Wearing headphones and speaking into a microphone, Mónica Córdoba conducts an interview at a newly opened public radio station in the northern Colombian town of Ituango. It’s her first formal job in radio, but she’s comfortable in the studio.
That’s because Córdoba spent years working for a clandestine radio station operated by the Marxist guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Broadcasting from Andean Mountain hideouts, she and her five-person team produced news programs, rebel propaganda and even radio soap operas.
“We gave the news a revolutionary twist,” she recalls with a smile.
That station went off the air in 2016, when the guerrillas agreed to disarm. But during the peace negotiations, they insisted on expanding their presence in the Colombian media. So the Colombian government agreed to set up 20 FM public radio stations in former conflict zones, to be run by war victims as well as former guerrillas — like Córdoba.
The stations, such as the one in Ituango, which began broadcasting in July, are designed to provide local news in remote areas where there is little newspaper, TV or radio coverage or access to the internet. But they also aim to educate Colombians about the peace accords and promote reconciliation after a five-decade war that killed some 220,000 people.
“Local radio stations open spaces for the community and allow them to know what is happening in their regions,” said Juan Pablo Madrid, an analyst at the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom. “They can be fundamental in constructing peace.”
The stations are part of Colombia’s state-run National Radio network and much of the daily programming comes from headquarters in Bogotá, the capital. But in Ituango, a remote town tucked in the Andes Mountains that was ravaged by the war, reporters often conduct interviews with former combatants and update listeners on the progress and setbacks of the peace accords.
“We try to entertain but also to educate,” says Wilson Cartagena, a professional journalist who serves as station manager. “That’s the role of public radio.”
During a visit by NPR in January, one of the announcers, María Eugenia Durango, recalled that her family was forced to flee Ituango during the war, amid intense combat between the army and the guerrillas. After returning to the town, she took a job at the station last year alongside Córdoba, the former rebel.
“For me, to work with someone who used to be in the guerrillas is proof that Colombians can come together in spite of everything that has happened,” Durango says.
For her part, Córdoba says she got into radio by accident. She joined the FARC guerrillas at age 14 more out of boredom than revolutionary fervor: “I didn’t even know what ‘FARC’ stood for,” she says.
She was issued a rifle, but was soon assigned to Voz de la Resistencia, or Voice of the Resistance, the rebel radio station where she spent most of the next two decades.
The Colombian military often tried to bomb the station. Córdoba and her fellow guerrilla DJs would retreat through the rugged Andes, lugging their transmitter, antenna and gasoline generator. They always managed to escape. Córdoba says she survived the war “without a scratch.”
The two sides also battled over the airwaves, with Voice of the Resistance urging government troops to desert, and army radio stations encouraging guerrillas to turn themselves in.
“It was a war of the microphones,” said Manuel Bolívar, a former guerrilla DJ who worked alongside Córdoba. “They would say on the air: ‘Manuel, come over to our side!’ ”
Bolívar now works as a press officer for the FARC’s newly founded left-wing political party, while Córdoba is getting used to reporting news instead of rebel propaganda.
“The news has to be impartial,” Córdoba says. “You can’t take sides.”
Some Ituango residents, like furniture salesman Adolfo Trujillo, welcome the presence of former rebels on the radio. Because many ex-FARC guerrillas grew up and lived in the countryside their whole lives, “they know about the problems in rural areas,” he says.
Still, like many elements of Colombia’s peace accords, the public radio experiment has hit some snags. So far, the government has built just two of the promised 20 stations.
Meanwhile, areas like Ituango are still plagued by violence because drug trafficking gangs have moved into areas once controlled by the guerrillas. A day after NPR visited the town’s new public radio station, Durango, whose family had been uprooted by the fighting years ago, received a death threat from one of these gangs. She no longer works at the radio station because she had to flee Ituango for her safety.