„I was a member of an offensive-focused battalion.“ A European in the Colombian guerilla

A European in the depths of the Colombian jungle, armed, trained in guerilla warfare and at war against a ruthless enemy. We had the rare possibility to interview an internationalist in the ELN.

A European in the depths of the Colombian jungle, armed, trained in guerilla warfare, at war with an army he had nothing to do with if he didn’t choose to. A man who could have lived with all the privileges a European life offers, but he chose war, thick jungles and ruthless enemies. A rare story about an internationalist in a communist militant guerilla fighting for a foreign country told for the first time.

The National Liberation Army, in Castellano ELN, is at war with the Colombian State for over 50 years now with the aim of taking power. An outstanding Marxist-Leninist guerilla, inspired by the Cuban revolution and communist catholic priests. Over the decades of war with the army, right-wing paramilitaries, narco cartels and multinational cooperations, the ELN learned how to survive almost every political situation and is now again expanding rapidly. Apart from being a military organization, the ELN is de facto government for the people the Colombian government has abandoned. After the FARC-EP signed the peace contract, the ELN is now public enemy number one in Colombia. The South American country is still at war, even if the mainstream media keep this fact dead silent.

Frontline [Online] had the rare possibility to interview an internationalist volunteer in the ELN. There are possibly endless questions for a man who chose Colombian guerilla war over his privileged life in Europe. He told us „I will be honest — life in the mountains is very tough. You are extremely isolated, hunger and malnutrition are not uncommon, and the Colombian military is constantly above you with drones and aircraft(…)“ Hearing this, the question of what on earth made him do what he did is easy to ask.

One thing is for sure, if the authorities knew about his presence they would be furious, just like when they uncovered the origin of the famous FARC-EP guerillera and Dutch internationalist Tanja. The safety precautions for this interview were high, the true identity of our interview partner remains clandestine. For the first time ever a dialog gives insight into the mind, thoughts and life of a voluntary European internationalist who served in the now public enemy number one organization in Colombia, the ELN.

F[O]: To start things off, where in Colombia were you stationed?

Colombia’s llano region and the surrounding areas of Arauca, Meta and Boyacá. I was mostly stationed in the countryside and mountains, as opposed to being an “urbano” — an urban guerilla.

F[O]: What was your goal when you joined the ELN, what was your intent?

I had lost friends to state repression in Colombia before I had even thought of joining the ELN. My decision to join was based upon my experiences living and working in Colombia and was, of course, driven by my Marxist-Leninist revolutionary politics. The whole process happened quite organically. I didn’t set out from the West with the intention of joining — although I would say that being a Marxist-Leninist, I obviously had my natural sympathies with the rebels, as well as the legal political movement.

I studied and thought long and hard, and it was clear to me that there are very strong strategic reasons for prioritizing Colombia as a weak leak in the imperialist chain choking the globe. Colombia is of vital importance to US interests in Latin America, and the country also has a long and storied history of Marxist resistance testifying to this fact. The US considers the country to be a stronghold, so a victory here would be a massive victory in the battle against imperialism for the world as a whole. It would be incredibly transformative — the entire continent of South America would have a boot lifted from its throat after decades of interference, which has often directed from Colombia itself. This was why I chose to participate in this struggle, however modest my contributions might have been.

F[O]: What was daily life as a volunteer like?

I was a member of an offensive-focused battalion. Our base of operations was mainly in the mountains, but sometimes we found ourselves around civilian communities too. Our main goal was harassing the enemy in this region and targeting the infrastructure of large multinational corporations. Our very existence as a unit operating in the local area, moving between safe areas in the mountains and protecting local rural communities forces the state to expend vast amounts of time, money and manpower. We consider this an achievement for our movement, no matter what else.

Our daily routine included a lot of marching and physical training, scouting for the enemy, weapons practice — basically all the things you could consider as preparation for our offensive activities. Everyone spends two hours a day on guard duty and everyone cooks and cleans when it is their turn. Whenever possible, political education also takes place.

I will be honest — life in the mountains is very tough. You are extremely isolated, hunger and malnutrition are not uncommon, and the Colombian military is constantly above you with drones and aircraft, looking for any signs of your presence, a fact that they wish to constantly remind you of. Managing these conditions proves hard even for the most hardened of veterans in this struggle.

F[O]: Did you meet many other international volunteers in the ELN?

