BOGOTÁ — Two pairs of legs, dressed in army camouflage and mud-covered boots, lay entangled on dry grass. In the middle of the Colombian Andean jungle, the couple embraces, their torsos and faces escaping the frame. Scattered to the side of their bodies are few belongings: a plastic mirror, a framed image of Jesus Christ, a bright pink towel, and an assault rifle.
Pictured in a moment of rest, the two individuals are members of the FARC — Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — the largest leftist guerrilla group in Colombia. During a stay at a FARC camp in 2016, Federico Ríos Escobar, a Colombian photographer and photojournalist, captured the image of the couple while FARC leaders negotiated with the Colombian government to give up their arms.
Born in Manizales, a small city in the coffee-growing region of the country, Ríos documents social issues in isolated regions of Colombia and Latin America. He first entered a FARC camp in 2010 and has since published numerous images of the FARC for the New York Times and other international publications.
“In the beginning, it was not very easy to find them. I had many questions, many doubts, but I knew someone, who knew someone, and finally, I arrived,” he told me at Bandy Bandy Galería in Bogotá. The photographer was preparing for his first solo exhibition on the FARC, The Posthumous Days of a War Without End, curated by Céline Lerebourg at the intimate gallery space in the San Felipe neighborhood. (Originally scheduled to run through April 9, the exhibition is now closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
In 2012, as peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian national government began in Havana, Cuba, Ríos ventured into the jungle during the group’s potential last days as militants. The FARC eventually signed a peace deal with the Colombian government in September 2016; then-President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize for the successful negotiation. The main stipulations: the rebels would give up their arms and reintegrate into society, and the Colombian government would invest resources into vulnerable, rural areas and support demobilization efforts.
Documenting this transition, Ríos visited camps throughout the country, from the Pacific coast to the Andean jungle. His stays varied, some lasting three or four days, others lasting a month. And security remained a constant issue: at several moments, the approach of paramilitary and criminal groups forced him to leave.
The results of these excursions diverge from the government-produced image of the FARC as a single, one-dimensional enemy. Colombian President Ivan Duque, who has criticized the peace deal for being too lenient, has called dissident FARC members narco-terrorists. Politicians from Duque’s Center-Democratic party have even labeled journalists who report on the FARC, including Ríos, terrorists and guerrilleros.
Photographing the FARC necessarily touches on its complex and divisive presence in the nation: the guerrilla group has been responsible for thousands of deaths, kidnappings, and tortures over its 56-year history. According to Colombia’s National Center for History Memory, approximately 220,000 people have been killed in the conflict. But Colombians direct blame at different parties: the FARC, the leftist guerrilla group National Liberation Army (ELN), paramilitary groups, and the Colombian military forces.
Still, the visualization of FARC members in less-menacing settings, such as dancing in a party, or gossiping on a porch, can prompt anger from those who have experienced generational trauma from the conflict. But FARC operates in areas in which government services and protections are entirely absent. “There’s no education, healthcare, proper food. It’s a different life,” commented Ríos.
The photographer presents this controversial duality. FARC members interact with locals, sharing smiles and laughs. They play a soccer game. But arms are ubiquitous. Militants receive orders in the early morning, delivered by a higher-up commander in the wading light of the jungle. FARC members, grasping onto their assault guns, stand at the side of the local soccer team.
Peering into daily life, Ríos captures routines, love, and intimacy. The series “El Morral de la Revolución” (2016) presents the belongings of twelve members: toothbrushes, photographs, perfume, and guns make up some of the contents. “Chaverra” (2016) portrays a tender moment between a young FARC couple, the image’s subject delivering sweet words to his partner. A portrait of a woman, Vanessa, and her infant daughter Manuela combines two seemingly incompatible existences: warfare and motherhood. After the signing of the peace deal, the FARC loosened its restrictions on pregnancy. The camps saw a minor baby boom, and some FARC members reintegrated into society with their families.
Nearly a decade after the project’s start, the FARC remains far from its last days in the jungle. The 2016 peace deal is already crippling. In August 2019, after accusing the Colombian government of violating the agreement, ex-FARC commander Ivan Marquez announced rearmament. InSight Crime estimates that 40 percent of former FARC militants have rearmed, and new recruits have entered dissident camps.
With visits to these camps continuing into the present, Ríos has documented this rearmament, creating a contemporary, changing archive of the conflict. Viewers in the current moment must confront the fact that the war has not ended.
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