Vanity Fair article by Maureen Orth (Colombia) on Colombia’s most-feared female revolutionary

She was Colombia’s most-feared female revolutionary. Can she help it find peace?


As one of the few women FARC commanders, Elda Neyis Mosquera, also known as “Karina,” has confessed to a host of barbarous crimes—including forcing abortions on her own soldiers. Now that peace has broken out, she is helping to give voice to the history of entrenched sexual violence against women in the movement.

by Maureen Orth (Colombia 1964-66)
Vanity Fair
September 2018

Ex–guerrilla commander Elda Neyis Mosquera, known by her nom de guerre Karina, under house arrest at a 17th Brigade army base in northwestern Colombia.

Elda Neyis Mosquera

Her nom de guerre was Karina, but her given name—the name she goes by now—is Elda Neyis Mosquera. She was the youngest of five children born in northwestern Colombia to Jose Leopoldino Mosquera, a black man, and Flor Ester García, a white woman. Neither ever learned how to read. From the time she was five or six, she says, she woke at four o’clock each morning to sell arepas—corn tortillas—on the streets before school started. She also worked during lunchtime and before dinner, and paid for every notebook and pencil herself. “I dreamed of becoming a nurse or a baby-clothes manufacturer,” she says, but she was not allowed to go beyond the fifth grade. “My father said that, for being a mother and a housewife, one did not need to study.”

The Communists were the only political party active in Currulao, the remote village where Elda’s family lived, and at age 12 she joined the Communist Youth. A few years later, during a brief cease-fire with the government, Karina recalls, “the guerrillas showed themselves and would invite us to festivals and balls.” She was amazed by the abundance of food. “We were able to eat whatever we wanted.”

Elda was 16 when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—or FARC, based on its initials in Spanish—made its pitch. She was ready to trade in her ragged clothes and grueling schedule for a uniform and a rifle. “I wanted a life that did not require so much hard work,” she tells me. The FARC recruited at least 5,000 minors to join its ranks over the decades, many against their will. Elda was not forced to enlist. “But they did deceive us,” she says. “They told us if we wanted to change our lives, our country, and live well, we could join them.” She says 300 youths from her region signed up, including 40 girls. There was no turning back. Membership was for life, and the FARC would be her only family now. Following their custom, they gave her an official alias: “Karina.”

Her father begged her to stay, “but I was at the height of my rebellion.” She never forgot her father’s parting words: “If you must go, then be a good warrior.”

There could be no good warriors in the 53-year-long guerrilla war that raged between the FARC and the government of Colombia, and drew other guerrilla groups and paramilitaries into the carnage. The conflict claimed 267,000 lives, including thousands of children. It displaced more than seven million people and resulted in more than 36,000 kidnappings.

Then, in 2016, the FARC signed a peace deal with the Colombian government. It was over, at last. Or was it? Egged on by the controversial right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe, many Colombians believed that their government had caved to the FARC and papered over the true magnitude of its crimes—like those of Karina, who had quickly ascended to a leadership position thanks to her intelligence, obedience, and appetite for war. As the ruthless and audacious commander of the 47th Front—a rare, celebrated female field officer in a predominantly male army—she played an indisputable role in the brutal violence perpetrated by the FARC. She has been convicted of kidnapping, murder, terrorism, extortion, forced disappearances, and other crimes. She was rumored to have played soccer with victims’ heads, a charge she denies. At one point, the Colombian government offered $1 million to anyone who could bring her in, and the military spent two futile decades trying to capture her.

A Symbol of War

Karina’s acts of war earned her a reputation as a heartless butcher, but she now hopes to serve as a beacon of reconciliation.

But Karina has also become an important witness to crimes by the FARC against the women in its own ranks. Recently, a vocal faction of female ex-guerrillas have begun testifying to a litany of abuses—rapes, forced abortions, even the execution of women for sexual promiscuity—within an organization that prided itself on treating men and women equally. A group of former rank-and-file guerrillas calling themselves “Corporación Rosa Blanca” is now calling out the FARC for these offenses, and they plan to travel to Washington to file individual petitions with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Karina acknowledges forcing abortions on female subordinates, and says it took years of solitary self-reflection for her to even comprehend why she was being prosecuted for it. She had bought into the party line that the FARC was blind to gender. “When I was there, I did not see the difference,” she says. Her repentance may never be enough to satisfy those wronged by her actions, but she says she is determined now to tell the truth about what her fellow female warriors—and she herself—endured.

