One of the founding members of the FARC, known as “Sergeant Pascuas,” recalls the origins of the guerrilla movement in the “independent republics,” areas in rural Colombia held by Marxist peasant guerrillas in the 1950s in the aftermath of La Violencia, which lasted from 1948 to 1958. Conservative politicians believed these areas needed to be brought into line with the rest of the country through military force. After an amnesty of 1953, figures such as Juan Cruz Varela, Fermín Charry Rincón ("Charro Negro"), and Manuel Maralunda Vélez ("Tirofijo") led resistance among peasant organizations. While some would later enter mainstream politics, many of these figures were pursued by the military. In this interview with Alfredo Molano, conducted in Havana, Cuba, Pascuas talks about the early days of the war, some fifty years ago.
Military authorities have accused Miguel Pascuas of over six hundred cases of armed assault, fourteen guerrilla takeovers, and five bombings in the Toribío municipality alone. This is in addition to other attacks, also in the Cauca department, which have resulted in the deaths of over eight hundred soldiers, including the attack on the El Tablón property in the town of Corinto on November 9, 2009, which resulted in eight soldiers killed, nine more wounded, and one missing officer. INTERPOL issued a Red Notice requesting to locate and provisionally arrest him, and the U.S. State Department offered a reward of $2.5 million “for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction” of Pascuas. After a bus loaded with fourteen pipe bombs exploded, devastating Toribío for the fifth time, on July 11, 2011, the Colombian government put a price on his head of nearly seven hundred thousand dollars.
“The Old Man has power because he’s a symbol,” says Colonel Maldonado of the Federal Police. “But he’s not part of the high command.”
AMB: Tell me, Miguel, about your childhood.
MP: We were in a town called Órganos, in the department of Huila. That’s where I went to school. When La Violencia came, the police showed up and took over our school as a barracks. We couldn’t study there anymore. Many people died. Once, the police took six prisoners in shackles to the confluence of the Gagual and San Luis rivers and shot them there in a puddle. Padre Monard—parish priest of Órganos and San Luis, though he wasn’t even Colombian—said that those who weren’t aligned with the Conservatives should leave the village immediately. Many people ignored him. He cooperated with the police. I would see him around, dressed like a soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder. One day he left for San Luis, and since my mother cooked for him, he invited us to come along. That was when I met the Indian Quintín Lame, in the El Palmar village, which had a large indigenous community. He was proud and talked about fighting to take back the lands for the Indians. When the guerrillas—who were referred to as a mob—took the local police headquarters, the Army intervened and arrested the Indian Quintín along with two other country folks. Since my mother was preparing the food for Padre Monard, she had me deliver a few roasted potatoes to the prisoners, and that’s how I met him. He had long hair and smoked tobacco. The guerrillas took Órganos because of the death of those peasants, with nothing more than bombs and machetes, because they didn’t have any guns other than the ones Charro Negro and Marulanda carried. There was no school that day, and no more barracks. There were some good weapons in the parsonage, including an Italian rifle that belonged to the priest. I think they were the first quality weapons the guerrillas got their hands on. Then the outlaws attacked San Luis,1 but the priest wasn’t there either. If he had been, who knows where things would have ended. There was a lot of talk about what the guerrillas did: that Charro had gotten Martillo out of jail, that Llanero had liberated Piedra Negra, that Joselito had entered San Luis. And it was true: the outlaws organized to defend themselves against the armed Chulavites.2 The Liberals could only see things through that peephole. The only one who brought in new ideas was Major Lister, also known as Isauro Yosa, who said that we shouldn’t just fight for politics but also to change the country, and that we had to start with the land itself. He made contact with Loaiza’s men, who were already well established in Rioblanco. Together they confronted the Conservative Party administrations of Ospina, Laureano, and Urdaneta.
AMB: So as a boy, what did you work on? What did you do?
MP: First I worked on a coffee plantation picking beans, and later I was a mule driver’s assistant because I wasn’t strong enough to load up the mules myself. The actual mule drivers could toss a 150-pound sack of coffee over their shoulder with ease, and I could only manage half of that. But I was getting stronger and already by 1959 the National Front government began work on the road from San Luis to Aleluya and on the one from Carmen to Gaitania.3 The government offered peace, and the liberal guerrillas agreed to surrender their weapons, except for Marulanda and Charro Negro, who kept theirs. The government didn’t ask for them either. Manuel was a civilian guarding the construction sites along the road and carrying staff records. Somewhere between Gaitania and Neiva. I got to know him near Aipecito,4 before he became a road inspector. He was armed. I started working with him building storm drains, which, you know, were something of a luxury on that road, but I was already geared toward self-defense because we were surrounded by armed Conservatives like El Mico and Tres Espaldas. They stopped buses and killed Liberal riders. They would make a tie cut or a T-shirt cut, slice their throats and pull out their tongues, slash open their chests, or chop off their arms so they could never go back to work again. We needed the self-defense squads for our own protection; we held meetings every two months. Some guys worked in the fields and some worked on the roads. We kept watch and worked. We had no weapons. I was assigned to Lister.
