Latin America's oldest guerrilla group holds the 'FARC Olympics' as peace deal looms

It could be a sandlot soccer field almost anywhere in rural Colombia: flattened earth carved from the jungle with lopsided goalposts made of tree trunks painted the colors of the country's flag.

But this is no ordinary pick-up game. The players are Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas, and in behaving like laid-back, sport-loving youths, they're taking security risks that would've been unthinkable just months ago.

A team of Associated Press journalists recently spent a week with members of the FARC's southern bloc, one of the rebel army's oldest and most belligerent fighting units.

As Colombia's half-century conflict winds down, with the signing of a peace deal close, thousands of FARC rebels are emerging from their hideouts and preparing for a life without arms. Gone are the days when they had to change camp every few days for fear of being stunned in their sleep by bombs falling from the sky. With a cease-fire largely in place, the hundreds of guerrillas belonging to the FARC's southern bloc have spent much of the past year in semi-permanent camps complete with refrigerators, satellite TV and even regular access to the internet for commanders.

"Before, the military situation would have never allowed this," said Pedro Gutiérrez, one of the leaders of the FARC's 32nd Front.

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The "FARC Olympics," which coincided with the Rio Games, began early in the morning as dozens of guerrillas made their way by motorized longboat through the waterways of southern Colombia to the camp of the 49th Front.

The atmosphere was festive, reminiscent of a 19th century county fair. Female guerrillas, many who entered the ranks as teenagers and know almost nothing about the fast-paced urban culture that awaits them in Colombia's cities, braided their hair and applied lipstick for the occasion.

From the riverside, a small path festooned with pink and white balloons led to a communal dining area where a hot broth soup awaited. Then the guerrillas swapped their knee-high rubber boots, mandatory in the jungle, for new soccer cleats that many had never worn before. Each front had two five-person teams — one male, one female — and the players took the field wearing bright jerseys in the colors of popular European clubs like Inter Milan and Barcelona as well as the German national squad and local club Atlético Nacional from Medellín.

The play was competitive as a referee kept a close eye on the game clock. The tournament's winners got a soccer ball. Except for the revolutionary anthems blasting though the loud speakers and the stack of assault rifles behind each bench there was little to remind spectators of the horrors of a war that has left 220,000 Colombians dead and more than 5 million displaced.

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