From the archives: Female rebels’ fates diverge in Colombia

DISILLUSIONED: “Angelly,” 23, left the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia hoping to reclaim her daughter. The boredom of jungle life and mistreatment by commanders spurred her move.
DISILLUSIONED: “Angelly,” 23, left the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia hoping to reclaim her daughter. The boredom of jungle life and mistreatment by commanders spurred her move.
(Chris Kraul / Los Angeles Times)
Time Staff Writer

One rebel, call her Angelly, hijacked a private airplane to escape the guerrilla ranks. The other, Marilu Ramirez, is charged as a modern-day Mata Hari who at the time of her arrest had infiltrated the highest levels of Colombia’s military establishment.

The stories of the two women, both members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have riveted Colombians’ attention in recent weeks, presenting the two faces of the guerrilla movement.

Angelly, a nom de guerre, is disillusioned with the rebellion. Ramirez, who in court last week denied all charges against her, still embraces it, according to authorities. The women embody advances and setbacks of the government’s 40-year struggle against rebel forces -- and their stories underscore how daily occurrences in this strife-torn nation can surpass adventure novels for sheer audacity.

Brandishing her Galil submachine gun, Angelly, 23, forced her way onto an airplane taxiing on a jungle airstrip in late September and ordered the pilot to fly her to Villavicencio, near Bogota. She explained to him that her mission was not to wage war but to give herself up to Colombian authorities, to bid farewell to arms.

She had heard over the radio about government programs offering demobilized rebels a stipend, free housing, job training and forgiveness for some war crimes. President Alvaro Uribe has offered similar concessions to right-wing paramilitary forces.

The benefits are not what made Angelly flee after five years in the rebel ranks. It was the hope of reuniting with her 7-year-old daughter, who is being cared for by Angelly’s mother in Bogota. And it was the mosquitoes, the boredom of life in the jungle and the mistreatment by rebel commanders.

“They tell you women have equal rights, but it’s not so,” said Angelly, who was too terrified of FARC reprisals to give her real name. She was interviewed in a Defense Ministry office here that houses the guerrilla demobilization program managers.

“It’s we who wash the clothes and prepare the food. The commanders live well but the troops are forbidden things like beer and cigarettes,” she said. “The jefes can have kids but when I got pregnant I had to take an abortion pill.”

Angelly said she had planned an escape from her unit, the 16th Front of the FARC in the Amazon state of Vichada, for a year and a half. The opportunity came when she was sent alone to check on an arriving commuter airplane in the isolated town of Puerto Principe.

“I said to the pilot that I was not hijacking him. But I did have my rifle with me and I did say I was not going back because they would kill me,” Angelly said with a smile.

Angelly is an example of the government’s recent success persuading more FARC rebels to demobilize, moving closer to the goal of ending four decades of civil war. She is one of 1,700 leftist guerrillas this year to come in from the eastern jungles, southern rain forests and northern desert plains to accept demobilization terms. That’s a 70% increase over the number of FARC members who demobilized over the same period last year, defense officials say.

The FARC is believed to have between 10,000 and 15,000 fighters.

“All of the resources we were dedicating to persuading the paramilitaries to demobilize are being redirected to the guerrilla now,” said army Col. Mauricio Luna Jimenez, who directs the Defense Ministry’s demobilization program.

Former Atty. Gen. Jaime Bernal said increased military pressure by the armed forces since Uribe took office in 2002 has made life more difficult for rebels, forcing them to retreat to isolated jungle and mountain bases and miserable living conditions.

Political analyst Carlos Eduardo Jaramillo is more skeptical of the results, citing past instances of “false positives” in the guerrilla demobilization process. He cited a famous case in Tolima state last year, when the military disguised a few dozen noncombatant youths as disarmed rebels to make the process seem more successful.

“But overall I do believe that more rebels are leaving voluntarily and it is because the guerrilla leadership has spent less time on political training than they should,” Jaramillo said. Since Uribe stepped up the war using U.S. military aid, “there are more reasons for the rebel soldiers to leave: more money available from drug trafficking, difficult living conditions, bad treatment, more rigid controls.”

But the encouraging news for the government as represented by Angelly’s flight has been overshadowed by the arrest late last month of Ramirez, 40, who is accused of infiltrating Colombia’s Superior War College and being the mastermind of a car bombing at the military academy last year that injured 23 people.

She was arrested after a FARC leader’s laptop computer was seized during a jungle raid in July. The information stored on the machine is a treasure trove of detail on how rebels managed assets such as Ramirez in an urban spy network.

Ramirez, who was described in the laptop as a member of the Antonio Nariño Urban Network militia group, pleaded not guilty to spying charges in a court appearance last week. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos described her also as a member of the FARC’s dreaded Teofilo Forero Column, which has pulled off numerous killings and kidnappings of political targets

Reports in the Bogota-based Semana news magazine and El Tiempo newspaper portray mysterious circumstances under which Ramirez allegedly enrolled in an exclusive War College course for army colonels hoping to become generals.

One of the officers who recommended her was retired Gen. Manuel Guillermo Franco, who coordinated the reception of 242 members of the armed forces released by the FARC in a 2001 prisoner swap.

Ramirez apparently made contacts among the military working as an insurance and car saleswoman and used the contacts to insinuate herself into the War College course in 2005. She later became a contract hire at a maximum security prison called La Dorada where FARC commander Rodrigo Granda was held before Uribe released him a peace gesture in June.

Most incredibly, Ramirez managed to visit Defense Minister Santos’ house by befriending one of his domestic employees during a night class and proposing they work on a class project together. Santos told El Tiempo that Ramirez’s objective was to gather information for an assassination plan.

“There is no doubt,” Santos said. “They wanted to wipe me from the map.”