When photographer Juan Arredondo first met Esperanza Medina in December 2016, Medina was eight months pregnant. After 26 years as a die-hard member of Colombia’s Marxist rebel group, FARC, Medina was preparing for motherhood, something she wouldn’t have been allowed to do even one year earlier. (Read about post-war Colombia)
In the course of their conversations over the following months, Arredondo learned her story.
Medina ran away from home to join FARC when she was 14. The rebel group had long had a presence in her rural village, and she was attracted by the promise of what seemed a glamorous and exciting life as a fighter. Her parents wanted her to stay at home. One night while babysitting for a neighbor, she tucked the baby into bed and slipped out the window.
She returned to her village three months later with her new FARC unit.
Medina had her first child—a son—at 16. Her commanders told her she couldn’t keep her son if she wanted to continue being a member, so she found a peasant family to raise him.
Life as a FARC fighter meant total commitment to the cause.
Despite the fact that FARC provided contraception to the female soldiers—roughly a third of all soldiers—Medina became pregnant seven times. Each time she had an abortion, choosing to remain a soldier.
One particularly harrowing instance happened when she was 7 months pregnant. Her unit was high in the mountains, surrounded by the Colombian paramilitary. A crying baby would have given away her unit’s position. She was unable to hike down to the nearby village to find a family who could take the baby. If she abandoned her unit, it would have been treason. She chose to have an abortion. The next day, she put on her gear and went into combat.
Within the world of the FARC, the commanders both provided—decided—everything, from whether soldiers needed new boots, to whom they could take as a romantic partner. This level of loyalty may seem extreme to outsiders, but in Arredondo’s telling, for Medina this was not a matter of coercion but deep loyalty and respect.
So, when she became pregnant this last time, she once again asked their permission to have the child. A peace accord reached with the Colombian government in June 2017 meant that units like Medina’s were demobilizing and beginning the process of transitioning to civilian life.
Times were changing, so the commanders said yes.
Arredondo went back to visit Esperanza after the birth of her daughter, whom she named Desiree. She was the first one in her unit to have a baby, so the commanders built her a small house. She is separated from Desiree’s father though he pays them visits. The remaining members of her front act as unofficial uncles and aunts.
While many of her comrades have reunited with their families and transitioned to civilian life, Esperanza wants to stay here.
“She says she will miss combat,” Arredondo says, “But it’s been interesting seeing how her ideas have changed. She is thinking more and more she wants to raise this child.”
Editor's note February 7, 2018: This article has been updated to reflect the correct year Juan Arredondo first met Esperanza Medina.