Peace didn’t last long. They came after us. The government installed Mariachi in Planadas and Peligro in Herrera.5 Lleras Camargo (president of Colombia from 1958 to 1962) said that the Communists had to be dealt with, and that Mariachi and Peligro were set up against us. Charro stayed in Gaitania to work when Mariachi sent in his people, a couple of guys named Belalcázar and Puñalada. They said they wanted to meet with Charro, but then they killed him. Set his back on fire. We were working when Marulanda came out, armed and angry, and said, “Guys, we’re at war again. They killed Charro; Isaías Pardo, Rogelio, and Lister are next on the list. That’s all there is to it.” So we dropped our tools and picked up our rifles. Marulanda drove up and down the road from Carmen to collect weapons and with them he set up the first platoon of twenty men. In one fight we went up against two hundred soldiers. We came out of it with eighteen mules, some important supplies, and also five bolt-action rifles. Marulanda was given the rank of major. We had officially entered the fight.
AMB: What was your first fight like?
MP: My first fight took place somewhere between Gaitania and Planadas. Marulanda got sick there; it was bad, he looked really bad. The country folks brought him food and he had to wait a while until he was feeling strong enough to fight on the outskirts of Aipe, harassing the Army’s rear guard, waiting for his chance to enter Planadas, which he was finally able to do. Martín Camargo, from the Communist Party, had joined us for this fight, along with Guaraca, Tula, Rogelio, Isaís, and Joselo [all legendary members of the guerilla forces], who had been working on their farms in Marquetalia. There were around sixty of us in all. We slept in the trees because we didn’t have any plastic sheeting for making tents. There were no stores to buy any. At first we wore espadrilles, but before long we switched to fabric tennis shoes. They had to be shored up with wire to make them last a little longer. Same with our clothes. The holsters had to be mended, sometimes with untanned cowhide. The equipment consisted of haversacks woven from pita fibers and the uniforms and hats we used were either green or khaki. Some of us had to work to earn money to buy the clothes. We used the haversacks to carry blankets, bananas, yucca, carrots, salt, cane sugar, stitched cow leather, corn, arepas, beans, avocadoes, pineapples, and oranges. We had to load up on chili peppers to make up for the lack of meat, and we carried mills to grind corn for making arepas or cuchuco soup. There were times when all there was to eat was sugarcane juice. We could last up to eight consecutive days on that alone when no other food was available.
The strike on the army was a boon for us: we got an M1 rifle, a G3 rifle, a San Cristobál carbine, a few other .30 caliber rifles, some 7mm rifles we called perillas, some Austrian and Peruvian rifles, some M1 carbines, and a good amount of ammunition.
AMB: Were these still self-defense squads?
MP: No, by then we were mobilized. Marulanda was with us for a while before he went to Marquetalia. That was when he sent us to Lieutenant Isaías. We were moving this way and that, and then he left. Next came Lieutenant Rogelio, with more of the same. That’s how I met Guaraca, when he was a lieutenant. The commanding officers would change, but we were always mobile. We dealt with a lot of hardships because food was hard to come by, and we didn’t have boots or backpacks. We made friends with people regardless of whether they were Conservative or Liberal, rich or poor. If someone helped us, it was because they were a friend. We were preparing ourselves and accumulating gear, little by little. We were befriending more and more people, including those who were more well-off, who had ways of getting us money, and who had already been contributing so we could buy clothes, boots, and tarps. We were gaining respect. Marulanda was getting quite famous, and had earned the nickname of Tirofijo, "Sureshot."
There were only civilian families in Marquetalia, because we patrolled the outskirts. When the first incursions began in 1962, we attacked the army as it was arriving in San Miguel. The self-defense squads who were in operation grabbed their rifles and started running interference from Gaitania on up. The army was using the same old tactics, marching single file, making them easy to target. It was a shame picking them off like that, innocent as they were. They were forced to return to their barracks. The government lost men and weapons, and we won a moral victory.
AMB: Were you still an independent republic?
