Deep in Colombian jungle, peace looms at rebel hideout

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Colombia rebel fighter camp in woods
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Deep in Colombian jungle, peace looms at rebel hideout
In this Jan. 5, 2016 photo, Marcela, a rebel soldier of the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, stands at the edge of a brook where she is preparing to bathe, near the guerrilla's group hidden camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. The rebels inhabit an impenetrable forest with South Americaâs only bear, venomous snakes and 20 species of exotic frogs. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 4, 2016 photo, Harrison, a rebel soldier of the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, drags the carcass of a hog to an open fire, for singeing to remove body hair, in their hidden camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. The animal will be enough to feed the 26 members of the group for several days. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 4, 2016 photo, Yira Castro, a mid-level commander for the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, looks up from her laptop at a hidden camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. After three decades in the jungle her loyalty is absolute, she says that if peace does arrive the first thing sheâll do is take a trip alone with her boyfriend, a fellow rebel. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 6, 2016 photo, Juliana, a 20-year-old rebel fighter for the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rests from a trek in the northwest Andes of Colombia, in Antioquia state. Like many of her comrades in arms, her path to the FARC was born as much from personal tragedy as political ideology. In her case, she fled an impoverished home at age 16 and followed in the footsteps of an uncle after being raped by her stepfather. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 4, 2016 photo, rebel fighters for the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, bathe in a creek near their hidden camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. The rebel fighters share all facilities on equal terms. Many of them are couples and share sleeping quarters. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 6, 2016 photo, Juan Pablo, a commander of the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, works on his laptop, next to his girlfriend, 25-year-old rebel fighter Tania, at a hidden camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. Tania says, "If we sign the peace accords with the government, I would like to have two kids with Juan Pablo, study odontology and serve to the poor with my work." (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 4, 2016 photo, Oscar, a rebel soldier for the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, mends a pair of pants while his "socia" Gisell rests in a hammock, in a hidden camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. Inside the rebel organization, the idea of "socia" arose because the man cannot offer material wealth, so the girlfriends of the male rebels are referred to as a "socia" or partner. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 3, 2016 photo, with the aid of head lamps, rebel fighters for the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, prepare a breakfast of rice, beans, sausages and coffee, in their hidden camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. The day begins around 4:30 a.m. inside the temporary camp, home to 22 rank and file fighters, 4 commanders and 2 dogs. All rank and file are expected to share in kitchen patrol. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 5, 2016 photo, Cindy, a rebel fighter for the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, wraps her gun in a mesh fabric, after a routine cleaning, as protection from humidity and rain, in a hidden camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. Cindy is a field medic and she joined the guerrilla group when she was 18-years-old. "If there is peace with the government, we will have to take up politics, teach the people and later reunite with family after so many years." she said. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 4, 2016 photo, Juliana, a rebel soldier of the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, sits her with boyfriend Alexis, in their makeshift tent, inside their hidden camp in Antioquia, Colombia. âInside the guerrilla we donât touch money, everything is given to us, from medicine to cigarettes. Thatâs why thereâs no dependency in which she expects me to provide for her as is common in Latin America,â explains Alexis. âBetween us thereâs just love.â (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 5, 2016 photo, Alexis, a 24-year-old rebel fighter, trims the hair of Juan Pablo, a commander of the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, at their camp, hidden in the northwest Andes of Colombia, in Antioquia state. Now, after 25 years plotting ambushes and assembling land mines, peace is within reach and for the first time Juan Pablo is thinking about his own future outside this jungle hideout. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 4, 2016 photo, the weapon of a rebel fighter for the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, hangs from a branch serving as a makeshift clothesline, near a rebel camp, in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. âWeâll lay aside our weapons, like the accord says, but never hand them over,â says Juan Pablo, a commander of the 36th Front. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 6, 2016 photo, Juan Pablo, center, a commander of the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, walks with his comrades in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. As a commander of the 36th Front, one of the most militarily-active in a half century of warfare, the 41-year-old is capable of reciting verbatim passages from Fidel Castro's speeches even though he's never been to the movies, driven a car or eaten in a restaurant. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 4, 2016 photo, Yira Castro, a mid-level commander for the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, rubs moisturizing creme on her face, in a hidden camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. Castro is a sort-of den mother to other female rebels who in the FARC have found a sense of empowerment they say is lacking in macho Colombian society. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 4, 2016 photo, a rebel soldier of the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, serves up a portion of rice, eggs, sausage and beans, for breakfast, at a hidden camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. If the FARC seems at times stuck in a time warp, rebels share an enormous gratitude to the insurgency for rescuing them from poverty, providing them with a âfamilyâ and sense of belonging. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 4, 2016 photo, rebel soldiers of the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, work together to flay the skin of a hog carcass, near their hidden camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. Many of the FARCâs roughly 7,000 fighters come from the most-modest of campesino upbringings and struggle to imagine themselves outside regimented camp life. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Jan. 6, 2016 photo, members of the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, trek to a new camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. Big guerrilla camps are a thing of the past, the rebels now move in smaller groups. The 36th Front is comprised of 22 rank and file fighters, 4 commanders and 2 dogs. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
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IN THE MOUNTAINS OF NORTHWEST COLOMBIA (AP) — The rebel leader known as Juan Pablo carries with him a new telescopic assault rifle and a heavy heart.