Karina, 51, lives under house arrest on an army base in the tropical banana-plantation country of northwestern Colombia, not far from where she grew up. She turned herself in to Colombian intelligence in 2008, and today, after a dramatic spiritual conversion and face-to-face encounters with her victims in transitional justice tribunals, she is virtually unrecognizable as the notorious woman whose power flowed from the barrel of a gun. “I became part of the war not because I wanted to harm people but because I was a victim of the state,” she tells me as we begin talking inside the bedroom of her tiny stucco house, the only room with two places to sit. “Unfortunately, I became an aggressor.”

In the 1960s, I traveled to Colombia as a Peace Corps volunteer and helped build the first school in a mountain community above Medellín that grew lilies and cultivated coffee. The residents called me Marina and surprised me by naming the school after me. I later established a foundation to aid schools in the region after a Colombian politician asked me to help create “zones of peace” for young people. Karina fascinated me because she had once roamed the same area—as a symbol of war.

In 2016, during one of my frequent trips for my foundation work, I saw residents of the town of El Carmen de Viboral, near Medellín, waiting to tell their stories of victimization by the FARC in hopes of being eligible for reparations promised by the newly minted peace accord. This April, I went back to hear firsthand the story of the notorious female commander who believes she still has a role to play in helping Colombia move beyond the violence of the past half-century—not just the violence committed by the FARC against its enemies, but the misogynistic violence within it.

In person, Karina exudes a soft-spoken calm that is startling in light of her history. The only sign of her violent past is her glass right eye, the result of a battle wound she sustained while leading an attack against the same army brigade that now serves as her friendly captors.

Her deepest scars are invisible. When she was 17, she says, the FARC tested Karina’s loyalty by ordering her to kill a close male friend with a machete and watch him bleed to death. She complied. “That marked my life forever,” she says. “He was a person I really cared for.”

As part of her training, the FARC sent Karina to a war college in the jungle, complete with a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary library and an auditorium for 300, where she first saw some of the top members of the all-male FARC Secretariat. She finished 10th in a class of approximately 150.

For the next decade and a half, Karina’s only home was on the rough ground or under a tarp. “By the end of the 90s, they told us, ‘If there is a soldier surrounded by 10 civilians you can kill him, because in war everything is possible.’ So to kill a soldier, we could kill 10 civilians.” In the territory she covered, the FARC survived by kidnapping and extorting cattle ranchers. Their chief adversaries, often hired by the ranchers, were the equally vicious right-wing paramilitaries—”a tough enemy,” as one U.S. intelligence expert described them to me. “That’s why she was so nasty.”

Karina disputes the popular characterization of her as a heartless butcher, but the longer she eluded capture, the more extreme the stories about her became. She says some of her crimes were orders handed down by the men who ranked above her. “I put it down to being a woman,” she says. “There were many actions ordered by other, male commanders that were also very cruel, but those commanders are never labeled ‘bloody.’” She accepts responsibility for a portion of this, but claims her reputation was inflated because the male army couldn’t catch her. “The military forces planned thousands of operations to eliminate me and they couldn’t,” she says. “When war is not won in battle, it can be won through propaganda.”

Three demobilized female guerrillas I interviewed who served under Karina admit she scared them at first. But over time they found her to be kind. “When we’d come down from the mountains and go into town, she’d buy things for us like barrettes for our hair and earrings,” a guerrilla with the alias “Viviana” tells me. Some fighters even called her La Cucha, or “Mommy.” Yet Viviana notes that Karina also “gave orders to kill and to abort. You follow orders and can’t ask why.” Another demobilized FARC woman, who served in Karina’s command and has since witnessed her in peace and reconciliation sessions in front of victims, says she has changed greatly: “Karina had a heart of stone; now it’s melted.”

