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“The FARC and peace are going to play a role in elections, whether for or against the process”
Jenny Manrique
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Interview with Victoria Sandino Palmeras, FARC peace delegation member

As she was finishing her communications studies in Bogotá in the 1990s, Judith Simanca Herrera, who now goes by the name Victoria Sandino Palmeras, from the northern department of Córdoba, decided to leave “everything behind” and immerse herself in the Colombian jungle. She joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and ultimately became commander of the group’s Block 21, which operates in the southern part of the country. In San Vicente del Caguán, during the fruitless peace negotiations under President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), she was part of the security detail for the now-deceased commanders Alfonso Cano and Raúl Reyes.  Now 48 years old, she is one of 13 women on the negotiations team in Havana who since Sept. 2012 have been in peace talks with the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos. Latinamerica Press contributor Jenny Manrique spoke with Sandino in Havana about the reality within the FARC and the future of peace negotiations.

How many years have you been a member of the FARC and why did you join the guerrilla movement?
I’ve been with the organization for 21 years. I started my political life almost as far back as 12 years old in the Communist Youth of Colombia and in the 1990s, when the genocide of members of the Patriotic Union (UP) happened, colleagues died and the persecution of popular leaders became increasingly intense. You start to ask yourself: life is at stake here, the government will not create the democratic changes the country needs, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to participate in politics. We can’t let that list of dead get longer, we are going to add onto another list — the ranks of the FARC.

What is your interpretation of the peace process here in Havana, with an election in Colombia approaching?
The government [of President Santos] yearns for the FARC’s surrender, for us to give up the fight after more than 50 years, but throughout the negotiations they’ve came down from that cloud, they know that’s not possible. When we proposed a ceasefire during the campaign [ahead of the presidential elections slated for May 25] it was so that wouldn’t influence the process at the [negotiations] table, but the government didn’t accept it, so the FARC and peace are going to play a role in the elections, whether for or against the process. It is important to be able to impose the will of the majority against a political solution to the conflict.

You are currently negotiating the topic of illicit crops. What degree of responsibility are you prepared to acknowledge in drug trafficking?
We believe trafficking is a social phenomenon that has entered every sphere. Farmers have been pushed to grow coca, poppy and marijuana in areas where there is guerrilla because we are nationwide, but we are not the police nor could we repress them because it is the only choice they have. The [manufacturing] laboratories are not in our area, rather in those under army control. We discussed creating alternatives that disconnect the farmers from that crop and where proper treatment is given to consumers, who are the weakest link. We’re asking for a historic truth commission to define the roles everyone has played, including the most powerful in money laundering. If in that, one of our people who is connected should fall — it’s possible —, the organization will have a response to that.

Which issues regarding gender have you brought to the negotiations?
The first issue is that female guerrillas be recognized as political subjects who are here based on merit, because the organization decided it, not because we are the first ladies of X or Y comrade. The gender issue on the table is transversal. In relation to the agrarian issue, it has been suggested that women who are heads of households take priority for land ownership, loans, and education in the rural areas. Of the 100 proposals we presented on political participation, about 37 are related to gender equity. And thus so at every point.

Within ranks of the guerrillas, is there such gender equality?
It’s a stereotype that women don’t have rights in the FARC and it questions the organization, as if Colombian society — chauvinistic and capitalist — were different. We can’t even imagine a female guerrilla being mistreated and nothing happening, because there are rules and principles that don’t allow for that. What you see on a daily basis in the campesino, indigenous and African descent communities, where the husband comes and hits his [female] partner or his children, that doesn’t happen in the organization, because we have equal rights. Sure there are examples of machismo because we are products of this society, but here on the negotiations team, 13 of the 30 members are women. Let’s see if in the military forces the ratio is the same.

Nevertheless, several United Nations reports and testimonies from former female guerrillas describe commanders abusing women.
The female guerrilla has a way to defend herself, she has a weapon that is her own life and integrity, it is not possible for someone to come and assault her like that; moreover there are rules that apply to everyone. It’s possible those things have occurred within (our) community because in every social and human group those phenomena exist; we aren’t perfect.

Is abortion an obligatory policy within the ranks?
On issues like motherhood, precautions weren’t always taken. During a ceasefire from 1984 to 1990, the guerrilla camps looked like nursery schools because there was calm and couples started families. Many of the [female] colleagues have children from that period who are now 20 years old. Today, the level of conflict doesn’t allow us that. I decided not to have children before entering — not because they denied it to me. In this struggle I saw many colleagues die with their children in their arms as happened with the UP, the female guerrillas who are captured are killed when they are going to give birth, they are forced to be mothers in prisons. That’s why it’s mandatory to plan, being pregnant raises the risks in combat. Sometimes a couple will ask if they can have a child, and the superiors review whether they will allow it. Almost all of the male guerrillas have sons or daughters with female guerrillas or with members of the local communities because it’s part of human nature. It’s not that the FARC says: if you are a female guerrilla you can’t be a mother, it’s the war that imposed these conditions on us.

Where are those children raised?
It is very dangerous to have a baby given the bombing and strafing. If there is no way to terminate the pregnancy, — for us [abortion] is a right — because you cannot get a doctor in or security conditions are bad, then she should have it and get out when she is four to six months along. If [conditions] are ok, she keeps her child for a while with her, she turns [him or her] over to a relative who can care for it, and she reintegrates herself. A lot of the time she can’t have any more contact with the family because a persecution ensues. When the children get older they start telling them that their mother is a guerrilla, she’s a killer, and they offer [the children] money to turn over their parents. —Latinamerica Press.


Victoria Sandino Palmeras (Photo: Jenny Manrique)
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