February 15, 2013 7:45 pm

First Person: Alvaro Pérez

‘I was Farc’s official tailor’
Alvaro Pérez made hundreds of uniforms a month for Colombia’s Farc guerrillas©Stephen Ferry

Alvaro Pérez made hundreds of uniforms a month for Colombia’s Farc guerrillas

Sewing runs in my veins. My mother had a little workshop where she made clothes, so I learnt the craft from her. I moved to Bogotá when I was a teenager and tried to make inroads in the tailoring business but it never really took off. By 1996, I was broke and jobless. I’d grown up in the Marquetalia, the cradle of the Farc guerrillas – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – and a cousin from my home town told me that Farc needed a tailor to sew their olive green camouflage uniforms.

Of course, it meant I had to join Farc. I’d always been seduced by certain leftwing ideals but I never thought about walking into the rebel camps to become a guerrilla. It was necessity that brought me in. Sometimes people joined for ideological reasons, sometimes they were coerced, but sometimes it was just plain hunger.

At first, I didn’t fully understand Farc’s ideology. But I soon became a convinced revolutionary. During my first few months in the camp I was treated well: they gave me a great welcome, food and a good salary every month. I was allowed to leave every few weeks to go and get supplies to make the uniforms.

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They also asked me a lot of questions: where my family was, that kind of thing. It took me a while to realise that this was a hook to keep me in: if I ever left, they would go after my loved ones and shoot them down. My father knew I was in Farc; my mother never found out.

Life with Farc was hard. When we were attacked by government troops we often had to rush to another camp. At first, I was petrified. I was often caught in crossfire, helping to get wounded rebels out of the skirmishes. After a while, one of the commanders gave me a gun. I never used it; that wasn’t my job. Sometimes the fatigues I sewed got torn and stained with blood after clashes with the military and I had to fix them or sew replacements; that was my job.

For about 10 years I was producing 1,000 uniforms a month, often without electricity, for almost every battalion. I was helped by other rebels I had trained to sew. All through the worst years I was the guerrillas’ official tailor. They used to tell me: “You are working for the cause, you are working for the revolution, we are the people’s army and you’re in charge of dressing it.”

But things started to change. They stopped paying me, they stopped treating me well. Yet I could not leave. The rebels were extorting the rich as well as the poor, and I feared for my family, especially after I witnessed guerrillas executing peasants; they shot them in the head and threw the bodies in a stream. In 2006, I convinced my family to leave for Bogotá because I was plotting to desert. A former guerrilla that I met during a trip to buy supplies convinced me to leave, and I persuaded others to do the same.

Farc found out and I heard later that they sent a killer to take me down with a knife as an example. But I’d already fled to a nearby army base. The army flew me out in a military helicopter and, after a few weeks, I ended up living in the outskirts of Bogotá. The government gave me shelter, food, a little money.

I asked them if they could get me a sewing machine. I trained other former guerrillas, and we started sewing school uniforms. We launched our own company at a little warehouse; we called it “Colombians Sew Peace”. It was hard to get loans at first because banks thought: “Once a guerrilla, always a guerrilla.” Nonetheless, soon we got clients, big clients such as Coca-Cola, Carrefour – and we did their uniforms.

I have trained a lot of people, I have sewn thousands of clothes, for the rich and the poor. I regained my freedom and I’m convinced that peace will be reached through hard work. Hopefully, Colombia will clinch a peace deal with the rebels soon. I tell people: “These hands that used to carry guns now sew for peace.”

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