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Colombia: captured rebels

22-12-2010 Article

Colombia’s prisons hold thousands of captured rebels. Their stories reflect the cruelty of the country’s armed conflict and bear witness to many broken lives. Marta Ruiz visited two of these prisons for the ICRC.


El Buen Pastor Prison, Bogotá. Karina (22) comes from Ecuador and joined the Farc when she was 17. In January 2010 she lost an arm to shelling. She is looking forward to rejoining her family when she gets out of prison.
© Semana / Guillermo Torres

“First there was a deafening blast and I thought the world had come to an end,” said Karina. “Then the sky lit up all around me and seconds later I felt a razor-sharp pain in my arm. When I looked down, I saw that my arm was dangling from my body by a strip of flesh. Instinctively, I grabbed a piece of cloth and tied it around the wound to avoid bleeding to death.” In the early hours of that ill-fated morning of 19 January 2010, Karina, ill with hepatitis, was asleep in a hammock. Still dazed, she realized that the area she was in had been bombed.

Raising herself up from the hammock, she tried to run. But somehow she could not move or even feel her legs. She sank back down, resigned to die at the age of 22 in the forests of Putumayo.

When she was found by her sworn enemy, she was shivering with cold and rapidly losing blood. She watched as a soldier from the Colombian armed forces approached her cautiously. Feeling like a cornered animal, she waited for him to finish her off. She no longer had the will or the strength to fight. Barely conscious, she realized that the soldier was tending her wounds and trying to warm her up while awaiting a helicopter to evacuate her. She is now a prisoner, and severely disabled.

A few months ago Karina arrived in a wheelchair at the Buen Pastor prison in Bogotá in a state of deep depression. She has gradually started to come out of her depression thanks to the support of her fellow inmates and the solidarity of some of the prison guards. “I have been able to cope with the loss of my arm,” she said. "But being paralyzed from the waist down is very hard,” she said. She is now walking again, but with great difficulty.


This woman was a nurse with the Farc for ten years. She had to learn all sorts of skills, including surgery in makeshift field hospitals. Then, last year, she almost lost a foot in combat.
© Semana / Guillermo Torres

As soon as she was hospitalized, ICRC staff offered to search for her family, wherever they might be. Finding relatives of captured combatants, many of whom have lost all contact with their families, is a humanitarian task that the ICRC carries out in conflicts around the world. The ICRC also covers travel expenses for relatives who live far away and cannot afford the journey. Karina receives very few visits: only her brother comes now and again.

Karina shares her cell with another prisoner in what is know as the “political wing.” All the inmates here were rebels, a fact that is hard to take in when one sees the stuffed animals, embroidered coverlets, knitting needles, bright make-up and Afro-Caribbean or romantic music with which they surround themselves. The cell doors stay open all day, and children can be seen running up and down the prison corridors.

Years behind bars

Three hours away, in the cold and stark maximum-security prison of Cómbita, two hundred guerrillas are serving sentences for brutal crimes. Almost all of them speak of “the revolution” as if it were still ongoing and they are convinced that armed conflict is “the only choice” left to them.

When ICRC delegate Laurence Meylan arrives, all the inmates want to speak to her about their families and their conditions of detention. “I don't look at the crime, I look at the person. Each individual has a different story," said the Swiss woman who, in addition to listening to the inmates, brings them books and makes sure that they are treated with dignity. The conditions in Cómbita are satisfactory but this is not true in many other prisons in the country. Ms Meylan is often the only person from the outside that the inmates have an opportunity to speak to. Family visits are limited to a few hours once a fortnight and many inmates would rather spare their relatives the expense and risks of the journey.   

The undisputed leader of the prison’s “political wing” is Wílmar Antonio, better known as "Hugo," a farmer from Tame, Arauca, who joined the rebels as a child. He had spent less than three months in his village school, so the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) taught him to read and write and initiated him in Marxist-Bolivarian thinking. He accepts the fact that he will likely spend the rest of his life in prison and considers that all rebels should be prepared for this fate. The only crime he has confessed to is that of being a rebel.  


Cómbita. Five of the approximately 200 guerrillas held in this prison. All are serving long sentences for crimes against humanity. According to them, they will only be released if there is a humanitarian exchange of detainees or a political agreement.
© Semana / Guillermo Torres

A few years ago, Hugo escaped from La Picota. When he was recaptured, he went through the worst time of his life. He was held for 22 months in solitary confinement in a tiny prison cell in Valledupar with rudimentary sanitary facilities. During this period, he saw no one and lost all track of time. “I suffered in my mind,” he said, “I nearly went mad.” When asked whether this experience had helped him understand the cruelty of the FARC’s treatment of its own prisoners, he remained unmoved. “People exaggerate,” he said. Like many combatants, he is incapable of putting himself in another person's shoes.  

War is a snake that bites its own tail, and life in prison mirrors the years of violence that the country has endured. A case in point is Martín, a 29-year-old man who was born in Bajirá, in the Urabá area of Antioquia. In 1996, when he was 15, members of the paramilitary forces displaced everyone in his village. His father left him and his older brother behind on the farm for a few days while he made sure the rest of the family was safe. However, months went by and the father did not return. As the paramilitary forces had brought so much suffering, the two boys joined the first group of fighters from the National Liberation Army (ELN) that passed through the area.

But Martín did not really want to be a rebel fighter. At first he was so uncooperative that the ELN commander told him to leave the group and rejoin his family. But he didn’t know where his family was, so he stayed.  

Contrary to many inmates who claim they are innocent, these prisoners almost make it a point of honour to be incarcerated. They are proud to be rebels. Whether it reflects their commitment to a cause or whether it is a survival mechanism, they display a hard exterior. But that exterior softens when they speak of their children and what they want for them: an education. The last thing they want is for their children to go to war.

Here in the “political wing,” tension arises not from power struggles or overcrowding but from the government’s ongoing demobilization campaigns. The rebels are haunted by the spectre of denunciation and betrayal, and by the evidence that their side is losing the war. They have all been convicted of crimes of humanity, and they are convinced that there is no place for them in a democracy. They think of the revolution all the time – it is their refuge from the solitude of prison.

Contradicting what he had insisted was his intention during my visit, one of the prisoners called me a few days later to tell me that he had been transferred from the “political wing" to the section for common criminals. "It’s because I agreed to be demobilized, to give up the fight. This conflict is going nowhere,” he said, his voice trembling with emotion. 

  • Read full article in Spanish on "Semana" web site: Los rebeldes