From her perch at the top of a hill at a school for at-risk youth in Bogotá, a 17-year-old girl wearing a white track suit, her hair pulled into a ponytail, could see the city stretch before her. Her straight back and easy assertiveness were the only signs that, just six months earlier, she was roaming the jungle with the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a communist guerrilla group that formed in the late 1960s with the aim of overthrowing the Colombian government. The group formally demobilized in 1991, but since then, dissident factions have continued to fight and finance themselves via drug trafficking. Nowadays, the group’s ranks have dwindled to around 100 fighters, down from 3,000 at its peak in the 1970s, but it still holds sway in some rural areas of Colombia where the state is largely absent.
When I visited the young woman at her school this April, she told me she fled her home in Norte de Santander in 2015 to join the EPL to escape her family. Her stepfather began sexually abusing her when she was 12, and when her mother found out four years later, she turned her anger on her daughter. She joined the group at 16, she said, not to achieve some ideological goal, but to “unburden [her] mind.” In only two months in the jungle, she learned how to carry a 50-pound pack and a rifle, and barely escaped being pummeled by an improvised mortar that landed next to her during a firefight.
The young woman I met in Bogotá wants to be an architect. She’s a natural leader, and the school has put her in charge of a group of girls. But she faces a host of challenges. She misses her friends, the security of her rifle, and life in the camp, which she talked about wistfully. The only reason she doesn’t rejoin, she said, is because she knows it would kill her mother. Like other female ex-combatants, she faces intense stigma for betraying not only her country, but her gender.
When she leaves school and finishes college, she’ll face a culture that expects her to care for children, keep a clean house, and meet a high standard of beauty. When friends or future employers discover her guerrilla past, they might reject or even fire her. If she chooses to get married, that, too, might be difficult: Men, even former guerrillas, can see women who have been members of rebel armies as damaged goods.
The Colombian government’s problem with women combatants is apparent from a public-service campaign designed to look like a lipstick ad. It reads: “Guerrillera, feel like a woman again. Demobilize.” Designed by the PR firm MullenLowe SSP3 in 2012 for the Colombian government, it features lipstick colors with names like “freedom,” “love,” “happiness,” and “tranquility,” and promises women that they can “smile and become the mother [they’ve] always dreamed of being.”
It’s hard to imagine the lipstick campaign convincing Sandra Sandoval, a 34-year-old former combatant I met in Bogotá, who joined a local FARC militia when she was 17. When she heard that paramilitaries—rival right-wing militias—were coming after her for being a member of the FARC, she escaped into the jungle with the guerrillas, leaving behind her first child, a baby girl. Sandoval later rose to become a commander, using her position to help local communities find the resources to build schools and roads, she said. “At any moment you could die in the struggle … but sometimes you feel that you’d die peacefully because maybe in some future, others could enjoy that transformation that you were fighting for.”
In 2013, the ACR started incorporating gender analysis into their program in earnest. Joshua Mitrotti, the head of the ACR, said that challenging traditional gender norms is now a part of his agency’s mission. “If [women] want to maintain that traditional role, perfect. If they want to innovate beyond that, we can support them,” Mitrotti said, insisting that now the options for female ex-combatants are exactly the same as those for men, and that the ACR tries to encourage their leadership, especially among other combatants.
But Mitrotti went on to contradict his own feminist bona fides. He said that female former combatants have sometimes lost their “feminine features” by doing the same work as men and want to get them back. “We put a strong focus on accompanying them and helping them again reconstruct those feminine features that they want to construct.”
Of course, some, like Sandoval, “never saw [herself] as feminine.” Peasant women have to do hard physical labor from the time they are children, she said. As a girl, she grew accustomed to carrying firewood and working with a machete. She started wearing makeup at 25, not because she sought to be more feminine but because she lives in Bogotá and wanted to fit in. Life in the city has made her question herself. “They say my way of walking is very macho,” she said.
The ACR declined to respond to Theidon, Sandoval, and Krystalli’s critiques, citing Mitrotti’s busy schedule during the signing of the FARC peace deal. Sandoval, who re-registered for the ACR program two months ago, said that it it is now more personalized, and has expanded its geographic reach. But it remains to be seen whether it has made the structural changes she thinks are necessary, she said.
Colombia’s reintegration programs have historically been male-dominated. Theidon said that when she visited shelters for former combatants “it was a very masculine space.” She questioned whether women would want to be one of the only women in a shelter or on a small farm. Krystalli added that women may choose to demobilize informally because of the stigma they face as former combatants, which is greater for women, who have contradicted the idealized role of a peaceful, loving mother.
After living with a group that at least nominally valued equality, this can be difficult to accept. An 18-year-old former ELN combatant that I interviewed in Palmira said that returning to civilian life is made doubly difficult by the stigma she experiences as both a former combatant and as a woman. “They always think that women are more domestic, more feminine, and all that, but not back there,” she said. With the guerrillas, “it’s gender equality, we’re all equal. So it’s difficult.”
This stigma is sharpened by the stereotype that women in the FARC sleep with commanders to advance their rank, a sexualization bolstered by the notion that the only reason a woman would join a rebel group is because they were forcibly recruited or wanted to escape abuse at home. Theidon found that just 9 percentof combatants in leftist militias were forcibly recruited. Most joined because they lived in areas where, with the presence of the Colombian state virtually invisible, the guerrilla group was more or less in charge, its presence normalized, or because an acquaintance who was already in the group convinced them to join.
Theidon explained that female ex-combatants carry a different kind of guilt than male ones. “Many of them, because of forced abortions, because of having partners that they didn’t necessarily want, because they had children they didn’t keep, felt that they’re bad moms, they’ve been bad women.”
But the guerrillera experience is full of contradictions. The young former ELN combatant, who was with the group from ages 14 to 16, savored her uniform and her rifle. “It gives you authority,” she said. When asked if local people were afraid of her, she said no. In rural communities, she explained, people grow coca to live, which government forces destroy. So guerrillas “get their affection because they’re protecting what they rely on to eat and survive.”
For Velasquez, it was the worst thing that has happened to her. Yet it gave her skills—discipline, punctuality, obedience—that now serve her well. She also formed connections with other guerrillas. “In the middle of pain, you make a family,” she said.
Reporting for this article was funded by an Adelante fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.