Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is one of the world’s longest-running guerrilla insurgencies and turns 50 on May 27.
This photo essay is part of a series of first-person accounts and articles looking at the FARC’s half-century war against the Colombian state and views on the ongoing peace process between the rebels and government in Cuba.
Women and girls have played an important role in the FARC since the insurgency was founded in 1964. There are about 7,000 rebel fighters, and women and girls are thought to make up about 30 percent of FARC ranks, the government estimates.
Photo: REUTERS/Eliana Aponte
Standing guard is a common duty carried out by rank-and-file fighters. Female rebels are often used to gather intelligence, report on the movements of government troops and serve as informants in urban areas. They also prepare and serve meals, dig trenches and latrines, and lug firewood in jungle camps.
In rebel ranks, women and girls are expected to carry out the same duties as their male counterparts. They fight alongside men in combat against government troops, are taught to fire pistols and AK-47 assault rifles, and are trained to assemble and plant homemade landmines.
They also serve as nurses, perform first aid and are taught to handle radio communications for commanders hiding in jungle lairs across Colombia to speak to each other in secret code and plan military operations.
Female rebels are also used to recruit child soldiers, rights groups say.
Photo: REUTERS/Jose Gomez
Inspired by Marxist ideology and leading figures in the Cuban Revolution like legendary guerrilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara (in the poster above), the FARC started out as an agrarian movement to defend poor and landless peasants.
The group later turned to cocaine trafficking, kidnapping and extortion to fill its war coffers. It is considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union.
Like male fighters, women and girls endure weeks-long marches hoisting heavy loads through mountainous terrain.
Rights groups have documented female rebels serving as sex slaves for commanders and being forced to undergo abortions. Having children is forbidden in rebel ranks.
One of the FARC’s most renowned female commanders was Nelly Avila Moreno (left in above photo), known as Karina. During the 1990s, she was in charge of hundreds of rebel fighters in Colombia’s northwestern province of Antioquia.
Karina was a priority target for government security forces for years and carried a $1 million bounty on her head.
Half-starved and wounded, Karina and her lover handed themselves in to Colombian security forces in May 2008, after more than 20 years with the FARC.
The government accused her of overseeing a string of murders, kidnappings and guerrilla attacks against civilians. She lost sight in one eye during combat.
Photo: REUTERS/El Colombiano-Henry Agudelo/Handout
The vast majority of rebel fighters are Colombian, but Dutchwoman Tanja Nijmeijer (right), seen dancing in a FARC jungle camp in this government photo, is an exception to the rule.
In the 1990s, Nijmeijer left her middle-class home in the Netherlands and went to Colombia to teach English. She ended up joining the FARC as a fighter in 2002, rising through the ranks to become an assistant to a senior commander. Photographs of Nijmeijer were found on a computer belonging to Mono Jojoy, a top FARC commander who was killed in a bomb raid by state security forces.
Today Nijmeijer (center) is one of several women on the FARC team of negotiators at peace talks in Havana, Cuba, where rebel commanders and the Colombian government hope to reach a deal to end 50 years of war.
The peace process started in October 2012, and both sides have so far reached two partial agreements on rural reform and the FARC’s participation in politics as part of a five-point agenda.
Photo: REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa