These portraits reveal the ‘anonymous phantoms’ of Colombia’s FARC

David Preciado, 32, a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla fighter who lost his left arm after being shot nine times in an ambush by Colombian troops. (Joao Pina For The Washington Post)

The soldiers of the last major guerrilla army in the Western Hemisphere have been mostly ghosts until now. A few appeared in grainy “Wanted” posters and archival photographs, but most of the members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were anonymous phantoms, hiding somewhere deep in the jungle.

Now they are coming out of the forest to prepare for peace, and Colombians are getting a long look at the faces of the enemy. Who, it turns out, look just like they do.

A FARC rebel discovers soft beds and iPhones after 20 years in the Colombian jungle

Colombians will vote Sunday to approve or reject a peace agreement with the FARC that would end the guerrillas’ 52-year Marxist-Leninist insurgency. If the referendum is approved, the rebels’ 7,000 or so fighters and thousands of additional militia members will move into U.N.-monitored camps to begin handing over their weapons.

With the war winding down, photographer Joao Pina and I traveled this month to a remote camp along the Amazonian savannas of eastern Colombia for the FARC’s final assembly as an armed insurgency.

Pina’s portraits include ordinary FARC soldiers as well as the group’s highest-ranking commanders. He used a large format camera with instant film — an old process, which seemed fitting for men and women who have been lost in time and mostly living in isolation — some of them for decades.

“I didn’t tell them what to wear, or how to pose,” Pina said. “I just asked them to look at me.”

His photos show the fighters at a moment when they are getting ready to leave behind their guerrilla lives and re-enter the modern world as civilians. They signed their names on the images — “Jhon,” “Yhency” and “Kunta Kinte”— using the pseudonyms many will give up.

Pina’s portraits include seven members of FARC’s nine-man command structure, or national secretariat, and these are some of the most striking images. The names of these men, many of whom have been indicted on charges of terrorism, drug trafficking and murder, are notorious to Colombians. But their faces are only now becoming familiar.

What do their expressions say? Pride? Remorse? Impunity? Fatigue?

If the peace accords are approved, the commanders will have the chance to avoid prison if they fully confess to their war crimes and make repatriations to victims. This would also open a path for FARC leaders to enter electoral politics. In which case Colombians will be seeing a lot more of these faces.