a meeting of the one hundred or so leaders of the community action boards in his district. Some had the knobby-jointed, undernourished look of country people, some looked like accountants. On the platform with García were the municipal department heads and also “Mauricio,” the FARC liaison with the local community.3 Mauricio, a husky man in his mid-thirties with a florid complexion, who is in person affable and almost puppylike, had stationed one or two armed guerrillas at each of the hall’s entrances. He himself was wearing a camouflage uniform and carrying a machine gun as he faced the audience. Having spent the previous afternoon with him, I suspected that Mauricio was not actually trying to intimidate San Vicente’s elected officials. He was simply approaching the town hall as he would a hillside: give me one man at the foot of the tree with the view, and two more to guard the retreat.

Nevertheless, it seemed brave of the mayor to talk as he did. “I’m not here to say one thing in public and another in private,” he said, looking at Mauricio. “We have a police force, and according to the agreement half of the members are appointed by us and half by the FARC. But who has authority over them? The municipality does, because if it doesn’t, then what we have is yet another private armed group. And the evidence is that the FARC is using the police force as a recruitment center into its ranks. This can’t be.” The mayor was drenched in sweat, the audience was silent, and Mauricio’s face was very red.


Apologetically, Nora announced one morning that Manuel Marulanda would not be receiving me, but that I was invited instead to a press conference by the chief spokesman of the FARC, a former Communist Party member who goes by the pseudonym of Raúl Reyes. There were four of us at the conference: a local TV producer-and-camera-and-soundman and his reporter, myself, and our taxi driver. We had driven for a couple of hours through cattle country at breakneck speed, finally coming to a halt at the top of a windswept hill where Reyes, a small, graying man who has something of a priestlike air, emerged from the foliage. The television producer asked the taxi driver to crouch out of camera range and hold up two microphones from other news organizations in front of Reyes, to give the event more of the atmosphere of a news conference. Reyes read a brief communiqué announcing that a ten-day cease-fire—which had been called by the FARC as a gesture of good will toward the talks—would not be prolonged, as so many had hoped it would be. Then he answered a few of my questions.

I asked him how he saw the grass-roots peace movement that mobilized millions of people in marches and demonstrations all over Colombia last year. “The great majority of the people in Colombia want peace,” he said. “So those people [the organizers of the peace movement] didn’t do anything special. It doesn’t have the slightest importance: the FARC could call for a demonstration at any moment, and millions of Colombians would come out for it.”

I thought of the guerrilla boys and girls I had seen shopping for tennis shoes and barrettes in the streets of San Vicente, of the tense relationship—but a relationship nevertheless—between the FARC and the local mayor, of the guerrillas’ contacts with US businessmen and Latin American politicians, and I asked Reyes if he felt that the FARC had changed in any way as a result of the experience of sharing social and political space with the inhabitants of San Vicente. “Absolutely not at all,” he answered. “The FARC has had a presence in these five municipal districts for a long time. The only change is that now we can approach the pueblo in the towns and give them some relief, but that kind of work has always gone on in the countryside. Nothing is different.”

That evening I had dinner in a fonda down the block from the one frequented by the guerrilla leadership, and watched the commander of the paramilitaries, Carlos Castaño, give his first televised interview. The restaurant was full of ranchers in dusty, pointy boots and cowboy hats. Some were with their families and some sat by themselves or in groups, playing cards. They had been paying no attention to the television screen—there is one in every restaurant and store in San Vicente, and it is always on—until the newscaster announced that the Castaño interview was coming on. One of the ranchers turned the volume way up, and everyone turned their chairs to face the screen. Over the past ten years Castaño has been directly responsible for the murder of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Colombians living in the countryside, whom his spies fingered as sympathizers or supporters of the guerrillas. His crimes and his links with the army field commanders have been repeatedly denounced by Human Rights Watch and Colombian human rights organizations and he is a figure of terror and revulsion to many, but clearly not to the cattle ranchers, forced for years to pay “taxes” to the FARC.

In the three-part interview, Castaño talked about how his father had been killed by the FARC, and how, despite the fact that he too obtains funds for his war against the guerrillas by levying taxes on the cocaine trade, he is in favor of coca-eradication programs, and how, when his men kidnapped Piedad Córdoba, a black activist senator from the Liberal Party, “the negra had a good time.” (Castaño’s troops rarely release their victims, but kill them instead. Córdoba later told me what Castaño had said to her in captivity: that the international outcry her abduction had provoked was forcing him to release her.) The leader of the paramilitaries kept his back turned to the camera throughout, but his voice ebbed and flowed expressively, and in moments of indignation the emphasis he put on every word made his meaty shoulders quiver. Compared with the stolid Raúl Reyes, Castaño was by far the better communicator. 4 This also seemed to be the impression of the ranchers, who had not even looked up when Reyes appeared on the news, and who were now hanging on Castaño’s every word. After his segment ended, they turned the volume back down and, without comment, went back to their tables.

Castaño has since given a second interview, in which he showed his face to the camera, wore a suit, acted like a politician, and made a tacit bid for recognition of his autodefensas as a belligerent organization on a par with the FARC. As the historian Gonzalo Sánchez once explained, one problem with the persistence of violence in Colombia is that there are never two but many sides involved in each conflict, and that when the government begins negotiations with one party, all the other parties demand the same treatment too. Perhaps Castaño’s autodefensas will be incorporated in some fashion into peace negotiations, as the guerrillas of the ELN are apparently about to be. Leaving behind the various blood-hatreds and ideological firing lines between ranchers and guerrillas, the paramilitaries, the Liberal Party, the Conservatives, and the army in San Vicente, and in hundreds of other small towns like it, will take time even if the talks succeed.

On my last morning in San Vicente I stopped by the FARC headquarters to say goodbye, and found the atmosphere unusually relaxed. Nora was trudging about as always in her standard guerrilla-issue Wellington boots and carrying her machine gun. But she had just washed her hair and let it down, and at one point she put aside her weapon and had a long, neighborly, and clearly enjoyable chat with a middle-aged civilian woman. The large room where the guerrillas congregate smelled of pine soap and looked clean, and along the wall a row of knapsacks was stacked up neatly. A dozen boys in civilian dress, even younger-looking than the ones I was used to seeing in uniform, sat or lay on other knapsacks on the floor. They were watching television, as usual, but they were seeing a new kind of programming: guerrilla salsa music videos. A tall, long-haired young man in camouflage sang about freedom, the homeland, butterflies in the jungle, and ecology to a tropical soundtrack, while behind him other young men and women, in uniform and carrying weapons, danced and sang backup. (A beautiful black boy used his rocket-propelled grenade launcher as partner.) I asked one of the guerrilla girls who came bustling by what I was seeing. “They’re FARC videos,” she explained with a den-motherish air. “I put those on because these aren’t guerrillas like us, but recruits, and they shouldn’t just be watching telenovelas all the time.”

At the fonda just next door I ordered guanábana juice and stared at the television, on which something called Xena, Warrior Princess was showing. Xena is beautiful and chaste. She is strong and fights on the side of the weak and against the exploiters and evil usurpers of power. She lives in some unidentified time before cars, machine guns, or body-concealing clothes were invented. Two waitresses, as young as the guerrillas next door, were glued to the program. And then I realized that the guerrillas were, too. The FARC videos were still playing just on the other side of the wall, but the kids were taking turns sneaking out of the headquarters to stand at the doorway of the fonda, watching Xena.

April 12, 2000
—This is the last of three articles.

This Issue

May 11, 2000