The unofficial name of this Tennessee-sized swath of jungle officially controlled by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) evokes a sinister amusement park, and that impression was certainly underscored on my first night there: In the town of San Vicente de Caguan, alongside the FARC's House of Culture a mostly empty building in which camouflage-clad teenage guerrilla boys and girls flirted there was an actual carnival. A Ferris wheel spun at dangerous speed above a merry-go-round, while a long, glowing worm on wheels carried people around the town, blaring its police siren as it bumped past machete and saddle shops and a lane of candy-colored brothels.
It may sound like a bizarre theme park, but Farclandia is no fun for many Colombians. The government surrendered it to the guerrillas in 1999 in an effort to start peace talks, but that simply legitimized a safe haven in which the FARC could hide the thousands of kidnap victims it holds at any one time, as well as rustle cattle, collect hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes from the cocaine mafias it allows to operate freely in the territory and launch vicious attacks on army and police outposts across its "borders." Still, says FARC ideologue Alfonso Cano, a bearded former anthropology professor, that's not much different from the way things had always been. "The only thing that's changed," he notes, "is that we can now go into the town of San Vicente and get us some ice cream."
Aside from their ice cream expeditions, the FARC guerrillas maintain a discreet profile in San Vicente. Everyone is so scared of them, anyway, that they don't need to bully the townsfolk. Locals whisper that when the guerrillas ask for anything a cow, free gasoline, a ranch it's not advisable to refuse. "Up until yesterday, these commanders had spent their lives in the jungle, walking around in mud," says one shopkeeper. "Now they have the best houses, the prettiest girls."
And they're not exactly open to criticism, either. Last January, FARC guerrillas waited until an anti-Marxist priest finished saying mass in the Putumayo district, then walked up to the pulpit and shot him dead in front of his congregation. Local justice is meted out by guerrilla "people's courts" whose judges seldom have a high school diploma. And while the FARC may earn most of its revenue from taxing the cocaine trade, any guerrilla caught sampling the product is executed by his comrades.
The sinister funhouse ambience extends to FARC headquarters, some eight miles up a dirt road in Los Pozos, where I found jungle-hardened guerrillas hunched over computers, rifles hanging off the backs of chairs as they answered their e-mail. (FARC's commanders maintain their own Hotmail accounts.) I was introduced to several FARC commanders, but none was as colorful as Julian Conrado, a balladeer with a goofy mustache who manages to rhyme "Americano" with "imperio romano." He's lost three guitars in battle, he says proudly. "One of my guitars was held up by a Colombian general as a war trophy on TV."
Having been at war for 36 years and flush with cash from taxing the narcos, the FARC maintains a sophisticated fighting force of more than 15,000 guerrillas. They control some 40 percent of the country, and are engaged in turf wars with a smaller rival leftist group, the ELN, as well as with right-wing paramilitaries accused by human rights organizations of committing some of the worst massacres of the long-running civil war. Ideology aside, they all are battling for control over the coca fields and the power to tax the drug trade and everything else in their domains.
So how do these millionaire Marxists view Plan Colombia President Clinton's $1.3 billion aid package that includes 60 military helicopters, ostensibly to help the government fight narco traffickers?
"It's inevitable that one of our boys will shoot down one of these helicopters," says Cano. "And when that happens, the U.S. will become more involved."
I didn't get to meet FARC's leader, the canny 72-year-old peasant Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda. While his minions entertain the media, government negotiators, leftist groupies from the U.S. and Europe and such occasional visitors as the president of the New York Stock Exchange, Marulanda prefers to lay low in the jungle, guarded by female guerrillas.
The "FARC-ettes," as the women fighters are nicknamed, fascinated me. Before covering Latin America, I'd reported on the Tamil Tiger guerrillas in Sri Lanka. The Tiger women were spooky: They wore cyanide pills around their necks to be consumed in the event of capture, and dozens of them trained as suicide bombers. The FARC-ettes were, well, more Latina. Even when in their fatigues, they wore earrings and pink scrunchees to keep their hair in place, and listened to music on tiny radios. While sex had been forbidden among the Tigers, the FARC's more relaxed view is evidenced by the fact that many of their women fighters wear Nor-plant contraceptives to avoid pregnancy. There's no prohibition on casual sex in the hammocks and wooden plank beds where coed units bivouac, but any permanent coupling requires prior approval from the unit commander. "When you're so close to death," said one guerrilla named Sandra, "your relationship is very intense, very intimate. None of us have any money, so if you want to show somebody you love them, you share your food with them, eat off the same dish."
What about jealousy? One comely Farc-ette wanted to switch partners, and waited until the evening culture hour (after a Marxist study session), when she broke the news to her old boyfriend in a song. "He went a little crazy," one witness recounted.
And after a few hours at the FARC headquarters, I was beginning to feel the same way myself, so I went back to San Vincente and its funfair. As night descended on Farclandia, I passed the evening watching the looks of disbelief on the faces of the cowboy drunks as they lurched out of the brothels to be nearly flattened by a giant grinning worm careening through the muddy streets.