I’m not aware of any other Westerners currently with the ELN. That being said, they have had a number of internationalists in the past from Spain in particular, including Manuel Perez, who led the ELN until his death in 1998. There are many internationalists from various Latin American countries however, such as from Venezuela and Ecuador. Colombia’s FARC-EP was joined by a Dutch woman, Tanja Nijmeijer, who proved herself over many years as a great and committed revolutionary – I am sure Tanja has proven far more useful to the Colombian revolutionary struggle than had she stayed in the Netherlands.

I didn’t originally set out to join the ELN. The opportunity arose spontaneously after I’d spent quite some time in Colombia. The secrecy that the rebels need due to the violence they face from the Colombian state makes it hard to contact any armed movement in Colombia from abroad, especially if you are an outsider with little knowledge of local conditions. As well as this, you must be vouched for by a trusted member of a local community before you are even considered for membership.

The ELN are open to internationalists joining, but it is not an easy process.

F[O]: What moments stand out to you the most when you think of your time in Colombia?

Putting on my uniform for the first time was a very important moment, due to what it represented and implied. The uniform represents a commitment and resistance against capitalism and imperialism, an acceptance that one is taking part in a war against reaction in the course of which you may lose your life.

The best times were the small moments of camaraderie. I remember laughing together, some of the conversations that we had — the simple things. We’d talk at lunchtime, or during an evening coffee. The peasantry (who naturally make up the large majority of the ELN’s rural guerilla ranks) have a brilliant sense of humor and try not to take themselves too seriously. There’s a lot of laughter during training sessions, when people tend to humiliate themselves one way or another.

It hurts a lot when your comrades are killed. From time to time I still receive news of comrades that I served with being killed. It hurts even more knowing that my comrades were often killed by the Venezuelan military. Some of the most remarkable Communists I have ever had the honor of knowing were killed by the Venezuelan military. Others have left the ELN on good terms with permission, as is normal after a period of time of being a member.

One other thing I will always remember is the feeling of true comradeship — a true, deep and natural appreciation for each other and everyone in your cadre. You are all making the same sacrifices, you are members of the same struggle, and you face the same risks. This naturally creates a deeper bond than you might find in legal, urban political movements. You are proving yourselves, proving your commitment to each other and the struggle every day you continue to fight. This is a difficult thing to replicate any other way.

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F[O]: What was your most dangerous situation?

One afternoon, right before it was completely dark (it becomes pitch black at about 6pm in the mountains and you cannot see a thing), our base of operation was alerted by the deafening sound of multiple kinds of military aircraft-helicopters and dive-bombers that were heading directly for us as if they knew that we were there. They made a beeline for our makeshift kitchen where we’d spent the day (we often used it as a meeting point during the day) but we’d luckily vacated it only a mere twenty minutes earlier to head for our hammocks to sleep for the night. We weren’t safe however as the military were only ten minutes march away and closing fast. The entire soundscape was dominated by the engines’ roar. We thought we were finished.

I was taking cover behind a tree as I had been taught, but it seemed almost pointless as the enemy was closing on us from all sides — they had us flanked and their operation was clearly well-organized. Luckily for us, the leader of our group of 14 and my closest comrade in the ELN until their death at the hands of the Venezuelan military made the decision to lead us down off of the mountain. You could feel the tension among the group though, it was a sticky situation.

Their helicopters had discovered our usual paths, entrances and exits. Soldiers had disembarked their vehicles at our kitchen looking for evidence of our recent presence, and we knew it wouldn’t take long for them to trace our exact location unless we thought of an unorthodox solution. The Colombian military had night vision where we did not, and it was pitch-black. We were surrounded and on the back foot with little time left to make an escape. We decided our only chance was to descend the steep, overgrown mountainside by sliding down it, completely making a new path as we retreated.

It took us about one hour to descend from the top of the mountain followed by an 8-hour march down river and up another mountain to gain enough distance and cover for some sleep. We slept on the steep slope of yet another mountain. I slept with my legs around a tree trunk to stop me from falling down the mountainside. It took us two or so days, with the military hot on our tail, to get to the plains where a local indigenous group offered us the support we desperately needed.

In the end though, despite the intensive counter-insurgency operations — at times we could even hear the sound of their drones above our heads — our love and knowledge of the terrain, combined with our experience of life in the mountains and the implementation of guerrilla tactics we’d learned worked — and we outmaneuvered a well-planned counter-insurgency ambush, which was funded and equipped by the most militarily formidable state the world has ever seen — the USA.

