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Colombia’s imprisoned guerrillas hope for a taste of freedom

By JIM WYSS | Miami Herald (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 8, 2017

BOGOTA, Colombia — For the past 15 years, Jhonier Andres Martinez has been locked up in some of Colombia’s harshest prisons serving a 36-year sentence for terrorism, homicide and rebellion.

But if all goes as planned, Martinez soon will find freedom of sorts as he becomes a beneficiary of the country’s peace deal with the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.

Under the terms of the peace agreement, hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas will be released and moved to 26 concentration zones. Those charged with nonviolent crimes will benefit from a blanket amnesty passed in December. Those accused of having blood on their hands, like Martinez, will be able to seek reduced sentences that keep them confined but out of jail.

Speaking by phone from inside Bogot’s high-security La Picota prison, Martinez, who is better known as “Caliche,” said prison hasn’t changed his convictions even though he’s spent most of his adult life behind bars.

“I have not quit being a rebel and I haven’t given up the fight to take power,” he said. “The purpose of the peace deal is to give us [the FARC] the judicial and political guarantees … to continue our struggle and allow us to do it following a political path.”

Colombia’s hard-fought peace deal is aimed at ending a half-century conflict in which more than 220,000 have died. And while the deal has been praised around the world (it earned President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Peace Prize) it remains controversial in certain quarters.

Last month, U.S. lawmakers from Florida said they were concerned that the amnesty law was a whitewash, and they objected to the fact that the peace deal will allow FARC members convicted of serious crimes, including drug trafficking, to participate in politics. They also urged the U.S. State Department to keep the FARC on its list of designated terrorist groups.

Martinez said he didn’t understand why factions in the United States and Colombia could be opposed to a deal that will save lives and open up routes for nonviolent political change.

“Violence isn’t just generated by people picking up guns but by large parts of society being stigmatized,” he said.

Martinez said that when he joined the FARC, members were referred to as “rebels” or “guerrillas.” But during the U.S. war on drugs they were relabeled “narco-guerrillas,” he said. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. they were renamed yet again as “narco-terrorists.”

“Politicians have always tried to distort what our mission is about,” he said. “The FARC have never behaved like terrorists or criminals. We rose up in arms, legitimately, like any man could, against a state that had unjust policies and forced inequality on its citizens.”

Even so, the group has acknowledged that it has made “mistakes” in kidnapping people, murdering innocents and terrorizing the country with a bombing campaign. Under the peace deal, FARC members must confess their crimes to a truth commission to qualify for the reduced sentences.

“We’ve made mistakes and we’re not going to hide from them,” Martinez said. “We’ll ask for forgiveness whenever necessary; we’re going to take responsibility.”

Like many of the guerrillas, Martinez joined the rural army almost as an act of survival.

When he was 12, his parents were forced to flee their home in Yacopi by right-wing paramilitary violence. The family ended up on the streets of the capital, sleeping in cardboard boxes. But the threats eventually followed them to Bogota, Martinez said, and he and his mother moved to the coast on their own, where she had family.

There, at age 14, he reconnected with his uncle who was a member of the guerrilla group and started doing odd jobs for the FARC. At 15, he became a full-fledged member of the guerrilla’s 37th Front, which was part of the Caribbean Bloc that operated in the southern part of Bolivar Department.

All of that came to an abrupt end in 2002, however, when he was part of a FARC team that planted bombs in the tourism hotspot of Cartagena to coincide with the arrival of President Andres Pastrana.

The blasts killed three people and injured 10. Martinez said he was not directly involved with the bombing and found out about it only afterward. In court, he argued that the police illegally held him for two days before they issued an arrest warrant.

Inside his section of La Picota prison, Martinez said there are 153 active members of the FARC. By all accounts, they’re a disciplined cohesive unit, holding group exercise drills, political-ideology courses and organizing hunger strikes and other civil disobedience acts. They have their own unit commander and Martinez is one of the group’s spokesmen.

He said members are under constant pressure to renounce the organization and provide information to the police.

Shortly after his capture, Martinez claims, he was approached by judicial officials from Florida who offered to reduce his sentence and grant him and his family protection in the United States if he provided information about his commander, Martin Caballero, who later died in combat in 2007.

“My principles wouldn’t allow me to betray him,” Martinez said. “They’ve sent the military, psychologists — everyone — to get me to desert. They’ve sent me to the worst prisons and put me in isolation. But I will always defend rebellion and my membership in the FARC.”

Once he’s freed, Martinez said he plans to reconnect with his three children, two of whom he hasn’t seen in nine years. But his main goal will be to work for the political organization that the FARC has said it will form to pursue political power.

Martinez said he hopes Colombia will see the new political organization as a way to resolve long-standing issues of inequality and rural poverty that have been kindling for the conflict.

“We’re the answer to tyranny, and all of us have to work together to build a new Colombia without violence and with a durable and stable peace,” he said.

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©2017 Miami Herald

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