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Colombia Struck a Peace Deal With Guerrillas, but Many Return to Arms

Colombia Struck a Peace Deal With Guerrillas, but Many Return to Arms

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Two members of the old FARC teaching a new FARC member how to use his assault rifle at a shooting camp.CreditCreditFederico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

By Nicholas Casey and Federico Rios Escobar

Under a torn Colombian flag on a windy hilltop, a ragtag guerrilla militia gathers. One fighter is missing an arm. Another, a leg. A commander who can barely read but goes by the alias “the Poet” tells of a recent firefight with a paramilitary squad in the hills nearby.

It might be just another scene from Colombia’s decades of guerrilla warfare were it not for a puzzling fact: The group the fighters say they belong to, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, laid down its arms after it signed a peace deal meant to end the longest war in the Americas.

The peace accords signed in 2016 by then-President Juan Manuel Santos and the rebels were meant to bring an end to five decades of fighting that left at least 220,000 dead and nearly 6 million people displaced from their homes.

Behind the agreement, though, loomed a fear: That many of the thousands of fighters granted amnesty under the pact might sour on civilian life and pick up arms again.

It has already happened.

“We doing the same work, we have the same ideals — and we’ll charge ahead, God willing,” said one of the commanders, who is 25 and goes by the alias Maicol.

These dissident guerrillas invited The New York Times to their camp, hidden among mountains north of Medellín, to tell the story of why they abandoned the peace deal. But well before the visit, the agreement was already fraying.

The government, which had promised to sweep into rebel lands behind the FARC, bringing health and education services and potable water, is barely seen in much of the country. President Iván Duque of Colombia campaigned against the accords and now says he will revise them. One of the FARC peace negotiators was arrested for trafficking 10 tons of cocaine this year — while preparing to take a senate seat.

And then there are groups like the one The Times visited, which present a particularly grave threat to the accords. There can be no peace in Colombia if the rebels rearm.

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An abandoned house in the mountains of Colombia. As inhabitants of the region fled during the paramilitary raids of the past years, the area emptied out.CreditFederico Rios Escobar for The New York Times
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A group of rebels from the new FARC arrive at a new camp hidden in the mountains of Colombia.CreditFederico Rios Escobar for The New York Times
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A group of rebels during their daily training regime.CreditFederico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

Hundreds, if not thousands, of FARC fighters have resisted the deal. Insight Crime, a foundation that tracks organized crime groups, estimates that there may be up to 2,800 dissident FARC fighters — about 40 percent of the number that fought before the peace deal.

One theme connected the fighters’ narratives here in the FARC camp: While the government had promised them a new civilian life under the accords, they soon found themselves under threat by a range of paramilitary groups that rushed to take control of territory the rebels left behind. The dissidents asked The Times not to reveal the location of their camp out of fear the government or paramilitaries might attack.

“They were shooting up my companions, and I decided to go up to the mountains,” said Maicol. At least 75 former guerrillas have been killed since 2016, according to the political party founded by the demobilized guerrillas.

While FARC leaders claimed they had handed all of their weapons to the United Nations, that was not entirely accurate. “There were still some weapons, old ones,” said the commander known as the Poet, who like many of the rebels interviewed, uses his alias so as not to endanger his family.

Perhaps as troubling as the resurgence of dissident groups are new alliances they are forming in these mountains. Some of the rebels now wear the insignia of the Virgilio Peralta Arenas Bloc, a mafia group accused by the authorities of killing civilians and trafficking drugs.

The group once fought the FARC, but rebels said they now work together for mutual protection. It could one day mean that the rebels look more like an organized crime gang than the Marxist revolutionary army they were founded as in the early 1960s.

“This is just part of the tragic history of Colombia — one form of violence morphing into another in the absence of a legitimate state,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, the Latin America director at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Peace accords offer opportunities that can be grasped or not, and this one is being lost day by day.”

Among the former FARC leaders now unaccounted for is Iván Márquez, FARC’s second-in-command, who went missing more than a month ago, leaving many fearing he will rearm.

“If Iván Márquez leaves the peace process and joins the dissidents, then the entire process could fail,” said Jeremy McDermott, the co-director of Insight Crime. He estimates that as many as 10 other commanders could take up arms again, enough to possibly create “the nucleus of a new guerrilla army.”

Former rebel leaders are urging former fighters not to return to the fold. But many, like Julián Gallo Cubillos, a former commander who was known as Carlos Antonio Lozada, say they also understand their reasons for fighting given the dangers faced as civilians.

“We have to respect their decision,” he said. “Even though we don’t share it, and spent a half century going down that path and never achieved what we were looking for.”