F[O]: Do you have anything else to add about the Colombian military?
Please tell us about the Venezuelan military killing your comrades even though mainstream-media argues Venezuela backs the ELN?

The Colombian military is not an enemy to take lightly. They are very well funded and equipped. Not just because they have to fight the ELN, but also from decades fighting other groups like the FARC, M19, the EPL and others, as well as the constant fight against “narcos” — drug traffickers.  They benefit from a wealth of technology they’ve been given by the US in both their war against communism and the so-called War on Drugs, and they are quite ruthless about how they employ this technology, with little regard for civilians. The military also tries to mobilise the entirety of Colombian civil society against the rebels in a counter-insurgency effort, and this had admittedly led to a noticeable weakening of revolutionary forces.

It is not true that the Venezuelan military supports the rebels — this is a bourgeois lie to justify aggression against the Venezuelan state. Venezuela is seen as a socialist country and threat to imperialism by USA and stating that they are backing “terrorists” in a foreign nation is an old trick in the imperialist handbook to help manufacture consent for a possible future war, for “intervention.” Evidence of this sort of posturing is everywhere — just look at the Guiado saga and failed coup attempts last year, as well as how Iraq and Afghanistan were both considered “state sponsors of terrorism” back in 2003.

The killing of Colombian communists by the Venezuelan military are well known among Colombian revolutionaries, but the media does not report them and is not picked up on internationally. I am not completely sure why Venezuela is hostile to Colombian rebels. Perhaps due to the fear of providing genuine evidence for the “sponsors of terror” narrative, or perhaps it is because the Venezuelan military understand their sovereignty in a right-wing and reactionary way, seeing the deaths of Colombian communists as securing their borders from being exploited by foreign armed groups looking for sanctuary from airstrikes and dawn raids.

However, all I know for certain is this — the Venezuelan military routinely kills Colombian communists it finds within its borders. They are not actively working alongside the ELN — as much as we might all wish they were.

F[O]: Can you help us conceptualise the place of paramilitarism in the Colombian conflict?

Paramilitaries — right-wing non-state armed groups — are often misunderstood by academics and journalists, even left-wing ones. People see them as nothing more than a response of the bourgeoisie to Colombia’s communist rebellion, when in fact right-wing paramilitaries predate the formation of communist militias by decades. The Colombian bourgeoisie has long funded paramilitary organizations to keep agrarian workers in check.

Colombia did not have a particularly centralized or strong state apparatus capable of protecting private property, so capitalists took matters into their own hands and made their private armies. They used this newfound armed wing not only to beat down a rebellion among their workers but also to expand into new areas and exploit the peasantry they found there too. From the very start, paramilitaries have been an instrument of capitalist accumulation, not a simple reaction to a class enemy. Capitalists, by their very nature, are violent and aggressive towards the working masses. This violence is to be expected, even without provocation. It is always there, even if it is under the surface. It was the communist insurgency that was a response — a direct measure of self-defense by the masses against the paramilitaries.

Over the years, as Colombia’s left-wing groups threatened to take state power, capitalists became more and more desperate, and organizing of paramilitary forces was stepped up, as it became one of the fundamental ways that they sought to prevent a victory by revolutionary forces. This was not just the plan of the Colombian state, but also heavily backed by the government of the United States — a counter-insurgency method they have also adopted elsewhere in Latin America, and more recently in the Middle East. It was only when the US’s Plan Colombia upgraded the State’s armed forces that the main anti-communist paramilitary, the AUC, was formally disbanded. This is no coincidence.

Paramilitaries were responsible for many massacres across Colombia in the decades they have been active and are involved in the murders of demobilized guerrillas and others to this day, so you cannot blame the workers of Colombia for forming armed Marxist groups and rebelling to overthrow their murderous ruling class and their dogs of war.

F[O]: “Political power flows from the barrel of a gun” is something rarely said in the West today. How has your experience within the guerrilla showed you what is and isn’t possible with armed struggle?

Colombia contains a combination of various forms of struggle on armed and legal fronts. It is extremely important not to fetishize either wing of the movement, as different ideologies and even different political camps within the international communist movement do. This being said, proclaiming that armed struggle is “a thing of the past” as some defeatists or liberal Western movements might try to do, is wholly incorrect.

