Fostering Peace, One Bottle at a Time

Rubén Darío Jaramillo Cardona closely monitors the fermentation temperature in two steel tanks occupying a small room at the rear of an unused communal kitchen. It is part of a cluster of prefabricated buildings hugging the cliff along a deeply rutted dirt road. It’s also a world away from the jungle camps Jaramillo Cardona called home for years when he used to be a rebel fighter for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Now he brews beer. 

In 2016, the FARC signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government, formally ending over 50 years of war. One of the challenges to lasting peace is finding productive legal employment for ex-guerillas who often lack secondary education or formal work experience. 

Jaramillo Cardona belongs to a group of ex-guerillas that hopes beer is their path to peace. The 30-member cooperative makes La Roja, or The Red, an Irish-style red ale. The name and label are a nod to their Marxist revolutionary ideology. 

Photo courtesy of La Roja archives

La Roja began in October 2018 when Irish-Colombian professor Wally Broderick brought his home brewing kit four hours south of his home in Bogotá to teach the former rebels how to make beer. They sold their first 25-liter batch to friends and family in and around the Antonio Nariño reincorporation camp and reinvested the proceeds. Eventually they turned to crowdfunding and personal loans to continue expansion since they reject private investors and private ownership.

“We are not setting up a traditional capitalist business where there are a few owners and a lot of workers,” explains Broderick, “We want the income distributed in the community.” Today, the cooperative brews 3,000 liters, or just over 25 US barrels, every month. 

Initially, many members feared their beer would not be accepted by their fellow Colombians. Decades of kidnapping civilians, forced recruitment of child soldiers, and involvement in narco-trafficking has stigmatized FARC members. Yet bottles of La Roja are consistently sold out in Bogotá bars and cafes. According to Broderick, “there is such a demand. The supply is the problem at the moment. We just have to tell people to wait 15 days or a month, we have no beer right now.”

Progress has not come without challenges, however. For José Hernando Garcia Mayorga, one of the biggest challenges has been the loss of military structure, “the guidance of the bosses, the organization, the camaraderie.” In addition, the peace process has been slowly and partially implemented and lacks the support of the current president, Iván Duque Márquez. Nearly 200 ex-combatants have been murdered by right-wing groups since the peace agreement was signed, and critics accuse the government of doing little to ensure their security.

“We can’t tell the process and history of La Roja while there are comrades and leaders being assassinated across Colombia,” explains Maria (not her real name), an ex-combatant and a cooperative member. 

Despite the danger, the La Roja cooperative keeps making progress and pushing towards a lasting peace. They hope to expand production to other reincorporation camps in the future, too. More than other projects, like growing potatoes or producing sugar and coffee, Broderick says beer seems to have a “mystical aura. “We are discovering that if a community can make beer they are at another level. They get respect,” he adds. “If you can make beer, you can make anything.”

Miriam Riner is a freelance science and travel writer and the author of the Greater Than a Tourist series guidebook for Popayán, Colombia.

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