As a commander of the 36th Front of the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, one of the most active units in a half-century of bloodshed, the paunch-bellied warrior has spent 25 years plotting ambushes and assembling land mines but has never been to the movies, driven a car or eaten in a restaurant.

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Now peace is within reach as talks between the guerrillas and the government near conclusion in Cuba, and for the first time the 41-year-old is thinking about a future outside this jungle hideout. His dream: to return to the poor village he left as a teenager and run for mayor. But transition to civilian life will come without his girlfriend and comrade-in-arms who was killed six months ago in an army raid, underscoring the toll still being exacted by Latin America's last major guerrilla conflict even as it winds down.

"This war is going to end without victors or vanquished but lots of suffering on both sides," said Juan Pablo, the soft-smiling son of a street vendor. "It's false to say we arrived defeated to the negotiating table. They dealt us some heavy blows, of course, but 51 years of war against an enemy backed by the most powerful army in the world (the U.S. army) has not made us cower, because the injustices that led us to take up arms are still occurring."

That mixture of pride and trepidation about the future is common among the FARC's roughly 7,000 fighters, many of whom, like Juan Pablo, come from poor rural upbringings and struggle to imagine life outside the highly regimented ranks of the guerrillas.

The Associated Press made a rare, three-day visit to a secret FARC camp in Antioquia state in early January to see how the region's oldest leftist insurgency is preparing for a peace that looks more tantalizingly close than ever. AP journalists were directed to a remote meeting point and then escorted on an hours-long trek to the jungle site. The FARC insisted that the camp's location not be revealed to protect the lives of its fighters.

Decades of fighting between guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the armed forces has, according to government figures, left a toll of more than 220,000 dead, some 40,000 disappeared and over 5 million driven from their homes — the largest displaced population of any country after Syria.

But after President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba in September and shook the hand of the FARC's top commander, both sides feel confident enough to predict a final deal as early as March. This generation of FARC guerrillas would be the first to abandon its stated aim of overthrowing the government and instead fight for their ideals at the ballot box.

At the makeshift camp that was temporarily home to 22 rank-and-file fighters, four commanders and two dogs, the day starts at around 4:30 a.m. With the moon still hanging on the horizon, the jungle comes to life to the sound of metal pots clanging as breakfast is prepared, rain falling on giant fronds and rubber boots sloshing through the mud.

Thanks to a unilateral FARC cease-fire, it has been months since gunshots rang out in this remote corner of the Andes where the rebels share the dense forest with venomous snakes, 20 kinds of exotic frogs and South America's only bear species. Still, the rebels show no sign of letting down their guard after a decade-old government offensive that more than halved their troop strength.

They sleep with their weapons, restrict all conversation at night and use assumed names to protect their identities. Once-a-day radio contact with other units happens via code, and lengthier missives are saved to thumb drives and transported through a network of human couriers. Fresh in everyone's mind is the 2011 death of the FARC commander known as Alfonso Cano, hunted down and killed by the Colombian army thanks to a cellphone intercept.

