In 2008, tensions between the Colombian government and Marxist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were running high. The FARC, which had been battling the government since the 1960s, controlled about one-third of the country’s territory and collected as much as $300 million a year in cocaine revenues. It also held a number of high-profile hostages, including three Americans, 11 gov
ernment security forces and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
Senior leaders of the guerrilla movement, who usually remained in remote jungle areas, rarely gave interviews – much less to foreign journalists. Indeed the group has a history of kidnapping journalists. In early March of that year, the FARC’s No. 2 commander, Raul Reyes, was killed in a Colombian airstrike at a camp just across the Ecuadoran border—reportedly after the U.S. tracked Reyes’ satellite phone during hostage negotiations.
Colombia is a dangerous place for journalists, with 45 killed by various groups and individuals since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. But the risks didn’t deter Spanish journalist David Berniáin. A war correspondent and documentary-maker, Berniáin was pursuing an interview with one of the FARC’s top leaders, a man known as Pastor Alape. Alape, the leader of the FARC’s Magdalena Medio region in a lush area of northeastern Colombia, looks the part of a Latin American revolutionary. He is bearded and often pictured wearing a black beret and fatigues.
Alape is also wanted by the U.S. government, which says he oversees all cocaine production in Magdalena Medio and provides billions of Colombian pesos each month to the group. The U.S. also accuses him of helping set policies that resulted in the murder of hundreds of people who disobeyed or interfered with the FARC’s rules, including ordering the killing of farmers who sold cocaine to rival guerrillas. The State Department has offered $2.5 million for information leading to his arrest.
During Beriáin’s first attempt to reach the FARC, his plans were scuttled as he neared a guerrilla base in the jungle. “I received a call saying that the man who was going to introduce me to the group had just been killed,” says Beriáin, in an interview with Global Journalist. “It delayed everything and made it much more complicated.”
Negotiating a second a trip was more complicated—and involved more than two and a half months of negotiations. Eventually the group allowed him to spend 10 days in the jungle at the Magdalena Medio command center. The trip from the capital Bogota took nearly a week, including trips by plane, boat, car and then a four-day walk through the jungle.
When he met Alape, an interview was arranged on a log bench, with about a dozen armed FARC guerrillas sitting nearby looking on. Beriáin wasn’t deterred. “Are you terrorists?” he asked, to begin the interview. He asked about the group’s involvement in drug-trafficking, its internal organization, its use of land mines, the future of the war and what might happen to the FARC’s hostages.
Of greater interest to Beriáin were his interviews with ordinary FARC members. He met one woman, named Yolima, who joined the group at age 13. When Yolima later learned she was pregnant: she was given two options, leave the group and raise the child or give the child up for adoption and stay with the FARC in the jungle. She chose the latter.
“I try to understand their position and figure out what drives them to do what they do deep inside their hearts,” says Beriáin. “I consider this the most important part of my job. If my perspective of what the FARC is hadn’t changed after hearing these stories…it would have been a waste of time spending ten days with them.”
A second soldier, a 25-year-old woman, told of witnessing her father be drawn and quartered by government forces when she was a child. “The members of the FARC talking about themselves and their past is what made me understand the emergence and endurance of the FARC,” says Beriáin. “Most of the members of the FARC are continuously exposed to a circle of violence. All the suffering they are making other people go through is usually something they themselves have already gone through.”
The danger for a reporter in spending significant time with people in armed conflicts is to become too close to them, Bernián says—to justify any atrocity they may commit. That’s especially true when living with your subjects in harsh conditions. Balancing the intimacy needed to gather rich detail about their lives with the objectivity to avoid being manipulated is difficult.
“I was conscious of who I was and of the subjectivity with which we regard the world,” he says. “There is no more dangerous prejudice than that we are not aware of. My perspective of the FARC changed during my ten days with them, so I waited before telling the world what they had told me. When I had some emotional distance, I knew I was ready to tell the world what I had experienced.”
Some things have changed since Berián’s visit to Pastor Alape six years ago. In 2010, after Mono Jojoy, another FARC military commander, was killed in a government airstrike, Alape was tapped to become part of the FARC’s Secretariat—the eight member body that runs the guerrilla group. The FARC and the government have also been in peace talks since 2012 in Cuba, following the election of President Juan Manuel Santos. The negotiations already yielded agreements on land reform, drug trafficking, the role of the FARC in politics, and the establishment of a truth commission to investigate killings. On June 15, Santos won a second four-year term after defeating opposition candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who had called for an end to peace talks.
Beriáin says he’s hoping the talks bear fruit. “I have hope that after so many decades of war Colombians will find an extra bit of the generosity that characterizes them to construct a long-lasting peace,” he says.