In its 297-page peace accord with the government of former president Juan Manuel Santos, negotiated in Havana over five years, the FARC pledged to give up its arms in return for funding, re-integration training, and 10 guaranteed seats in Congress for the next two election cycles. (Colombia’s Senate has 108 seats and its House of Representatives has 172.) The government also agreed to pay coca farmers to plant substitute crops.

Not surprisingly, debate over the accord featured prominently in the recent presidential election, in which a right-wing former senator named Iván Duque handily defeated onetime Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, himself a former left-wing guerrilla. Now the whole country is waiting to see how far Duque, a protégé of Álvaro Uribe’s, will go to fulfill his campaign promises to alter the peace deal. Duque chose a woman, former defense minister Marta Lucía Ramírez, as his running mate, so Colombia now has its first female vice president. If women’s issues become a priority for his administration, that may add fuel to his critique of the FARC.

“Inside the FARC, people are taught that gender does not constitute a difference, that things men are capable of doing can also be done by women,” Karina says. “If a man was sent to combat, so was a woman. If a man had to carry 50 pounds on his shoulders, so did a woman. If a man was sent to work the land, so was a woman. There is no gender separation.” But there was a toxic double standard, especially when sex entered the equation. A man was envied for having many partners, but a woman could be put to death for having even two. I spoke to several women who participated in war councils convened to judge women accused of being relajada, or “relaxed”—the FARC’s euphemism for promiscuous. The penalty was execution.

Fighting while Female

FARC men and women were expected to perform all the same tasks, but the veneer of equality masked a system of misogynistic abuse that encompassed rapes, forced abortions, and the execution of women judged to be promiscuous.

Karina says she never participated in such trials but she certainly had heard of them: “There were many young women in other camps, who I knew, who were shot for bad behavior.” Viviana, for example, participated in one war council where she voted for three young women—two under the age of 18—to be executed. “They were charged with bringing instability and disease,” she tells me. “It was very hard to vote for this, but if I said, ‘No, I don’t agree,’ they would investigate me.” Another woman who voted in favor of executing two of her friends, who were just teenagers, tells me, “If we said anything, we’d also get killed.”

In Colombia, girls as young as 12 can marry with parental consent. Commanders frequently pressured or forced young women to sleep with them. Some women learned survival through seduction: sleeping with a commander was one way to avoid having to perform guard duty in the middle of the night. But most FARC women did not have control over their own bodies.

“Abortions for female guerrillas are FARC policy. Even if the guerrilla does not want to abort, she is forced to do it,” Karina testified after her demobilization. “The commander who does not uphold that rule is sanctioned as hard as the guerrilla herself.”

She had experienced this personally. When she was 22, enrolled in an intelligence course, Karina says, she began an affair with a fellow student and got pregnant. Karina kept her secret for almost five months before she informed her commanding officer. “I sent you to a commanders’ school, not a maternity school,” he said and ordered her to terminate the pregnancy. She refused.

As retribution, Karina was immediately relieved of her command and sent to another unit, on the front line. “They humiliated me many times there,” she later said. Her new commander told her, “We are not giving in to any of your food cravings.” At six months pregnant, she contracted malaria, ran high fevers—”I was all purple”—and could not stop shaking. She was saved by a FARC nurse who told her, “Either you’re going to die or your baby will die.” Only after the nurse warned the commander that Karina’s death would be on his watch did he finally relent. The male guerrilla who got Karina pregnant was allowed to borrow money to send her to his family’s home, where her malaria was treated and her healthy baby daughter, Eliana, was delivered. After 40 days, Karina was summoned back to the FARC; she left the child behind to be raised by her father’s family. In the 17 years that followed, she saw her daughter just 10 times.

The FARC today denies it ever had a policy of forced abortions. Victoria Sandino, a veteran FARC leader who was often the only woman on its negotiating team during peace talks, tells me that all female enlistees knew upon signing up that pregnancies were strictly forbidden. In the earlier days of the war, before the rule was implemented, “women would have babies all the time and end up marginalizing themselves,” Sandino says. “It was another reason why women could not reach equality and were not active in the decision-making processes of the organization and communities.” She also believes that “maternity and wars are not compatible. You risk not only the lives of women but of the children collectively.” Sandino herself is accused of ordering forced abortions, but she insists that female guerrillas who became pregnant had three choices: “They could interrupt the pregnancy voluntarily; number two, have the baby at home and return; or three, not return.”

