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Friday, 4 January, 2002, 12:45 GMT
Colombia's female fighting force
Female FARC guerrilla
Women account for 30% of the guerrilla army
By Jeremy McDermott in El Caguan

Adriana is 17 years old. She joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), when she was 13 and killed her first man at 14.

"We attacked a police station, Adriana said looking down as she recalled her first taste of combat. "I just kept firing at the police station whilst other moved in. I lost some good friends that day."

Up to 30% of Colombia's most powerful guerrilla army is female. Women fight alongside the men and endure the same hardships as them.

Women are not treated differently, we do not cut them any slack ... They march with the men and they fight just the same

Mariana Paez, FARC Commandante
The FARC control more than 40% of the country and almost every week some isolated police station or security force base is attacked by guerrilla columns, hundreds strong.

Without the women the FARC would not be able to maintain such territorial domination or mount such frequent operations.

And while the FARC seven-man secretariat is just that - all men - women are making their way up the guerrilla ranks, and several now hold the coveted title of Commandante.

One such woman is Mariana Paez, 38. She has spent more than 11 years in the rebel ranks and now is on the FARC team involved in the peace process.

'No machismo'

She said the FARC was blazing a new trail in Colombia on the treatment of women.

"In the FARC, there is no machismo, as a policy," she said. "Yes there are macho men in the FARC, because let's face it, this is a macho culture.

FARC guerrilla
Women train and fight alongside the men
"But such is the discipline in the FARC, that we are erasing these tendencies."

At first sight the women appear the same as the men. Both carry AK-47 assault rifles with the obligatory machete hanging on their hips.

"Women are not treated differently, we do not cut them any slack during training or operations," said Mariana.

"They march with the men, they carry their equipment and they fight just the same," she added as she sat in the sun outside the negotiating centre in the south of Colombia, in a 16,000 square mile zone granted to the FARC for peace talks.

Despite the rough living conditions in the jungles, many of the guerrillas girls wore make up

But peace talks are frozen and the dense jungles of this safe haven are riddled with FARC camps, where guerrilla live, train and plan their next operations.

Visiting these camps the practice seemed to contradict the theory as far as women are concerned.

In the field kitchens it was the girls that were peeling the potatoes and preparing the lunch. It was the girls who served the meal and then cleared up after it.

Despite the rough living conditions in the jungles of southern Colombia, many of the guerrillas girls wore make up, had colourful hair bands and exotically painted nails.

Yet they receive no regular salary and few have the chance to go into towns to buy such luxuries as cosmetics.

Rules on relationships

Many armies around the world have, or are, considering putting women in the front line, but wrestle with how they can regulate relationships between the sexes in the close confines of operations.

The FARC have set up a complex set of rules governing sexual relations. They are permitted, but no lasting attachments are encouraged and pregnancy is forbidden.

FARC couple
Strict rules govern relationships within the ranks
"In the first place girls have to ask permission before they embark on a relationship. There can be no secrets and if discovered these are punished," said Mariana Paez.

"Secondly there is no contract of any kind and if the commander tells her to leave her boyfriend then so be it. While they are together they may bunk down in the same place, but at no time must the relationship interfere with work."

But there is discrimination within this policy.

While male guerrillas may form relationships outside the rebel ranks, the females may only date men within the organisation. But Adriana said that women are protected from abuse within the FARC.

"They can't abuse the women because if they mistreat a women and she reports them to the commander, he has to go in front of a war council," she said. "If the war council finds a man guilty of rape, for example, he is executed."

It is not written anywhere that we cannot have kids ... [but] it is very difficult to be a revolutionary and be a mother

Mariana Paez
Contraception is obligatory, no matter how young the guerrilla girl.

"Well it is not written anywhere that we cannot have kids, but there is an obligation to plan against such, " said Mariana.

"It is understood that we are professional revolutionaries. Now while that might not be stated when you join, slowly that is made clear to you, as it is very difficult to be a revolutionary and be a mother."

Intelligence role

Women are being used not just in the front line of battle but increasingly in intelligence gathering. In July, the elite FARC column Teofilo Forero staged an audacious mass kidnapping operation.

Colombian government soldiers
The civil war kills more than 3,000 people every year
In the southern city of Neiva, not far from the guerrilla safe haven there is one luxury tower block of apartments, where the city's rich live.

Guerrillas disguised as policemen took over the building, blowing armoured doors of their hinges and kidnapping 15 people.

The operation had been planned long in advance and the information about how to get in and who to take had been painstakingly gathered by FARC women, who had infiltrated the building as maids.

Adriana was asked why the FARC recruit girls and why do they recruit them so young?

She looked puzzled and said she didn't know. But then she unwittingly answered the question as she rambled on about her experiences:

"There were not that many young boys left in our village, so they asked the girls. I went because I was bored at home and thought that life with the guerrillas would be an adventure. At 13 I did not know what I wanted to do, I did not realise that I could study like I am now."

FARC guerrilla
The FARC represents an exciting life for many young people
But Adriana is not speaking from a FARC jungle camp.

The FARC now want to kill her, as she has done the unthinkable - she has deserted from the guerrillas and turned herself in to the authorities.

Now she is in a special rehabilitation house for minors and she is trying to unlearn how to kill, and to learn how to live in a city and a democracy.

She can never go home again as her family live in FARC-controlled territory, where her former employers are waiting.

See also:

22 Dec 01 | Americas
Colombia resumes rebel dialogue
17 Dec 01 | Americas
Colombia rebels in Christmas truce
16 Nov 00 | Americas
Colombia's peace laboratory
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