From Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, by Alma Guillermoprieto (Vintage, 2001), pp. 33-35:
[Rosa’s] family was well off by the standards of the provincial backwater she was brought up in, but her father, a devout Catholic, had strong sympathy for the labor movement. One of her first memories is of learning the songs of the Fifth Regiment of the Spanish Republican Army from activist priests who taught at her school. They told her about Dolores Ibarruri, “La Pasionaria,” the Basque miner’s daughter who during the Civil War exhorted the Republican troops to fight for liberty and face down death. Rosa was barely a teenager when she took to singing the Civil War hymns herself, to cheer on workers during strikes. At university, swept up in the radical fervor of the times, Rosa and her friends were soon helping campesino organizations coordinate invasions of privately owned ranches, set up roadblocks, and stockpile whatever weapons they could find for the coming revolution.
Although the FARC already existed, it was seen by many as old hat and insufficiently idealistic, and new guerrilla groups, and what used to be called “preparty formations,” multiplied. The Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN, as well as the Quintín Lame, an armed Indian rights group; the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores; the M-19—all came into being. By the late seventies Rosa was closely identified with another of the groups to emerge from the university crucible, the Ejército Popular de Liberación, or EPL. The group was strong in the area of Cordoba, where in those days the population was fairly clearly divided between poor campesinos and the people with money who owned cattle ranches and farms where bananas and oil palms were grown.
How Rosa’s destiny took her from the EPL to the heart of paramilitary power is, in her telling, a long, breathtaking, and not always reliable story, but she is only one of many defectors from the fanatic left to join the ranks of the murderous right. The autodefensas claim that fully one-third of their troops are former guerrillas, and even if one disputes the figures, there is no doubting the general trend. Rosa’s life, however, is unusual even in Colombia, where reality always seems to flow out of someone’s dream, or nightmare.
The first thing that bothered Rosa about her leftist associates was what one might describe as their impact on the political ecology of the departamento of Córdoba. At the height of the revolutionary ferment, there were six different guerrilla organizations prowling around the hills in Rosa’s region, each one demanding that the campesinos pay “taxes” to finance their coming liberation. “If a campesino had five cows, he had to give up one,” Rosa says. “The guerrillas were eating up all the money from the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. They were hijacking mules. They were emptying out the community stores.”
None of these organizations, however, was capable of defending the campesinos when the ranchers—including many drug traffickers turned aspiring landed gentry—began organizing assassination squads to deal with guerrilla collaborators. “Those people were terrible masacradores,” Rosa says. “The rank and file were ranch guards, ranchers, drug traffickers, and everything you’ve heard about the [murders committed with] chainsaws, axes, and machetes is true.” Although the guerrillas could not defeat the paramilitary squads, they did rather well when it came to turning on each other. One guerrilla group, the ELN, tried to dispute the EPL’s local hegemony, Rosa recalls. “The ELN wanted to rule,” she says. “And they killed whoever didn’t obey.”
One day the campesinos decided they’d had enough of multiple taxes and the conflicting, deadly demands on their political loyalties. The first one to rebel was a fisherman who turned on an ELN patrol that had approached him for money. In Rosa’s description, the fisherman hacked a young man and a young woman guerrilla to death. “Campesinos don’t know how to kill,” Rosa observes dryly, having dwelt on the scene in some detail. “And when someone kills who doesn’t know how to do it, he kills monstrously.”
As for her own apostasy from the revolutionary cause, Rosa says it took place sometime after she was kidnapped in 1991 by one of the leaders of the antiguerrilla squads, the paramilitares. She had already decided by then that her commitment was to the campesinos and not the guerrillas, she says. Then came the kidnapping. She was abducted, she told me, after participating in a land invasion of a ranch owned by a well-known paramilitar. Her captors took her to a camp where “a fat man” was put in charge of torturing her to get information about the guerrillas. He broke off her teeth with pliers. (She paused in her narrative to show me that all her upper teeth had caps.) She was tied down while the fat man jumped on her stomach. She was forced to stand, bleeding, through the rest of the night, wondering when her execution would take place. At dawn, she was told to start walking. The bullet in the back she was expecting never came (“maybe because I never gave them the information they wanted, and they got tired of torturing me”). She kept walking and eventually found her way to her parents’ house.
The lesson she appears to have drawn from this episode is not what one would expect. “After that time,” Rosa explains, she and her kidnapper respected each other. “Me on this side, you on that one, we both agreed.” “It’s funny how life is,” she said, in conclusion to her narrative. “Because the guy who ordered the fat man to torture me and I are now pretty good friends.” Presumably, this is because a few months after her abduction she crossed over to her enemy’s side.
By then, Rosa says, a majority of the guerrilla group she was involved with, the EPL, had decided that a revolutionary war could not successfully be fought in Colombia, and had turned their weapons in, changing their organization’s name, but not its initials, to Esperanza, Paz y Libertad (Hope, Peace, and Liberty). Peace was not forthcoming, however, because the FARC guerrillas soon appeared with their own guns and tried to establish control in the void they perceived had been created by the despised pacifists. The FARC began executing former EPL guerrillas. The survivors and their campesino supporters felt they had no option except to join forces with the right-wing paramilitary leaders who had tortured Rosa and murdered many other comrades.
This dispatch was dated April 13, 2000.