MP: That was around the time when then-Senator Álvaro Gómez ordered an end to the independent republics: Marquetalia, Riochiquito, El Pato, Guayabero, Sumapaz. He said that Sumapaz was a great if rather quiet movement, that Guayabero and El Pato were tiny movements, but that Marquetalia was indeed dangerous because we were very active. Then the government organized the invasion of ’64.
Jacobo Arenas and Hernando González arrived in April with the news that they were going to send in airplanes and thousands of soldiers to wipe us out, and that we had to get the families out of Marquetalia. It wasn’t easy but we did it, leaving ourselves with forty-eight men and four women.
On May 27, Guaracas, Rogelio, and Joselo opened fire on the army in La Suiza, along the river Atá. We, in Puerto Tolima, fought two hard battles to stop them. The soldiers couldn’t advance by land because whenever they popped up, they would be shot. Eventually they started flying them in on helicopters and dropped them right in the heart of Marquetalia. We were ready for them, and as soon as their boots hit the ground we mowed them down.
AMB: What happened after that first federal incursion into Marquetalia?
MP: We split up before reconvening near Símbula. Even though we knew the way, it was hard getting through the mountain passes in the cold. We passed Rionegro and went on to Riochiquito, which was under the command of Ciro Trujillo. There were fifty guerrillas there, and many Indians. Including ourselves, we numbered a hundred forty-five men. We knew that the army would enter the area sooner or later. There was a break from October or November of ’64 through March of ’65, when the first Conference of the Southern Bloc6 was held, and which was attended by commanders from Sumapaz, 26 de Septiembre, and El Pato. Ríchard, the man who had driven people from El Davis to Villarrica and from Villarrica to El Pato, had already died. Looking back, it was fairly close to the death of another dear comandante, Isaís Duarte, who was very much loved by Comrade Marulanda. He was in charge of distracting the army while the conference was going on, and it was during that mission that he died.
AMB: Tell me about taking the town of Inzá.
MP: The government ran a campaign on the radio and in the press saying that Marulanda was dead, that they found his body, that we were finished. Then we received orders to prepare for an operation. We spent eight days running drills, building up our strength, and getting ready for whatever the senior officers had in mind. Finally, one afternoon, we set out. And two days later, we were on the road connecting Inzá with Belalcázar. We set up our ambush, we took the town, and then we returned to the mountains.
AMB: What about the nuns?
MP: We didn’t know there was a squad of police officers on the bus, and when we stopped it, they opened fire on us. We returned fire, and the nuns were killed in the crossfire. We lost Hernando González in a different ambush. Such is war.
AMB: What happened after the taking of Riochiquito?
MP: After the bombings, the Army occupied Riochiquito while we split up. Jacobo and Joselo were assigned to the area around Aipe while Ciro and Arrañanales headed for Quindío to establish a front in Valle. We had to move with Marulanda through Bilbao, La Herrera, Planadas, and Chaparral. We almost didn’t make it. Comrade Manuel was wounded in one arm. The Army knew that he’d been wounded and ordered all their troops to follow us, supported by five hundredcops in civilian clothes. There was a 25,000-peso bounty on Marulanda’s head, which was a lot of money at the time, and 15,000 for each guerrilla. The army said, “We kicked them out of Marquetalia, we kicked them out of Riochiquito, and now we’re going to kick them out of those mountains.” And we went out . . . but to fight. We went out to fight, taking as few risks as possible: we changed our tactics, we were more mobile at night than we were during the day, and we hit fewer targets, though we hit them harder. The fighting was constant. That’s how it was, until we reached Natagaima and our friends in the party helped us along the Magdalena River. We crossed near Aipe and from there we went up past Dolores and Alpujarra to reach Galilea. Finally, they took us to Hoya de Palacio, where we arrived just in time for the second Conference of the Southern Bloc, which formally created the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC.
1. A city found in the Antioquia department in central Colombia.↩
2. Conservative police involved in the repression of Liberals during La Violencia. The name derives from Chulavita, the municipality in the department of Boyacá where many were recruited.↩
3. Both of these roads are cross-country routes. El Carmen is located in extreme northern Colombia, while Gaitania is found in the south.↩
4. Aipecito is a town some 370 kilometers to the south of Bogotá.↩
5. Planados and Herrera are towns in extreme southern Colombia.↩
6. During this conference they formally declared themselves a rebel group and took on the name “The Southern Bloc.” They called for land reform, better living conditions for rural Colombians, and vowed to defend rural communities from the federal government.↩
Excerpt from A lomo de mula © Alfredo Molano. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Ezra Fitz. All rights reserved.