The Colombian government did not respond to requests for an interview. But on taking office last month, Guillermo Botero, Colombia’s defense minister, said, “The dissident FARC have spread far more than what’s been said and are in the process of growing.”

He also offered a warning to dissidents.

“Our armed forces will recover their combative character,” he said.

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New FARC members at a shooting exercise in the mountains of Colombia.CreditFederico Rios Escobar for The New York Times
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A fighter peeks out from amid the jungle where dissidents have set up a new camp.CreditFederico Rios Escobar for The New York Times
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A group of rebel fighters from the new FARC have breakfast by a mountain creek in Colombia.CreditFederico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

The commander called the Poet joined what he calls the “old FARC” when he was 18, and spent the next 12 years rising through its ranks — until one day his party was ambushed and he was shot in the stomach. Photos of him and others in the camp were also published by Bloomberg, which also did not use full names.

Disguised as civilians, his companions sneaked the Poet into a hospital in Medellín. He said that while recovering he was arrested on suspicion of being a guerrilla and sentenced to 26 months in jail.

Once a free man, the Poet settled near the city of Ituango, leading civilian activist groups there.

But when the peace accord was signed and guerrillas in the area withdrew to a disarmament camp, a chill fell over the region as fighters from Colombia’s Clan del Golfo, the country’s largest crime organization, took their place. The Clan threatened those they found in their way.

This happened across the country. Hundreds of rural activists were killed, including former rebel fighters.

The Poet decided to seek advice from a former comrade-in-arms: Rogelio Guerrero, who had joined the rebels in 1998. The two met at a disarmament camp near the town of Santa Lucía.

Mr. Guerrero told a similar story. Paramilitaries had begun to threaten him, he said, and then last year a former commander living nearby as a civilian was shot dead. Mr. Guerrero feared he was next.

After hours of conversation, the two decided to revive their old FARC unit, with Mr. Guerrero as the leader, they said.

“I felt proud once again,” said the Poet. “Suddenly I could see it all up and running again. It was just grand.”

Returning to the battlefield proved difficult. The FARC’s central command structure, which had relayed messages and orders among groups, was gone. The new dissident group was alone.

But they were finding recruits.

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After sunset a new FARC member keeps watch to safeguard the group.CreditFederico Rios Escobar for The New York Times
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FARC fighters taking a break.CreditFederico Rios Escobar for The New York Times
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Members of the new FARC eating by lamplight.CreditFederico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

Among them was Cuatro, a fighter who had spent a decade with the FARC. He disarmed last year, but civilian life did not suit him, he said. When he heard that a group of dissidents was forming, he sought them out.

Among the first challenges for the group was protection. Cuatro knew of weapons caches. And Mr. Guerrero, the commander, decided to strike up alliances — even with old enemies like the Virgilio Peralta Arenas Bloc and the Clan del Golfo.

“We just need territory without there being bloodshed,” Mr. Guerrero said.

The Virgilio Bloc agreed to work with them, he said, but the Clan del Golfo “responded to us with violence.”

The rebels are also seeking out former FARC members who have returned to arms elsewhere — including commanders like Walter Patricio Arizala, known by his alias Guacho, who controls the cocaine trade on the border of Ecuador and this year kidnapped and killed three journalists. (The government is seeking Guacho, too, saying on Saturday that he had been wounded in an attack.)

“The idea is to find ways to communicate, start meeting and operate like we did before,” Cuatro said. “To unify all the country.”

Life in the new FARC resembles the old rebel routines in many ways.

The day begins before sunrise. The fighters wake up in their hammocks, drink coffee and begin classes, discussing Karl Marx and Latin American revolutionaries like Cuba’s José Martí. Every day or two, they break camp and march through the forest for hours.

But this is a more impoverished rebellion than the previous one.

The old FARC was financed from taxing the coca crop. The area this group now operates in has few plantations and no illegal gold mines. The fighters instead take food from nearby towns when it can be found.

Many fighters do not have uniforms. Some sleep on the ground for lack of hammocks.

“Yes, we go hungry, we suffer everything, but we are clear about what we need to do,” said a fighter who uses the alias Piscino.

The goals of the rebels also seem much reduced: They admit they will never overthrow the government and they do not want to fight the provincial police. They do intend to defend villages from other armed groups, they said, though since they are on the run, it is likely they will mostly defend themselves.

The fate of this latest rebellion in Colombia is uncertain. It may grow, be crushed or simply fade away. The road ahead is likely to be rough — but no matter, said Piscino, who lost his left hand to a land mine.

These hardships are necessary sacrifices, he said.

“Those who have armed again,’’ he added, “we are ready to die in this struggle.”

Nicholas Casey reported from Medellín, and Federico Rios Escobar from a secret rebel base.

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