At La Trocha, located in the Teusaquillo neighborhood of Bogotá, there are no signs advertising the craft beer served there, or the role it plays as a gathering spot for discussions about peace in Colombia.
Doris Suárez, one of the founders of La Trocha – La Casa de la Paz, said there’s two reasons. One is that it’s getting enough business through its strong social media presence and personal recommendations.
“One person recommends it to the other,” she said, “Most nights when we have events, this place is packed.”
The second reason is darker: as an ex-FARC combatant who served 14 years of a 40-year prison sentence, Suárez is worried about security. After nearly two years in business, there fortunately haven’t been any threats. “People have seen what we’re advocating for – maybe it’s that that’s been protecting us,” she said.
La Trocha started during the pandemic, and survived by passing itself off as an “essential business” so that it could keep selling its products at markets.
Now, Suárez calls La Trocha (The Path) an “epicenter” of discussions about peace and reconciliation in Bogota where free speech can flourish without the formality of government institutions. José Antequera, director of Colombia’s Centro de Memoria, said out the important role La Trocha plays in the reconciliation process that government sites can’t.
“At the Centro de Memoria, we can’t drink viche (cane liquor) and craft beer,” he said at a recent panel discussion at La Trocha commemorating the sixth anniversary of the government’s peace accord with the FARC.
The idea of a craft brewery was an unlikely path for Suárez and her nine business partners, most of whom were ex-guerrillas and who spent time, in their words as “political prisoners”. At age 24, Suárez joined the Unión Patriótica (UP) a close political movement to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – FARC – which for almost a half-century was Colombia’s largest armed rebel group and responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Suárez said as the daughter of a poor family in Antioquia, she saw joining the guerrilla as a way to defend herself from a government and paramilitaries that were implicated in the killing of thousands civilians as to show progress in its fight against guerrillas. After 15 years in the illegal organization, she was captured by the government.
She served time prison from 2002 to 2016, when the Colombian government signed a peace accord with the FARC. As part of the deal, many guerrilla’s were released from prison, but the government did little to help them reintegrate.
“Imagine me, ex-guerrilla, ex-prisoner, older and a woman – where am I gonna find work?” she said.
Suárez joined a group of ex-combatants and started looking for a path into business, first considering manufacturing soap before some acquaintances offered to show them how to brew beer. They started selling at local markets and realized the potential, before pooling COP$8,000,000 (US$2000) the government Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization (ARN) gave each ex-combatant as part of the peace accord to start La Trocha.
“It was a pittance,” she believes.
La Trocha now boasts four varieties of craft beer, from its flagship porter ale to an American Pale Ale flavored with the Amazonian fruit acai. It also sells other craft liquors, like viche, distilled by displaced people or ex-combatants.
After thirty years as a guerrilla and prisoner where she wasn’t allowed to drink beer, she’s happy to be able to enjoy her brews.
“Without false modesty, I can say that it’s a delicious beer,” she said.
The space has become a vibrant cultural center, hosting events like the commemoration of six years since the signing of the peace accord. There’s a small but wide-ranging bookstore on the ground floor, a stage for musicians to perform, and a small auditorium on the third floor.
The second story hosts several micro-businesses – including a “Sewer’s Union” where people displaced by violence can sell hand-stitched clothing and traditional foods.
Suárez said the business employs three workers, but relies on an army of volunteers who come for the good vibes and to support the cause of promoting peace in Colombia. It’s a long way before Doris can think about purchase the building outright, one of the goals she said is needed to keep the business sustainable, but customers are steadily growing.
Still, the social entrepreneur said it hasn’t been easy for ex-combatants like her. She’s hopeful that ongoing peace talks with the National Liberation Arm – ELN – Colombia’s largest remaining guerrilla group, can bring another peace deal, but she said the government has failed to follow through adequately with promises to return land taken from peasants during the years of violence. The measly seed-money the government gave ex-combatants, Suárez said, means National Liberation Army fighters will be more skeptical of a deal, which makes achieving a deal more challenging.
Still, she’s supportive of the government of Gustavo Petro and his commitment to “total peace” in Colombia and hopeful that her work at the La Trocha – Casa de la Paz can help Colombian society heal from decades of conflict.
“We’ve been educated with the language of hate. That’s not natural,” she said. “But we have to leave a different legacy to the next generation.”