For 19-year-old Dumar Alexander, joining the army was a matter of personal honor.
A resident of this isolated town perched in the green mountains of violent southwest Colombia, Alexander knows what war means. Three years ago, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials as FARC, arrived and snatched his 14-year-old brother into its ranks. Nobody in the family has heard from him since.
His brother’s fate is why Alexander became a soldado campesino, or peasant soldier, President Alvaro Uribe’s latest weapon in Colombia’s aggressive war against terrorism.
“The guerrillas controlled this town,” Alexander explained. Now, “I am able to protect my family.”
Announced last fall, the program recruits men aged 18 to 24, trains them in tactics, and returns them to their hometowns as newly minted soldiers. With their roots in the population, the new troops will more easily be able to collect information on rebel movements, officials hope.
The program aims to increase the Colombian army as rapidly and cheaply as possible. The Army hopes to dispatch 15,000 peasant soldiers this year to 457 of Colombia’s 1,098 municipalities, many of which have never had a permanent military presence. Lured by the idea of being close to home (regular soldiers are typically sent to far-flung villages), nearly 10,000 young men have already signed up. By the end of April, 5,758 had been dispatched to their hometowns with pay of $17 a month, room and board included, the same as a regular soldier.
La Sierra is part of the strategic southwestern state of Cauca, where the FARC battles the government and right-wing paramilitaries. Off a gravel detour from the Pan-American highway between Popayan and Pasto, the city was virtually abandoned by the government. Two years ago, about the same time residents say the FARC arrived and began its unwelcome reign, there was a landslide and rebuilding has just begun.
Uribe’s government plans to deploy a new high-mountain battalion and mobile army brigade along with the peasant soldiers who arrived on March 5, the first permanent military presence since the FARC came.
“We were well-received,” said Capt. Alberto Manuel Chilito during an interview. “The people collaborate with us a lot,” he said, pointing out how soldiers mixed with children from a nearby school.
Unlike other towns in less violent areas, the soldiers sleep in makeshift shelters at a base on the town’s edge. They are not allowed to stay in their families’ homes overnight, a controversial feature of the new program. There are about 70 peasant soldiers here, protected by a division of regular soldiers, a safety feature not available in less perilous regions. Still, Chilito said two soldiers’ families had been threatened in nearby Amaguer.
The biggest catch has been a common criminal, but Chilito said the troops were “bringing in information” every day, sometimes valuable enough to send to headquarters.
“They are known as if they were police,” Chilito said. Daily tasks include searching cars entering and exiting the town, patrolling the area and simply mixing with the people, making their presence felt. The troops even put on an Easter parade.
According to residents, the FARC apparently left town when the first contingent of peasant soldiers arrived.
“This is a great hope for the town. We feel supported by the work of the army,” said Sigifredo Ruiz, who was hawking meat in a pool hall and says trucks and people can now enter the town freely. “There are no robberies. There are no attacks.”
“The hour the [peasant soldiers] arrived, that was the end of the [guerrilla] problem.”
But laborer Elvio Ordonez was more cautious, speaking softly as he painted a home’s window a bright red.
“If they are here, they are welcome,” he said, his eyes darting. “If they leave, it would be better if they had never come.”
Ordonez was referring to a common problem in Colombia: the sporadic commitment of the government, leaving the population vulnerable to violent reprisals when the army retreats. He said he was not providing the soldiers with information for now, waiting to see how long they would stay.
If they left, Ordonez explained, the guerrillas will “come to destroy us.”
Critics contend the program involves more civilians -- that is, the families and friends of the soldiers -- in the conflict. There are also complaints that recruits do not get sufficient training; they receive three months compared with regular soldiers, who get five months.
“They have been converted into cannon fodder for a cheap army,” said Eduardo Cifuentes, Colombia’s human rights ombudsman. “It generates a dangerous situation for the young soldiers and for the communities they are in.”
Another fear is that forces could evolve into vigilante groups, becoming lawless bands like the paramilitary forces that roam Colombia.
“The war in Cauca is not going to be resolved exclusively with an army of high-mountain [troops] or peasant soldiers,” said Gov. Floro Tunubala, the first indigenous governor in Colombia, who said 14 mayors still work out of Popayan, the provincial capital, after being threatened by the FARC last June. They don’t feel safe enough, even with the peasant soldiers, to return to their communities.
“The army doesn’t trust the people,” Tunubala added, contending that it frequently believes civilians are collaborating with guerrillas.
But Maj. Federico Guerrero Trillos, who presides over the Batallon Jose Elirio Lopez in Popayan, where 216 peasant soldiers are currently training, defended the program.
“They are training under the same conditions as regular soldiers,” Guerrero said. “They are not alone in the villages,” he added, pointing to supervision from well-trained commanders and regular soldiers who accompany them.
Guerrero conceded that the advantages of the program were “double-edged” in that while the soldiers could help the military, and themselves, by knowing “who was who” in their hometowns, they could also jeopardize their friends and families.
The “terrorists” also “know the soldiers,” Guerrero said. But so far, Guerrero said, there had been no problems.
Training begins at 7 a.m., said Sgt. Carlos Bibiscuth. It consists of learning such skills as using a gun, crawling stealthily with weapons at the ready on the ground, resisting an ambush and identifying sounds and smells native to the terrain.
“How is your morale?” shouted one trainer to a group of soldiers.
“High, very high,” they answered in unison.
“They are not counter-guerrillas,” Bibiscuth explained. “But they are prepared for an offensive. They are prepared to resist an attack.”
During a break, a group of troops discussed their return to their native village of Timbio. They explained that Timbio has been attacked by the FARC several times, the last time about a year and a half ago when the bank was robbed and the police station captured.
Before joining, they were students, car mechanics and farmers. Most said they had become peasant soldiers to protect their town and families.
“We are the commandos of the peasants,” Wilmer Peratan Sanchez proclaimed proudly to cheers from his ex-neighbors and soon-to-be fellow soldiers.