Karina testified that she was trained by the FARC to administer Cytotec, a drug to induce miscarriages: “I had to treat three women guerrillas.” One woman turned out not to be pregnant but to be suffering from an ovarian cyst; she later died in combat. Another gave birth despite the drug, but lost her baby anyway. “Her daughter was born prematurely and later died,” Karina said. She admits she never questioned the FARC’s treatment of its women. It was taken for granted by both the FARC and the paramilitary leaders that “women don’t have a will of their own but follow the men,” says María Emma Wills Obregón, adviser to the director of Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory. “Women who transgressed were brutally and publicly punished.”

The FARC and others dismiss the Rosas Blancas as tools of Iván Duque, who campaigned on the issue of victims’ rights. Victoria Sandino calls the women “sad” and “manipulated.” In a tweet, the FARC declared: “We reject the media campaign that uses the topic of sexual violence against our male and female comrades as a battle horse to discredit us.” The Rosas Blancas, for their part, have filed detailed affidavits of their alleged abuse with the Colombian attorney general’s office. The most harrowing case I heard is that of 24-year-old Vanessa García, a demobilized guerrilla since 2014. She was only nine years old when the FARC kidnapped her from her third-grade class in Caquetá, a sparsely populated state in southern Colombia where the FARC functioned in lieu of the government. She tells me that at age 11, “as my body began to form,” she was raped repeatedly by Hernán Darío Velásquez, a.k.a. El Paisa, commander of the FARC’s elite Teófilo Forero Mobile Unit. He was around 40 years old at the time. According to a Colombian news report, El Paisa “is responsible for some of the most violent terrorist attacks ever committed by the FARC.” Vanessa says she first became pregnant by him at age 13. (Having demobilized under the peace accord, El Paisa has since withdrawn from the reconciliation process and returned to the jungle.)

Between the ages of 13 and 20, when Vanessa finally managed to escape, she claims, she was impregnated by El Paisa three times and was forced to abort all three pregnancies. “He took me with him when he had meetings out of the camp. That was when he abused me. Inside the camp he did not rape me. There were too many people in the camp who would have seen him.” At 15, Vanessa says, she was raped and impregnated by another top commander, alias “Pechiblanca.” She says El Paisa was enraged and punished Pechiblanca. Her eyes fill with tears as she adds that he forced her to abort pregnancies by two guerrilla boyfriends—one fetus was six months old, and Vanessa says the procedure involved “cutting the baby to pieces.” One of these boyfriends was killed when he was handed a grenade by a FARC commander—under orders of El Paisa, she claims. “Inside that grenade there was a smaller one. It was a trap. The intention was to get both of us killed.”

Vanessa now has two government bodyguards who shadow her wherever she goes. On her phone, she showed me some of the death threats she says she regularly receives on WhatsApp and Facebook. She believes they are from El Paisa, although his name does not appear on the accounts. “Wherever you hide I will find you. Take care of your family. You know what I am capable of,” one of them reads. Another says: “Wherever I find you, I will kill you.”

In 1998, when she was 30, Karina was gravely wounded while leading an attack on the Colombian army. A grenade exploded in front of her, and she lost her hearing, as well as the sight in her right eye. After eight days in a coma, she was dressed in civilian clothes and driven in a private car to Medellín for medical help. To get there, she had to pass through two military checkpoints. Amazingly, she made it through both of them using her old identity card with her real name. For some reason, the authorities were searching for her under a different name: Nelly. She was admitted to a large public hospital in Medellín and spent six months there, during which time the doctors managed to restore her hearing. “I said I was a housewife and my pressure cooker had exploded in the kitchen,” she says. “I wasn’t so well known then.” Although an aunt tried to dissuade her, there was never any question that she would return to the FARC.

