The next morning, we piled in to 2 taxis for the long ride southwest to rendezvous with our transport. We drove through the city and under tree shaded highways until we turned off at a small town called Llorente. We took a bouncy ride down a windy road which emptied onto a rocky beach called Playa Del Mira. The scene was like a flea market, people selling all kinds of goods from shaded tables. The shore was covered by long wooden canoes powered by large outboard engines. This was the primary means of conveyance along the River Mira.
After some searching we located our guide and were loaded into one of these canoes. The driver was a plucky looking young man perched atop the fuel drum with a lit cigarette in his mouth. I am typically cautious but looking out at the rapids we would be battling I figured his calm demeanor, cigarette or not, would be valuable and that my efforts were best spent loading gear, not complaining.
We took off from the beach and powered southwest against the current. We stopped briefly at a fuel barge. Watching our young captain navigate our canoe through the throngs of other boats was nothing short of impressive. The dock workers responsible for our refueling seemed to share our driver’s disdain for occupational health and safety, each throwing hoses about with cigarettes perched between their lips.
We spent the next one to two hours motoring against the current, past thick jungle, and the occasional small village. Eventually we came around the bend and pulled up to the bank below a small village. The landing beach was sheltered from the current by a small isthmus, and we were able to unload our gear safely with the help of some locals.
Our fixer informed us that these plain clothed locals were the very FARC rebels we were here to meet. One of them was a captain named Edison, and he seemed to organize our movements with some authority. He, like the other guerrillas on hand, were not wearing their traditional dark olive uniforms.
-Edison sporting a custom rifle sling-
We waited in a nearby pasture while our hosts fetched vehicles for us. As one always sees in rural indigenous areas, farm animals and beasts of burden walk freely about the pastures. The other thing one sees in these regions is that ‘cocktail hour’ starts pretty much whenever, and many of the locals shoot us cautious glances from blurry eyes.
We were loaded into a pair of pickup trucks and driven several kilometers up an alternately dirt and gravel road. As we trundled along, the jungle gave way to agricultural fields, all uniformly planted with Coca plants. FARC made a great deal of its money growing Coca which was eventually turned into Cocaine.
We were dropped at what was intended to be a bus stop across from the entrance to the FARC camp. The stop was little more than a shoddy table with a tarp over top held there by wooden poles. Two female guerrillas walked out of the entrance of the FARC camp and offered us some sort of bottled cola. I didn’t recognize the brand and could only think of the tale that Coca Cola originally contained cocaine.
We were then met by uniformed FARC members who escorted us into the FARC camp. The camp itself was a collection of small buildings and thatch huts. In the center was, of course, a soccer field covered by a large awning. The outer wall was certainly not designed to repel an assault, it was nothing more than wooden posts with opaque green netting strung between, not unlike the netting you would see on scaffolding at a construction site.
We were able to drop our gear on the soccer field and were then escorted out of the front gate and across a washed-out bridge and into an adjacent field which must have been 10 to 15 acres. The FARC soldiers were busy planting sugar cane plants, many of them were occupied swinging away with an assortment of agricultural tools. The sugar cane plants were meant to be an alternative to the staple crop of coca, if that was the case, the adjacent fields filled with coca plants spanning as far as I could see were evidence that it was ‘alternative’ and not a replacement.
We were escorted into the middle of the field and introduced to the FARC Western Region Comandante. A true commander, he was there machete in hand working with his troops. He wore the dark olive green pants of the FARC uniform, a brown button down shirt, and a black beret. He had a pistol slung on his hip in what can only be described as a shoddy holster. The pistol itself seemed to be an FN Five-Seven, an odd choice for jungle warfare, but most likely stolen.
-The Comandante planting sugar cane and speaking on FARC-
After a brief interview with the Comandante we were led back into the camp and ushered back to the soccer field. The camp was festooned with various posters, all inscribed with various slogans. Most of these posters bore the picture of the popular FARC leader Alfonso Cano. Cano was a leader beloved by his followers, he had led FARC through its darkest days, and had been responsible, in part, for its most unpopular guerrilla and kidnapping campaigns. Cano was killed by Colombian armed forces on November 4, 2011. Cano had lived and worked in this very region and had been the commander of FARC’s western region when he was killed.
We were shown about the camp, to the kitchen, the living areas, and offices. We dined on chicken and rice, which always tastes better on some jaunt into the wilderness. After dinner we collected ourselves and sought an interview.
At about 5:30pm with the light fading slightly, we found Harvay. Harvay was the most professionally dressed guerrilla we could see. He was short, of indigenous heritage, and wore his beret at all times which accompanied his well maintained uniform. His beret bore a read star, no doubt a nod to Che Guevara who had a similar emblem upon his ubiquitous beret, This professional dress set him apart from many other guerrillas who strolled about the camp in tank tops and flip flops. Harvay was missing a finger on his right hand. Maiming was common as many medical procedures were performed in the jungle on wounded guerrillas without the benefit of hospitals or even proper medical equipment.
-Harvay during his interview-
This was a result of the conflict we could see everywhere. The amount of people who had been maimed, both guerrillas and civilians, was quite high. In a typical military, a maimed soldier would be discharged, however in the FARC these people were still involved in all aspects of operations. The badly injured were used for kitchen or admin duty, while the less debilitated, like Harvay, were still involved in combat operations.
That night we were shown to a hut about 500 meters down the road. I was tin roofed with cinderblock walls, it was situated next to what we could call the local nightclub. The main room was filled with shoddy bunk beds and the occupants were a mix of ourselves, a documentary filmmaker from Finland, and some children.
The film maker from Finland was a short disheveled man who chain smoked incessantly. He had made the trip with his girlfriend, and had been living with the guerrillas for 3 months. I was not at all clear what the focus of his film was, but he was certainly committed to the process.
As soon as we unpacked it began to rain. Rain in the jungle is another beast altogether. I walked to the front door and looked out, I turned on my headlamp and was confronted with what looked like a wall of water, almost as if I was standing underneath a waterfall. The rain was loud, but not nearly as loud as the booming music from the nightclub next door. The music persisted and patrons got more inebriated as the evening went on. The music and the celebratory shouts kept me up until 3:00 am. The humidity and sticky bedding kept me awake the rest of the night.
Read Volume 3 HERE