In the depths of the Colombian jungle: An encounter with the ELN

Brasil de Fato’s Vivian Fernandes recently travelled through the province of Choco, one of the bases of the guerrilla group, ELN. In the first of a series of articles, she narrates the experience of first meeting the guerilla fighters, and provides insights into their lives

December 10, 2018 by Vivian Fernandes
In the depths of the Colombian jungle: An encounter with the ELN

Fearful of forgetting my own name, I chose Maria. Once the plane landed in Cali, in the department of Valle del Cauca, Colombia, that would be my name. Phones off. From there on, I would only have my own memory and a notebook to register everything.

Along with my new name, I had to memorize the new names of my comrades accompanying me on the trip. I repeated them in my head, obsessively, while I looked at their faces. I didn’t want to be the one who messed up the plan.

When we landed, a woman greeted us with a smile. She and the man with her introduced themselves. I was sure that she wasn’t Yaneth, just as I wasn’t Maria either. But her smile, along with her hug, created a bond. It felt like she was a family member, maybe my aunt.

In a white truck, we drove through the streets of Cali, in middle class and upper middle class neighborhoods. As we passed each neighborhood, Yaneth told us about the drinks and food of this region of Colombia.

After half an hour, Yaneth and the driver said goodbye, and another man took the wheel. This time, we were on a zig-zagging highway for several hours. Our bodies kept lurching due to the speed and I felt like we were flying but when I looked at the panel of the car, the needle of the speedometer did not move.

By looking at signs on the highway, I tried to understand where we were going. I had looked at the map of Cali the day before, but now, all I knew was that we were headed towards the Pacific.

After travelling hundreds of kilometers, we arrived at a small house. A few blocks later, we got out of the truck. The curves on the road had left me nauseous and I was glad I hadn’t eaten any breakfast. But we had completed only the first stage of our journey. The next part was by boat.

A young woman with a piercing on her lip seemed to be our tour guide. She asked if we wanted juice, yogurt, or something to eat. We were all fine. We got into the boat, which was already full of passengers and baggage and sat on a couple of wooden benches.

A lot of people smiled at us. There are few times when I had felt so lost and yet, so safe. I didn’t feel the need to ask anyone anything, just follow the instructions and go along.

I felt the wind blow strongly on my face and hair and I could already feel the humidity on my skin. Around us, the vegetation was lush.

Those on the boat and on the banks of the river were mostly indigenous and Black people. There were almost no white people, except us, clearly standing out as foreigners.

We saw many houses on stilts on the banks. We passed by canoes, steered by children, men, women and old people, many of whom were accompanied by dogs. I couldn’t take my eyes off everything around me, until I fell asleep to the rocking of the boat.

We arrived at what we thought was our destination and got off the boat. An almost ghost-town welcomed us, but since it was lunch-time, I thought the inhabitants must be eating or sleeping the siesta since the heat was so intense.

“What size shoe are you?” As they handed over black rain boots with a heel, designed for work in the countryside, I understood that my sneakers would not be enough to continue the journey.

I thought we were going to travel a long distance by foot, but we got on to another boat, this time much smaller. We began to bond, with everyone introducing themselves and getting to know each other’s identity of the moment.

I felt my anxiety increasing, so I tried to relax myself by looking at the area around us, until a fast boat appeared with youth dressed in military garb, with guns and red and black patches with the letters ELN tied to their arms.

At that moment, I looked at Gustavo and Jorge and the others, and we laughed. We always knew it, but we never had said it, and now it was happening: we were in the territory of the National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest active guerrilla group in Latin America, formed in 1964.

I asked one of my companions if we were still in Valle del Cauca. He explained that we had already entered the Colombian department of Chocó. And a few kilometers ahead was where Panama began.

Some minutes later, the motor of the boat was turned off and we began to dock at a house. I looked up. An indigenous youth with a modern haircut, a military uniform with ELN identification and a rifle in this hand looked us over. Santiago commented smiling: “Some years ago, this haircut was not allowed.”

We got off the boat, walked up a small hill and we were invited to enter a house where an older couple lived with their small grandson and some other children.

After a few more handshakes and smiles, we were once again back on the boat. The diverse modes of transportation seemed to be in order to confuse us but mostly to leave as few trails as possible.

A bit further ahead, we got down at another dock. There, a tall man greeted us. He was clad in a military uniform and standing next to a black and red flag of the ELN. He introduced himself as Commander Uriel.

Dozens of men and women, most of them young, their rifles close to their bodies, welcomed us. One by one, I shook hands with each of them, saying, “Nice to meet you, I’m Maria”. It seemed like my new personality was taking over.

