By Alex Stonor
Until a peace deal in 2016, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were engaged in the longest-running conflict between a Latin American government and a guerrilla group. Six decades of fighting led to humanitarian disasters, the death of more than 250,000, and the displacement of 5 million civilians. Despite the chaos and bloodshed of this conflict, FARC still attracted European female volunteers. More than focusing on their military roles within the FARC, our aim is to understand the role these women played in ending the most bloody insurgency of the western hemisphere while keeping its ideas alive.
By the time of the deal, women accounted for 40% of the guerrillas. Most women joined the FARC as a way to escape poor living conditions, or even to reach a level of gender equity among rebels unimaginable in their home rural villages, however others were ideologically motivated. This was the case of Audrey, nickname Nathalie Mistral, a French social worker who joined the guerrilla to take part ‘in a global war against capitalism’. The same is true for former Dutch teacher Tanja Nijmeijer, nickname Alexandra Narino or Eileen, who joined the FARC in 2002. They are the only two European women known to have participated in the conflict as guerrillas.
State of the FARC
Formed in 1964 and following a Marxist-Leninist ideology, the group was originally a small force, mostly composed of peasants, and had around 900 guerrillas by the end of the 1970s. Drug-trafficking money and the control of smuggling roads allowed the insurgents to finance their actions, acquire military grade weapons, and expand to more than 48 zones of operation. Historically, FARC has been mostly concentrated in the west of the country, notably in the Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Choco and Narino departments. While few foreign fighters have joined FARC’s ranks since its creation, several came from Latin American countries, such as Panama, Venezuela or Chile. However, there are only a dozen fighters known to have joined the group from Europe, among them, two women.
Tanja Nijmeijer, alias Alexandra Narino, or Eileen
After having taught English in the Colombian city of Pereira in the early 2000s, Nijmeijer joined the FARC as a ‘ miliciana’ in Bogota to take part in ‘the revolution’. She was then made assistant to Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas, nickname ‘Mono Jojoy’, the commander of the military wing of the Estado Mayor del Bloque Oriental, or the Eastern Bloc. This was the most capable and well-equipped section of the FARC at the time. It is believed that Nijmeijer’s language abilities prompted Mono Jojoy to choose her as his assistant.
Despite this close position to a top FARC official, Nijmeijer was almost executed in 2007 when the army shared her notebook they found during an operation in the jungle. Nijmeijer’s notebook strongly criticized some of FARC’s commanders over their behavior towards women and their often opulent lifestyles. She notably wrote ‘How will it be when we take power? The wives of the commanders in Ferrari Testa Rossas with breast implants eating caviar?’. After being killed in a Colombian army strike on his headquarters in the town of La Macarena, Mono Jojoy himself was found to be wearing a $13,000 ‘Submariner Date’ Rolex watch. Despite these sharply worded critiques, Alexandra was shielded from further punishment by Raul Reyes, known as the ‘foreign minister’ of the FARC. He thought that Nijmeijer was crucial to promoting FARC’s image abroad and to attracting foreign fighters from Europe.
Images or footage of Nijmeijer carrying weapons are scarce, and details of her involvement in guerrilla actions are even rarer, despite Nijmeijer never denying her involvement in armed violence.
Audrey, alias Nathalie Mistral
Audrey was involved for more than 15 years in FARC’s insurgency. Originally from Montpellier, France, she chose the nickname ‘Mistral’ to recall the cold, seasonal winds blowing from southern France to the Gulf of Lion. After having joined the anti-imperialist Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas, Mexico, she then opted for the FARC, as Marxist guerrilla groups in Central America began to be hemmed in by government forces and bleeding support from exhausted populations, tired from decades-long insurgencies.
After unsuccessfully searching for fighters to contact on social media, she became a guerrilla amongst the rebels within the Carribean bloc, known for its high-profile kidnappings. In the Perija mountains, Audrey met Jesus Santrich, one of the main ideological leaders of the FARC, and learned everything from weapon handling to irregular warfare tactics, such as hit-and-run ambushes and targeted sabotage.
Despite this training, Audrey claims to never have directly participated in combat. After the peace deal in 2016 between the FARC and Colombian government, she joined the 57th Front operational area in the western Choco Forest, one of the country’s poorest areas. She served as a commander tasked with managing the guerilla group’s relations with civilians, in a region where joining the FARC is often seen as a path to escape from endemic poverty.
Weakened by the former Colombian president Uribe’s aggressive policy against guerrilleros between 2002 and 2010, the FARC decided in 2012 to negotiate peace with President Santos, Uribe’s former Minister of Defense. By this point, FARC had lost the majority of their leaders and half of their fighters, either killed in action or having deserted. Only the defeated remained, among them, Audrey and Nijmeijer.
Audrey and Nijmeijer were both sent to peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government, hosted by Cuban mediators in Havana. They worked for 3 years within the FARC peace delegation led by Ivan Marquez, former commander of the Caribbean bloc and FARC lead negotiator, behind the scenes of the deal. The Colombian government first tried to veto Nijmeijer from participating in the negotiations, as she was indicted for setting fire to buses in Bogota and attacks on police stations. Eventually, she was recognized and made one of the 10 guerrillas to participate on FARC’s negotiation team. She notably engaged in talks regarding tackling the question of women guerrillas reintegration in society.
On 26 September, dignitaries from the FARC and members of Juan Manuel Santos’ government signed a peace agreement that was supposed to put an end to 50 years of conflict. Whereas Audrey and Nijmeijer’s political weight during the negotiations remains unclear, they prove that foreign fighters that have joined conflict zones can also be part of the solution towards peace.
The Struggle of Ideas
Despite years of harsh guerrilla warfare, FARC’s appeal as a revolutionary, communist movement is not hard to see in Colombia, one of the world’s most unequal countries. Colombia’s under-developed, rural communities have long been excluded from the nation’s efforts at boosting dynamic, modern cities, leaving many stagnating in poverty.
The Revolutionary Alternative Common Force party emerged out of the peace deal. As Audrey said in an interview in 2016, ‘We are a communist party. After the peace talks, we can still fight for our ideas, but without rifles’. It only holds 10 seats between the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, and is poorly integrated in the Colombian political sphere. Internal disputes and lack of population support have made it hard for former FARC members to defend their ideas behind desks, rather than behind rifles.
The party renamed itself ‘Comunes’ in January, thus abandoning the FARC acronym. Tanja Nijmeijer left the group in January 2020, explaining that ‘the party has mutated into something that I cannot yet understand and perhaps never will’. She is indicted on seven counts of terrorism and weapons charges in the United States. As for Audrey, her Twitter account indicates that she is still in Colombia working for the guerrilla movement, in a country where she has now laid down a rifle that she had reportedly never used.