Whatever anonymity Karina enjoyed disappeared after the election of President Álvaro Uribe, in 2002. Uribe, the hard-line former governor born to a ranching family in the heart of Karina’s theater of operations, adopted a take-no-prisoners approach toward the FARC. Exploiting the U.S.’s desire to stop drug trafficking, Uribe used billions of dollars in American aid to train and modernize Colombia’s intelligence, military, and police. With his policy of “Democratic Security,” he halted the FARC’s momentum. Capturing Karina became a symbolic crusade for Uribe, and he dedicated as many as 2,000 troops at a time to the search for her. He even accused her of killing his father.

There was good reason to link the war on drugs to the war against the FARC. By the early 2000s, the FARC was earning hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars each year from taxing the cocaine cartels and growers. Its battles with the paramilitaries, also major traffickers, now had less to do with ideology and more to do with who controlled which swaths of profitable drug territories. American and European demand for coke was and is so insatiable that the old-line Communists of the FARC were behaving much like the multi-national corporations they so often denounced. “FARC was one of the greatest predatory capitalist organizations in the world while running a Marxist insurgency,” says Dr. David E. Spencer, a military-defense consultant with a long history in Colombia.

Under pressure from Uribe, the FARC’s financially secure high commanders were now talking openly among themselves of winning the war politically. Karina’s rising public profile and devotion to the field of battle were becoming inconvenient to her superiors. In 2004, she was assigned to be the bodyguard of Ivan Ríos, a member of the FARC Secretariat who had arrived to oversee her camp. According to Karina, who had known Ríos since her earliest days with the organization, he spoke incessantly of putting a stop to the war to focus on politics. After one such public lecture, she blurted out: “Comrade, so I’ve lost 20 years being a guerrilla?”

Karina and Ríos’s relationship soured after an incident involving his “sentimental partner,” alias “Tatiana.” “She was not really a guerrilla but one of those women who joined and immediately put themselves at the side of a commander,” Karina tells me. One day, during an army attack, the camp had to separate into two groups. “His woman came with me and, while with me, she was killed,” Karina recalls. “When it happened, he said that Tatiana wasn’t the one who should have died—that it should have been me.”

Ríos decided that Karina’s presence was more trouble than it was worth. “No one wanted to be at my side because they were afraid of the constant attacks,” she remembers. “Commander Ríos told me to dig a tunnel where I could hide until Uribe got out of office. I would have had to stay there four or five years.” That was definitely not her plan. “I said, ‘No, you can kill me, but I’m not going to be buried. If [the army] is going to kill me, it will be on the ground, not below it.’”

For a second time, Karina was dismissed from command. So she set off on her own with a few fighters, constantly moving from place to place as the government continued to hunt her down. (Ríos was later killed by another of his bodyguards.)

Colonel Antonio Dangond is the commanding officer at the base of the 17th Brigade, where Karina is guarded during my visit by two white-gloved sentinels. He outlines for me the vast, three-year operation the military mounted against her with the assistance of the multi-billion-dollar U.S. aid program known as Plan Colombia: “We gradually started closing the perimeter. It was exhausting and required a lot of persistence, because we did not have her exact location. We knew she was in a specific area but that was it.” To close in, he adds, “we had to go through several battles with her security rings.”

Karina acknowledges that it was her boyfriend, alias “Michín,” who first gave her the idea to call her 17-year-old daughter. According to General Mario Montoya, the head of the Colombian army at the time, Michín had recently been captured by the Colombian army but told Karina he had managed to escape. What she did not know, Montoya adds, was that Michín had become a plant in exchange for a lighter sentence and benefits. “He gave us her daughter’s name, which allowed army intelligence to locate the daughter and convince her that the best thing would be for her mother to give herself up,” Montoya tells me. According to Colonel Dangond, “Those are military operations that we do frequently against what we call high-value targets. Getting close to a security ring of someone like her, a head of the organization, was not easy. You had to get her confidence to get close enough, with all the risks that represented.”