Their wariness highlights one of the thorniest issues that negotiators must still work out: How and under whose auspices the FARC will demobilize, when experience has taught the rebels that politics can be just as perilous as war.

The guerrillas recall too well how during 1980s peace talks that ultimately failed, the FARC established a party known as the Patriotic Union as its political arm. In just a few years, more than 3,000 leftist activists, rebel sympathizers and two presidential candidates were gunned down by paramilitaries, often in cahoots with state security forces. It became a cautionary tale in a country plagued by political violence since its independence from Spain.

"We learned a lot from that experience, but who says the only way to practice politics is in Congress?" said Leonidas, another commander. "One thing is clear: In this new phase the FARC is not going to demobilize, we are going to mobilize" politically.

He said that activism would mostly involve work on behalf of the rural poor, a reflection of the FARC's 1960s origins as a self-defense force formed to protect farmer-run "independent republics" from the military.

While peace may be in the air, the rhetoric of conflict is hard to shed.

Rebels call superiors "comrades" and deserters "traitors," and harangues about "oligarchs" and the U.S. "empire" oppressing working-class Colombians are a daily trope. Forget cheap romance novels or literary classics; the only reading material at the camp includes volumes like the collected speeches of Fidel Castro, biographies of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara and journalistic accounts of paramilitary land grabs. Juan Pablo, for one, is capable of reciting verbatim from Castro's speeches.

But if the FARC can appear stuck in an ideological time warp, the rebels say the group rescued them from poverty, taught them to read and provided a "family" and sense of belonging. In hours of conversation during the AP visit, none showed any outward sign of discontent or criticized the peace process.

They also tried to downplay the FARC's deep involvement in drugs — a lucrative trade that could prove a powerful economic incentive to remain armed, especially for midlevel commanders. Families living in the remote valleys that the 36th Front lords over acknowledge paying a war tax to protect their coca plantings, but the rebels say they will help develop alternative crops if an accord is reached.

As a confidence-building gesture, the FARC has renounced ransom kidnappings to fund its insurgency. And while abuses such as recruitment of minors and civilian massacres will be judged by special peace tribunals, the rebels note that human rights groups blame the paramilitaries for most of the killings during the conflict.

Even as the camp maintains a wartime footing, the guerrillas have begun holding twice-a-day peace assemblies.

On a recent day the first one, before breakfast, was led by Yira Castro, a commander whose nom de guerre honors a noted Colombian communist. Under the shade of a tree, she read from a 63-page sub-accord that was recently signed in Havana.

Castro, a sort of mentor to other women rebels, has spent much of the last three years with the talks in Havana, and her relative worldliness shows in her Cuban-inflected Spanish and new orange laptop.

Listening attentively was Juliana, who joined the discussion after butchering a pig that would feed the camp for several days. Like many others, her path to the FARC was born as much from personal tragedy as political ideology. At age 16, after she says she was raped by her stepfather, she fled her impoverished home and followed in the footsteps of an uncle.

Juliana said that if she hadn't taken up arms she would have liked to have studied computers. But now she hopes to serve the FARC even during peacetime: "I want to prepare myself to get involved in politics and continue my association with the organization."

Amid the Spartan life of a guerrilla, she allows herself one small feminine indulgence: light-pink lipstick. Her companion, Alexis, spoke of what he sees as the banality of relationships in the outside world.

"In the FARC we never touch money. Everything is given to us, from medicine to cigarettes. That's why there is no dependency in which she expects me to provide for her," Alexis said, taking Juliana's hand. "Between us there is only love."

Talk came to an abrupt halt as an unfamiliar airplane flew overhead a second time, setting nerves on edge.

"Politics is a lot tougher than war," another commander, Anibal, observed from his hammock.

"You pay for a mistake on the battlefield with your life," he said, swinging back and forth, "but an error in the field of politics brings down an entire organization."

___

Jacobo Garcia is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jacobogg

His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/jacobo-garcia

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