The Saturday Profile

A One-Time Rebel of Colombia’s War Seeks Her Place in Peacetime

María Alexandra Marín says she joined the leftist FARC guerrillas at age 15 to escape machismo. Adjusting to civilian life has not been easy.

María Alexandra Marín, also known as Paula, at her home in Bogotá earlier this month.
Credit...Federico Rios for The New York Times

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — María Alexandra Marín lives with her cat Marx and two dogs in a small apartment in a working-class neighborhood in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. She has an enviable view of the Andes, a breeze in the evening and a patio from which she photographs the moon. She recently adopted a new kitten.

But this quiet life hides a larger turmoil.

Ms. Marín, 29, known to many by her battle alias, Paula, is one of thousands of former fighters with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who retired to civilian life following a 2016 peace accord that was heralded as the end of the longest-running conflict in the Americas. For his work on the deal, then-President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But almost four years later, that deal is threatened. Hundreds, if not thousands, of fighters have returned to the mountains, soured on civilian life or angry that the government has not delivered on promised roads, schools and electricity. Most of the underlying problems that sparked the FARC’s leftist revolution, namely Colombia’s stark inequality, continue. About 200 former fighters have been killed since the accord was signed, apparently in retribution for their years waging war.

More than 200,000 people died during the conflict, more than 30,000 at the hands of leftist organizations like the FARC, and another 90,000 at the hands of rival paramilitary groups.

Credit...Federico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

And Ms. Marín, like many ex-militants pushing their way through civilian life, remains in a social and political third space, living between war and peace, between her identity as a fighter and this new person she is trying to craft.

At home, she lives surrounded by photographs of her dead comrades. “We called her Flash,” she said one chilly night, pointing toward a small portrait arranged carefully on a wall with 27 others. “This is La Pilosa,” she went on. “That’s Torrijos.”

In her bedroom sits a rucksack packed with her T-shirts and tarpaulins, as if she is ready to return to war tomorrow.

On the wall in the living room hangs a painting given to her by a top commander, Jesús Santrich. “For my precious Paula,” it reads, “with deep love and hope. Dec. 31, 2017.”

Last year, Mr. Santrich was among the most prominent FARC members to return to battle.

“It was a necessity,” Ms. Marín said of the 2016 peace deal. “Because the war lasted 50 years, and we were just killing the same people as always. And because we realized that with bullets we were not going to solve anything.”

But now she is not sure how long the deal will last — or how she will endure as a civilian.

Ms. Marín was born in the city of Tuluá, in western Colombia, outside of Cali. Her mother, a homemaker, gave birth to seven children. Ms. Marín was the youngest and the only girl. Her father owned a fruit market.

They were not rich, she said, but they were not desperately poor either.

As a child she wanted to be a police officer, attracted to power. “It was that idea of authority,” she said. At age 8, the government raided her home, she said, having discovered that her older brother was involved with the FARC.

The family fled, first to a farm and later to a small town, and spent the next few years evading the police, the military and paramilitary groups. She began to think of the FARC as “the good ones,” following a childhood in which she’d always viewed them as “the bad ones.”

By age 12 her relationship with her father had collapsed. He was domineering and abusive, and she was defiant and outspoken. “In my house you would do what my father said, because he was the authority,” she said. For three years Ms. Marín did not speak to him.

At age 15, nearing high school graduation, she saw three possible futures for herself: life with a man like her father, life with drugs or life with the guerrillas.

She chose the rebels. Looking back, she said, it was without a doubt a feminist flight.

Credit...Federico Rios for The New York Times

She found a job during the Christmas season, and on payday took her salary and went to stay with a brother. Shortly after, a well-known FARC leader came to town and she left with him to join the guerrillas, where she knew that women were commanders and carried guns.

She took her boots, four sweaters, a toothbrush and skin cream and left her family photographs behind.

“It was an escape from machismo and maltreatment,” she said. “And today, years later, I have to say, it was the best decision that I could have made as a woman.”

She never again saw her mother, who died within a year, of a heart attack.

Camped out in southern Colombia, Ms. Marín settled into a routine of study, training and combat. She began to more fully embrace FARC ideology.

“It was more of a vision that Colombia could live better, that it wasn’t right that in Colombia, with so much richness, with so many resources, to survive there were people who went to bed without eating.”

“We all believed,” she said, “that we would take power.”

To accomplish this, the FARC not only engaged in combat, but committed kidnappings and trafficked drugs.

In the early 2000s, the government began flooding the south with soldiers, and Ms. Marín eventually became a paramedic, treating fighters just feet from the front lines.

Her commander at the time, Eloisa Rivera Rojas, alias Liliana, recalled that this involved living “in the middle of life and death.”

Credit...Federico Rios for The New York Times

A week before Ms. Marín was to make a big change — she had plans to travel for training to join the guerrillas’ press team — one of her mentors, a woman named Rocío, died in an explosion.

Ms. Marín’s superiors charged her with caring for Rocío’s body.

“She was left without hands, without eyes, without breasts,” Ms. Marín recalled. “I remember so much how I braided her hair. And that was that. She was very loved and so we felt the emptiness.”

Ms. Marín went on to join the organization’s media team, producing the photos and videos that would stream on social media and present the FARC to the rest of the world.

In 2016, the FARC and the government signed an accord, even after it was narrowly rejected in a nationwide referendum.

“I was anguished, I have to tell you,” Ms. Marín said. It wasn’t that she didn’t want peace, or didn’t believe it could work. It was that the FARC was her family, and she had no one to return to. “It was hard for me as a woman, as a fighter, to stop living in community.”

She moved to Bogotá, a city of eight million, where she spent about 10 months living in a motel, paid for by a government fund supported by international entities and the private sector.

At times she was so broke that she had to sneak on to city cable cars, unable to pay the fare.

“It’s been difficult for everyone, but in particular for her,” said Victoria Sandino, a former fighter and current senator who met Ms. Marín around 2016.

In the FARC, female fighters were not permitted to give birth, and they were given monthly birth control injections.

After the accord, there was a baby boom among fighters, said Ms. Sandino. In her view, many of those women adjusted to new lives more quickly, rooted by their new families.

But Ms. Marín had never wanted to be a mother, she said.

These days, in her apartment, she often thinks about friends who have died since the accord was signed, in so-called peacetime, targeted for their past work as fighters.

Credit...Federico Rios for The New York Times

She is angry at the government for not protecting them, and in particular at President Iván Duque, a critic of parts of the peace deal who is now charged with carrying it out.

“Truly, they have failed,” she said of the government. “200 fighters assassinated,” she went on. “And it keeps growing. We publicize the figures and no one responds.”

Often, she thinks about her friends who have already returned to the fight, and she rereads old letters from her guerrilla days.

A few months ago, she began working for Ms. Sandino, using the media skills she’d learned in the mountains to become the senator’s photographer, video producer and image crafter.

This gives her some purpose, she said, and for now, she is happy.

“Well, not happy,” she corrected herself. “I am calm — and politically worried.”