In January 1999, newly elected Colombian president Andrés 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no cease-fire agreement while the talks are being carried out, the Colombian Armed Forces and the National Police have withdrawn all their forces from the region known as the Zona de Despeje (Clearance Zone). On June 14, Garry M. Leech traveled to Los Pozos to interview Simón Trinidad, a FARC commander and a spokesman for the guerrilla organization. Trinidad was a professor of economics at Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in Bogotá for ten years before joining the FARC 16 years ago.
Garry M. Leech:
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 narcotraffickers?
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. [The FARC] will make better use of the natural resources and provide jobs, health care, education and housing so 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, industries, mines, agriculture and international commerce, including some foreign companies, especially North Americans. For these reasons we are the principal target in the war against narcotraffickers. But we aren't narcotraffickers and the campesinos aren't narcotraffickers. If the United States government really intends to combat narcotraffickers, all the people in Colombia know where they live: in Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla. But [the police] confront the poor campesino with repression that hurts not only the illicit crops, but also legal crops like yucca, bananas, and chickens and pigs because the fumigation kills everything.
Those responsible for making Colombia a producer of narcotics are the people who have become rich from this business: the narcotraffickers. Who else benefits? The bankers and those who distribute the drugs in the cities, universities, high schools and discos of North America, Europe and Asia. Who else? The companies that make the chemicals for processing cocaine and heroin. These companies are German and North American.
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.
This is the police, army and narcotrafficker version of the story. [The FARC] live in the country, and it is in the country that the coca, marijuana and the poppies have been grown for 30 years. We know the campesinos grow illicit crops out of necessity. 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 campesinos. We will not leave them without jobs. They work with the marijuana and coca leaf because they do not 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.
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?
I don't want to think about a war in this region. War will not resolve Colombia's problems. Colombia has 18 million people living in absolute poverty, [without] electricity, water, jobs, land, education or healthcare. Another 18 million Colombians [earn] a salary that doesn't cover all their necessities. We are 36 million Colombians living poorly out of a total of 40 million. Is the war going to resolve these problems?
There is an alliance between narcotraffickers and common politicians, both Liberals and Conservatives. Also, between paramilitaries and the narcotraffickers, everybody knows 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.
Many international human rights organizations have demanded that the FARC stop recruiting children. Where does the FARC stand on this issue?
We recruit 15 year olds and up. In some fronts there may have been some younger, but [recently] we decided to send them back home. But what is the cost? During the last year a girl arrived...14 years old and wanting to join the guerrilla.... In March she was sent back home because the FARC's Central Command said they would return to their parents all those younger than 15.
Two weeks ago I met this girl.... She said she was working in a bar from six p.m. until sunrise. I asked what she was doing and she said, 'I attend to the customers.' When I asked [how], 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. There are millions of others like this girl in Colombia who 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 children are in the streets of the cities doing drugs, inhaling gasoline and glue. According to the United Nations: 41% of Colombians are children, 6.5 million children live in conditions of poverty, another 1.2 million living in absolute poverty, 30,000 live in the streets, 47% 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 carrying out our rule that no children younger than 15 years of age join.
How many women are there in the FARC, and what happens when they become pregnant?
Approximately 30% of the guerrillas are women, and the number is increasing. Women guerrillas are treated the same as the men. Some FARC units have female commanders; the FARC office in San Vicente is run by a female. Some women have relationships with male guerrillas, and we provide contraceptives. But some do get pregnant. If they don't have an abortion, they have to leave the guerrillas.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Garry M. Leech is the publisher of Colombia Report, a web-based magazine that provides analysis of the Colombian civil war. See http://www.colombiareport.org