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16 Photos That Show What It Means To Be A Colombian Rebel Today

A photographer spends weeks with an elite unit of the Colombian rebel organization, which is poised to sign a peace agreement with the government.

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Malcolm Linton / Polaris

FARC rebels use scarves to protect their faces from dust as they ride in the back of a truck on the edge of the jungle in southern Colombia.

For more than a half century, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — better known as the FARC — has been in a brutal civil war with the government. But now the two sides are on the verge of signing a peace treaty.

This summer, I spent a total of five weeks with an elite FARC unit at different times and at different camps in the jungles of the southern state of Caquetá. The rebels came from fronts all over Colombia for a year’s education program to prepare them for leadership roles as the FARC prepares to transform itself from an armed rebel group into a leftist political party. Many of the rebels I met were unable to read or write when they joined the FARC but now were studying history, current affairs, and Marxist-Leninist political theory. More than a third were women, with many occupying command positions. The FARC has strict rules against sexual discrimination, although they have not always been observed.

Malcolm Linton / Polaris

Watched by her boyfriend, this FARC rebel checks her appearance in a hand mirror in her makeshift shelter at a guerrilla camp in Colombia’s southern jungle.

For many city-dwellers in Colombia, the country’s left-wing rebels are bogeymen — kidnappers, drug traffickers, and assassins. But p​eople who live in the vast areas of Colombian countryside controlled by the FARC tend to have a different view of the rebels. For them, the FARC replaced governments that always favored Colombia’s rich elite: The rebels have kept order, administered justice, built roads, and raised taxes. As part of the peace process the FARC has renounced kidnapping and has made commitments to abandon its involvement in the cocaine trade, historically two of its main sources of revenue.​

Malcolm Linton / Polaris

FARC rebels load a truck at night to move their camp closer to the village of El Diamante, on the edge of the jungle. The rebels took around an hour to pack up their camp, where close to 100 had lived for several months.

During the long and violent civil war FARC units have carried out massacres of civilians and selective assassinations, such as the 2009 killing of 27 members of the indigenous Awá people, including women and young children. ​Still, the bogeymen view of the FARC owes much to the country’s mainstream media, following the government’s lead. Colombia’s biggest newspaper, El Tiempo, is owned and run by the family of President Juan Manuel Santos, who was also defense minister in the previous administration. Foreign governments and media have frequently taken the same line. The United States declared the FARC a terrorist organization in 1997 and has still not lifted that classification.

Many FARC members fear that after they disarm they will be vulnerable to assassination by pro-government paramilitary groups in a repeat of the movement'€™s last attempt to enter civilian politics in the mid-1980s. Then, around 3,000 members of the FARC’s Patriotic Union party were murdered by right-wing death squads.

After four years of slow peace negotiations in Havana, Cuba, the FARC and the Colombian government are in an unprecedented honeymoon period. They have signed a bilateral ceasefire and provisional accords, and they are due to sign a final agreement on September 26. Combat commanders from both sides have met up, without guns, to talk about how they may work together in the future.

The Colombian people will vote for or against the agreement in a plebiscite on October 2. FARC delegates are holding a conference September 17–23 in the southern state of Caquetá to discuss the treaty, and they will almost certainly approve it.

Malcolm Linton / Polaris

Carlos Antonio Lozada, one of the FARC’s top commanders, talks to rebel fighters about peace negotiations with the government while visiting a jungle camp near the village of El Diamante.

I first reported on the FARC when I lived in Colombia in 1985–86, traveling several days on horseback to their mountain headquarters. Peace negotiations with the FARC began in 2012 in Havana. I flew there early this year and asked permission to visit their camps in Colombia. The FARC allowed me to photograph and interview whomever I wanted. The rebels I met were friendly, disciplined, ​thoughtful, and, apparently, idealistic.

Malcolm Linton / Polaris

FARC rebels Patricia and Jefferson (their noms de guerre) share breakfast. They have been a couple for the last 14 years and have been allowed to move to different postings together.

Malcolm Linton / Polaris

FARC rebels walk back to their camp. Even with a ceasefire in effect, many of the guerrillas keep their weapons with them at all times — but the pistol in this picture is actually a radio playing popular songs.



Malcolm Linton is a British-born photojournalist who has lived and worked in Latin America, Russia, Africa and Asia. His photos have appeared in magazines and newspapers worldwide and frequently focus on conflict and human rights issues.

Contact malcolmlinton at malcolmlinton@gmail.com.

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