Marxist analysis of the conditions you find yourself in may indeed lead you to conclude that there is a genuine need and rationale for armed struggle, due to those conditions. Then you need to look at what could be a realistic plan under the circumstances. It is also not true to say that the only form of struggle that is legitimate is that of the gun, as some Maoists claim: not all revolutions are based on the “absolute necessity of People’s War,” on an intense civil war undertaken by a people’s army. Instead, the armed struggle can be one weapon in your arsenal — it can open up space for the wider left.

For example, in the West, if a trade union wants to bring a capitalist business to account for its exploitative actions, they are often bound by extremely rigid political and legal frameworks that favor the companies they are trying to bargain against — such is the nature of living in a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, after all. Because of this, many workers do not join trade unions in the West, as they don’t see what they can truly do for them.

In comparison to purely legal forms of struggle, an illegal component provides opportunities and opens up avenues that allow for the struggle to deepen and for contradictions to be seen much more sharply, and be dealt with in much more direct, open ways. It is because of these reasons that if a worker in an area the ELN are active in has a grievance with a boss, they are known to come to the ELN rather than a legal trade union, as they can achieve results and force the enemy’s hand much sooner that way.

If a socialist and worker’s movement has an armed component and is strong enough and established to the point that it is all but acting as the government in certain regions, it can achieve things that it otherwise could not. Armed worker’s control of an area transcends the typical bourgeois structure of society and allows workers to directly hold capitalists to account for themselves in an organized way.

F[O]: What would you say on the question of future international volunteers? What was it like being the only Westerner?

When I joined the ELN, I was welcomed by several senior political commanders who delivered a speech I won’t soon forget declaring that the ELN was “attached to the international struggle against capitalism and imperialism” and that it would benefit greatly from international support from all countries, especially in the West. The commanders made a point of differentiating between the governments and the proletariat in the imperialist nations — recognizing that the workers are still viciously exploited in the West despite the strength of their ruling class in geopolitical terms.

There are some Marxists who are overly dogmatic and rigid regarding revolutionaries, believing that if you are French, you must stay and only struggle for socialism in France, a Mexican in Mexico, a German in Germany, and so on. Yes, someone who is from a nation themselves will have a greater and deeper understanding of the conditions found in that nation, but that doesn’t always mean that they can only fight where they are from. Che Guevara’s auspicious legacy clearly shows the benefit of international volunteers, or more recently Tanja Nijmeijer from Colombia’s FARC (who I earlier suggested was likely more effective in the Colombian struggle than had she stayed in the Netherlands) and the International Freedom Battalion in Kurdistan who were instrumental in the liberation of both Minbij and Raqqa during the anti-fascist war against ISIS, and I’ve already mentioned the ELN’s Manuel Perez. Despite once being taken captive under suspicion of being a foreign spy, Perez rose to be the most senior political leader of the ELN, proving that he was a great revolutionary in his own right during several decades of armed struggle. Many other internationalists in history have proven that sometimes it not the always most strategic reason for communists to stay where they just happened to be born.

Right now, if you are a communist who is reading this and you have certain skills, say with computers or cybersecurity, or you are a trained doctor or have military experience, you should ask yourself if your skills are more useful where you are, which is probably in a peaceful nation with no militant movement — or whether you would be of better service to the worldwide revolutionary movement in the armed struggle in Colombia or somewhere else other than your home country. Some struggles are advanced to different levels, creating a need for vastly differing skillsets to lower intensity struggles in other nations.

Manuel Marulanda, a founder of FARC-EP and a former Central Committee member of the Colombian Communist Party once argued, “for every 100 communists, there will only be around 30 who are willing to die for their beliefs. And out of those 30, there will be only around 10 who are willing to endure the sacrifice and struggle involved in armed struggle.” There are always plenty of urban activists around the world who are participating in more legal avenues of struggle, especially in the West, with a romantic view of one day taking part in glorious armed struggle — but there is usually a shortage of communists willing to truly endure the hardships of this life, especially in countries like Colombia where the enemy is very formidable and experienced due to decades of civil war.

If you are truly willing to walk this road, if you are willing to humbly accept that nobody may ever know of your experiences and that you could easily lose your life, if you’re ready to accept the risks, responsibilities and the constant learning and self-criticism that will be required of you in guerrilla life, then I would say that you are probably more precious to the armed struggle than you are in the urban, legal one you might currently find yourself in. Keep that in mind.