They welcomed us with two glasses of oatmeal juice and an invitation to bring some plastic chairs over to form a circle. These circles of dialogue in the midst of the guns was a scene that would be repeated over the next few days.

We all introduced ourselves. There was me, Maria, from Brazil, along with the comrades from Argentina accompanying me, and them – all members of the guerrilla movement from across Colombia. Black people, Indigenous people, white people, faces from the neighboring regions and from other departments of the country.

My intention was to get to know more about the ELN and to conduct interviews – that is how I introduced myself. Then, they took me to speak to Lucía, a beautiful, intelligent young woman, who sounded like she hailed from an urban region but had chosen the countryside, the guerrilla movement, as the space of her militancy.

The two of us began to talk, with me having just a notebook. She explained where we were: The Western War Front of the ELN –Omar Gómez.

We are in Chocó

The department of Chocó is in the western part of Colombia, and borders both the Pacific Ocean and the Carribean Sea. The San Juan River runs through it. It is the most impoverished region of Colombia and its population is mostly made up of Black and Indigenous communities.

With a little more than 500,000 inhabitants, 82% of the population of Chocó is Afro-Colombian, and 9 out of every 10 people are black, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE).

According to the governmental body, in its last study, of 2011, Chocó emerged as the Colombian department with the highest index of Unmet Basic Needs, affecting 79.19% of its population compared to 27.78% on a national level. Within this definition of people who are considered poor, the index of misery is at 32.24%.

Another study from the Ombudsman Office, from the year 2018, titled “Humanitarian Crisis in Chocó”, points to grave problems of child malnutrition, public insalubrity, lack of medical attention, precarity in the coverage and in the quality of education and the impact on the ecosystem.

The document also highlights that children, adolescents, women and old people, as well as the Black and Indigenous communities, and people in prison, are in situations of vulnerability. “Chocó continues to be one of the places in the country where the effective guarantee of human rights of the population is the most limited.”

Anyone who has gone to the bay of the San Juan River would testify to the accuracy of this data and these were some of the aspects highlighted by Lucía in our conversation.

She stressed on the fact that the department of Chocó, despite everything, is rich, with a great amount of natural elements in its territory: gold, silver, forests with timber, petroleum, in addition to a great number of rivers and access to two oceans. That is where the interests of the Colombian state and the national and transnational companies are, she explained.

“Where the transnational companies operate, is where the State is,” Lucía declared, listing out a series of mining projects and transportation infrastructure projects that are already up and running or predicted to be implemented in the region, like those that connect Colombia with Panama.

Due to this region being a base for business interests, she said, the people were constantly being deceived into leaving their territory, or worse, forced to abandon it because of violence, in what is being called ‘displacement.’

In addition to the actions of the Colombian Army, Lucía also mentioned the role of the paramilitaries, who also dominate narcotrafficking and control the drug routes towards Central America through the Pacific region of Colombia.

As far as the regional institutional policy and governance were concerned, she said, “It doesn’t matter what party they are from, money is what moves them,” pointing out that she thought Chocó to be the department “where there is the most corruption in the country.” She said for her, it was generally the conservative sector that governs.

And what of the ELN in this context? Lucía explained that the actions of the guerrilla movement were a factor of resistance against the advance of the multinationals and their exploitation of the population and of nature. This disturbs the Colombian State, which enters in the conflict by deploying the Army.

Lucía also said that the ELN was present in almost all the 30 municipalities of Chocó. The guerrilla movement focuses on political education and the organization of the communities, in addition to the armed movement. The guerrilla group also coordinates with civil society organizations, as well as  sectors of the Catholic Church that espouse Liberation Theology.

As for the financing of the guerrilla group, Lucía said the movement charged “taxes on economic activities. For example, a tax for those who buy and transport products like wood, mining and coca leaves; but never on those who produces, because that does not make any sense.” She added that they were there to defend the communities and work with them.

The war in communication

Within the guerrilla movement, photos and videos are only allowed in certain situations, and that with the faces of their members covered. From the visitors, they expect respect and understanding of the security protocols that they have established.

Gustavo and Jorge took photos and recorded videos with the guerrilla fighters posing and simulating activities of training and combat.

Na imensidão da guerrilha do ELN

From mid 2017, The Western War Front of the ELN –Omar Gómez decided to pursue a new strategy of action, in communication. They opened accounts on social media and also their own blog, through which they sought to establish direct dialogue with the Colombian population and the rest of the world.