By 2007, Karina says, “the pressure grew every day and the people around me were already tired. They didn’t want to stay with me; I only had about 12 [soldiers] at the time.” The whole FARC was becoming weary, she says. “We were already very quiet. The FARC had lost its combative attitude.” Her daughter pointedly said they could not have a relationship as long as Karina remained at large. Nevertheless, she recalls, “I never wanted to give myself up to the army or to the police because I was very afraid they would kill me.” Michín tried for six months to persuade her to surrender. “He used to tell me that if I didn’t leave the group I would never see my daughter again. At some point I told him, ‘Well, for the love of my daughter and for you, I will leave the guerrillas.’”

Karina was adamant that she would not turn herself in to the army or the police. She tells me that she and Michín asked a friend to put them in touch with the Red Cross. Instead, Karina found herself talking to the head of DAS, then Colombia’s version of the C.I.A., “who originally tried to pass himself off as a lawyer,” she says. “He told me he would get some private helicopters to get us, but then said he hadn’t been able to find any and he would come with the army. I said no.” They then offered to bring her daughter, Eliana, to the rendezvous.

Karina was overjoyed at the thought of being re-united with her daughter, whom she hadn’t seen in five years. The two helicopters arrived, one to guard overhead, and as soon as Karina spotted Eliana, she grabbed her and began to sob. Mother and daughter clung to each other and cried for the duration of the 40-minute ride to Bogotá. It was May 2008, and Karina had no idea how her life would now unfold.

After a week, Karina wished she had never turned herself in. “I believed it would have been better to have been killed as a guerrilla,” she says. Her DAS “dungeon,” as she calls it, was a guarded room in the agency’s Bogotá headquarters with a TV that broadcast incessant news reports characterizing Karina as bloodthirsty and brutal. “I was that evil profile, the profile of someone who would never be forgiven by society,” she says. If she made any move, even just opening the door to the bathroom, she says, “the guards would get very nervous and take out their guns. They were afraid of my reputation.” To make matters worse, “the government attorney was accusing me, the investigators were accusing me—they were all interrogating me.”

A DAS employee she remembers only by his first name, Gilberto, took notice of Karina’s distress. He asked if he could speak with her. “He said he only wanted to bring me a message from God,” Karina recalls. She didn’t believe in God. As a guerrilla, “one is not allowed to believe in God.” Gilberto told her that God loved her, “that all of us in Christ love you. None of us judges you.” He read her the biblical passage 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone and the new is here.” The words gave her great solace. “In that moment I started thinking, O.K., things are not as I was thinking. In my mind I believed that no one in Colombia wanted me.” She broke down and cried. Gilberto told her, “Cry all you need.”

A few days later, Karina was moved to a jail cell at the attorney general’s headquarters, where a message was promptly slipped under her door: “Be careful or you may end up really bad. Find a good lawyer.” Karina assumed the worst: “They were going to kill me or indict me.” For the first time in her life, she knelt down to pray. The next day, during exercise in the prison yard, she struck up a conversation with a woman she believes was a government lawyer. Karina confided that she didn’t have a single peso to pay a lawyer and said she had been told that the public defenders might not be of much help. “Pray,” the woman told her, “and hope a solution will come.” The day after that, under a plate on her food tray, she found a card with a lawyer’s number. “The card said he would accompany me throughout the process. I knelt down again and thanked God.”

Karina says the isolation of jail was a blessing: “I learned how to be alone. When you are alone you have the opportunity to think and to read.” She also wrote a six-page letter to President Uribe explaining that she did not kill his father. “I was still at my home” when he was murdered, she remembers writing the president. “I was 14 years old.” She also told Uribe that she had read in an unauthorized biography about his alleged ties to both the drug cartels and the paramilitaries, but “in this new life of mine and learning about God, one cannot judge people.” She knew this, she informed the president, “because they say a lot of things about me that I know are not true.”

Uribe did not respond directly. Not long after, however, Karina was invited to work for the government as a special peace advocate against the FARC. She says her job was to spread the message that violence was not the way to solve socio-economic issues. A representative from the Ministry of Justice brought her the official invitation, and she says he told her, “This is the president’s response to your letter.”

