Colombia's Female Guerillas

Jay Moore research at
Sun Jan 7 08:48:54 MST 2001

Colombia's communist guerrillas take on feminine face
By Karl Penhaul, Globe Correspondent, 1/7/2001

 AN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia - The pink nail polish was chipped on her
trigger finger. A Russian AK-47 assault rifle hung on her lean shoulder.

The sun glinted off her small gold earrings, and off the brass tips of the
7.62-caliber bullets stuffed into her ammunition pouch, as she squatted amid
the tall grass of this sprawling savannah and jungle region of southern

Twenty years old and a veteran of at least seven battles with Colombian
security forces, this Communist guerrilla fighter, Lorena Nastacuas, seemed
to give a new twist to the term ''femme fatale.''

Nastacuas is one of thousands of women warriors serving in the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Latin America's largest guerrilla army.

''Everybody feels fear in a firefight; we're all human,'' Nastacuas said
solemnly before breaking into giggles as her pet parrot, Hamil, began
pecking at her necklace of bright plastic beads. ''But it's all a question
of destiny. We're here to triumph or die.''

When the FARC took up arms against the government in the mid-1960s, two of
the original group of 48 combatants were female. Rebel leaders now say that
30 percent to 40 percent of the combat force, which has grown to about
17,000 fighters, is made up of women.

The sharpest rise has come since mid-1997, when fewer than one-in-five FARC
guerrillas were women.

By comparison, only about 2 percent of the Colombian Army are women, and all
of them perform administrative tasks, not combat duties.

For a rebel commander, Joaquin Gomez, the head of the battle-hardened
Southern Bloc division, women have a key role to play in Colombia's 36-year
guerrilla war.

''A woman perceives injustice through every pore in her body; from the
moment she's born, she is discriminated against,'' he said, referring to the
machismo that is rife in Latin American society.

Colombian government statistics attest to stark inequalities between the
sexes. Pay levels are as much as 70 percent lower for women than men,
illiteracy rates are higher among females, and more than half the women
polled in a government survey said they had been beaten or abused by their

An economic slowdown during the last three years has further skewed the

Unemployment rates, now the highest in Latin America, are on average 40
percent higher among Colombian women than men. The situation is worse in the
countryside, creating potentially fertile ground for rebel recruitment.

''The economic crisis has meant that women cannot find a suitable place in
society and see greater possibilities in the armed struggle,'' said Olga
Marin, one of a team of guerrilla envoys that travels the world trying to
curry international support for the uprising.

Nastacuas, born to a peasant family, enlisted in the guerrillas four years
ago because she could not find a job and her father's plot of land in
southern Putumayo province did not provide enough food for her five brothers
and sisters.

She is stationed in a Switzerland-sized zone of southeastern Colombia that
President Andres Pastrana cleared of government troops in November 1998 to
create a forum for peace talks.

The pace of negotiations to end the conflict, which has claimed 35,000 lives
in the past 10 years, has been glacial. But the demilitarized zone has
provided a safe haven for the guerrillas, who have stepped up their training
and recruitment drive. Many of the new arrivals are women.

One of them is a 19-year-old, Andrea Saenz. She joined the guerrillas two
months ago in the cattle-ranching town of San Vicente del Caguan, at the
heart of the demilitarized zone.

''The first weeks of training were difficult; I got tremendous bruises from
the recoil of the rifle,'' she said as she sat in an abandoned farmhouse,
straightening her T-shirt, emblazoned with the logo ''No More Yankee

The Colombian military has accused the guerrillas of pressuring hundreds of
teenagers, many of them minors, into service. It also has accused the
guerrillas of fitting female fighters with contraceptive coils and forcing
them to perform sexual favors for their commanders.

But Saenz and Nastacuas rejected allegations of sexual exploitation and
insist they carry out the same duties as their male counterparts. Absolutely
no concessions are made for gender when it comes to hiking over rough
countryside with backpacks weighing up to 75 pounds, or frontline combat
Despite the influx of female fighters, the FARC's seven-person ruling
council is still an all-male domain.

But women are gradually working their way up the ranks, and many are now
mid-level field commanders, say rebel leaders.

Adriana Rondon, 27, the daughter of a peasant family from central Huila
province, commands a 20-member unit operating the rebel radio station inside
the demilitarized zone.

''There's a lot of machismo in Colombia, and as a woman you grow up
accepting what the man says and feeling inferior,'' Rondon said. ''But women
don't have to be submissive.''

She said she took up arms 15 years ago, when she was just 12, after troops
burst into her home and beat her father on suspicion of being a guerrilla

''I just wanted revenge, and I begged the guerrillas to let me go with
them,'' Rondon said.

That revenge came in August 1996, when she took part in a rebel raiding
party that stormed the Las Delicias army base in a remote corner of Putumayo
province. In the ensuing battle, 31 soldiers were killed, and 60 more were
captured - one of the guerrillas' biggest victories to that date.

At the height of the 14-hour battle, she said, her Israeli-made Galil
assault rifle jammed, and she had to advance under enemy fire to seize
another weapon from one of the dead soldiers.

Unlike many regular armies, the FARC does not frown on love in a time of
war. But male and female guerrillas are told not to begin a relationship
without first seeking permission from their superiors, who issue them
birth-control pills and condoms.

''The guerrilla movement says that women are free here,'' Rondon said. ''But
that means free to learn and act. That doesn't mean, though, that she's free
to have five or six partners. If we're carrying out the armed struggle,
things have to be well-ordered.''

This story ran on page 6 of the Boston Globe on 1/7/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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