Through communiques, photos of activities with the communities and graphic art with historic dates, messages of struggle and denouncements, they post messages with frequency, directly from the guerrilla movement and with a “guerrilla aesthetic” that they defend in their productions.

For instance, the alias, Commander Uriel, has pages and profiles on Twitter, on Instagram, on Vimeo and a blog, in addition to the official website of ELN. Lucía explained that they calculated that it was important to personify some of the pages to show that there were people and individuals building the guerrilla movement in order to help people identify with the movement.

They tried to create other pages on Facebook and on Youtube, but “five minutes after they were created, the accounts were erased, with no explanation,” she said.

Despite its low reach, the accounts are also an attempt at communicating with people who are far away from the guerrilla actions. They also have a WhatsApp number and an e-mail for Commander Uriel which are direct channels of conversation for those interested in learning more about this war front.

It is through WhatAapp that the guerrillas promote a cycle of debates and study with those who are interested, with constant dispatches of educational texts, in what they call Virtual Collectives of Study and Work. In addition to the texts, they encourage the people involved to spread this information and the images to show support to the ELN on these social platforms.

Through this first educational contact, they hope, in the future, to bring the supporters to visit the guerrilla territories. And it is not just Colombians who seek to contact the guerrillas, according to them; there are many foreigners too.

There has already been greater flexibility so that national and foreign journalists can visit the guerrilla camps. Around 20 media outlets have visited various war fronts of the ELN in recent times.

Not all who wish to meet the guerrilla movement get to do so though. There is initially a long process of dialogue and evaluation of the intention and editorial  line of each agency before the actual meeting takes place. A minimum degree of trust is essential, also for questions that are answered by email and sending videos.

When asked about the evaluation of this press coverage, the members of the movement said that they were honest in general, and while they did not support the movement, they did not try to defame them either. However, there have also been cases of “manipulation of the interviews, cutting the declarations and giving a different meaning to what was said,” Lucía added. However, this is a risk they are willing to take, among many others.

Many in the encampment have phones and once in a while, can be seen taking photos or maybe just staring at the screen. For the management of their social media, they use different phones, according to them, which they change constantly and keep connected only in certain situations. Those who have computers do the majority of their work offline, and connect to the internet only at the time of sending and receiving information.

A number of houses have television sets, along with satellite transmission. It is in one of these houses that we take shelter at night, often watching the news programs of hegemonic channels from various countries, such as the National News show of Rede Globo (the Brazilian media conglomerate).

While watching these shows, one could say that of every 10 news items, seven are about issues related to the guerrillas or the peace talks, whether it be with the ELN or the agreements with the erstwhile Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), currently the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force party.

Guerrilla youth

Without a watch, with our phones turned off and amid so many conversations, one does not feel the time pass. We had lunch and dinner on the same plate in one of the houses which welcomed us. The meals consisted of rice and chicken, which is the basis of the local diet. Then, we watched the sunset.

When darkness comes, it is time to prepare for the end of the day, at least for us. Meanwhile, the nighttime watch is organized. The young guerrilla fighters run around with their flashlights, take their backpacks, rifles, stack the chairs and finish washing the plates, silverware and cups in the stream of the river since there are no sinks, taps, showers or even toilets in the houses.

In order to go to the place where we would go to sleep, it was necessary to take a narrow canoe. Only two people could occupy a seat and the boat had a very small motor that was not very loud. We quietly went to the boat, which soon set off which was when we faced our biggest challenge.

Suddenly, the motor stopped. The guerrillas accompanying us proceeded to check the problem with only a small flashlight for illumination. With every step they took, the boat rocked to one side, and we had to balance the weight to the other side. It was an almost intuitive process, since we could not speak or make any noise.

Finally, the motor burst into life, disrupting the silence of the night in that humid forest. Now with the wind hitting our face again, I could observe the majestic starry sky and the contours of the shadows of the vegetation. Suddenly, Venus appeared at my side, a dog slightly dirty from all of the mud, and one of the beloved animals of the guerrilla front. Venus apparently always sits on the seats in the front of the boat, taking in the nighttime breeze.

Again, I was taken over by tranquility, and perhaps the innocence of someone who does not know the dangers of being in a zone of an armed conflict. It was no longer strange to be among youth in military uniform, with rifles in their hand and red and black patches on their arms.

Brasil de Fato || Report: Vivian Fernandes || Editing: Luiza Mançano || Photos and videos: Gustavo Jorge and || Graphic Arts: Lucas Milagres and Fernando Bertolo

(English translations by Peoples Dispatch)

English Translation: Zoe PC || Editing: Prasanth R || Image Editing: Sumit Kumar