So began Karina’s stint as Colombia’s Tokyo Rose, the English-speaking propagandist of World War II who implored Allied troops in the South Pacific to surrender to the Japanese. For four or five years, while Karina languished in jail, her voice was blasted from “air megaphones” mounted on helicopters flying low over the jungle canopy where FARC militants were believed to be hiding. She implored the guerrillas to lay down their weapons and promised that, if they demobilized, the army would not kill them. Her voice was also widely broadcast on the radio—still the most popular form of communication in many parts of Colombia.

Colonel Dangond told me that Karina’s efforts “generated a very positive effect.” He claims that she saved lives by spurring FARC desertions and says that “within the civilian population her work helped prevent the illegal recruitment of minors.” The FARC’s reaction was no surprise. They put a price on Karina’s head and branded her a sapo—a traitor who should be shot on sight.

Today, Karina’s life is a waiting game. She has served the maximum eight years called for under her demobilization and the government cleared her for release last October, but it has not let her go, according to General Montoya, for fear that she’d be a walking target, especially for the FARC. “She gave us so much,” he says.

Karina mentions that she and a prominent former paramilitary leader have discussed teaming up to become models of forgiveness and cooperation. Yet “right now I do not have the government’s support and have never had it.”

Prosecutors who have seen Karina face her victims and their families countless times in court over the years believe her repentance is genuine, but many Colombians still despise the FARC. Although violence in Colombia has fallen dramatically since the peace deal, the accord remains unpopular in parts of this intensely polarized country. Perhaps its most hated provision is the one guaranteeing the FARC 10 seats in Congress, even though the party received less than 0.3 percent of the vote in last March’s congressional elections. Virtually all of those with guaranteed seats have been accused of war crimes, but the system to try them has been delayed in Congress and tied up in red tape.

Meanwhile, Colombia has more acres of coca under cultivation than at any time in the last two decades. And excess acreage is just what the FARC’s 1,500 dissidents want. They refuse to give up their arms and many are thought to be back in the drug business. Growers, meanwhile, have been eagerly planting coca so they can collect crop-substitution subsidies.

As high-status FARC members take their seats in Congress, the rank and file are struggling. Plans to look after demobilized guerrillas in “zones of concentration” are falling apart owing to government ineptitude. Shockingly, more than 120 activists working to help administer programs such as crop substitution have been murdered this year.

“I know the Colombian people need a country in peace,” Karina says. “But the government did not need to give them 10 seats in Congress right away. The FARC should have had to win their seats.” She also objects to the occupants of those seats, who have yet to face any truth and reconciliation. “The same old people have always wanted the power. They had all the power inside the FARC, and they want the same here.” Karina believes the FARC is still hiding substantial amounts of money from the authorities, though the group denies it, and she feels that its leaders have profited off the suffering of their followers. “While they are well off, those below them are in terrible conditions,” she says. If the FARC’s objective really was to create a more egalitarian society, it failed: 55 years later, Colombia remains one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Having been a national symbol of fear and hatred, Karina says she would welcome the chance to serve as a beacon of reconciliation. “My plan is to get out and keep working for the communities, especially for those victims of the war who were directly or indirectly victims of mine,” she says. “I am truly repentant for what I did.”

Although she speaks to her daughter and other relatives regularly on the phone, it is difficult to form real ties after being cut off for so long, first in the jungle and then in jail. What Karina most longs for today is to be part of a real family. “The only thing I want to do is get out of here and live a tranquil life,” she says. “A life reconciled with God and the victims.” But before Elda can get her wish, Colombia must decide whether it can forgive Karina.

Maureen Orth (Colombia 1964-66) has been a special correspondent for Vanity Fair since 1993.

Photos for article by Juan Arredondo





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  • Thank you, Maureen Orth, for this incredibly important reporting. Thank you , John, for posting it here.

    Colombia is a beautiful country and the people I knew were brave and resourceful and very intelligent. I pray that Colombia can reconcile all the injustices and violence of the past and become peaceful and just.

    Joanne Roll Colombia XI

  • An excellent description of the complexity of Colombian history its social fabric. When I worked there I asked a Colombian friend what was behind the propensity for vengeance and violence and he handed me a series of articles about “La Violencia” in which several hundred thousand Colombians lost their lives. This article updates that story with the ongoing civil war which will hopefully be coming to a close with some reconciliation.

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