More than 50,000 Colombians have abandoned the guerrilla and illegal groups over the last 11 years.
COLOMBIA NEWS – As many as 55,800 former members of illegal Colombian armed groups have registered themselves as demobilized fighters since 2003, according to the government’s Reintegration Information System.
The Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR) is leading governmental efforts to demobilize guerrillas and other illegal fighters and rehabilitate them for reentry into mainstream society. The goal is to enable those who have renounced the call to take up arms for insurgency and other forms of violence to work in the legal economy and ensure peace in their communities.
“Recovering a person who was in the war takes time and patience,” Esneyder Cortés, the Reintegration Program director, said. “There is no universal standard and it’s necessary to identify their individual characteristics so that they can successfully reintegrate into society.”
Currently, it can take about six and a half years to reintegrate a former illegal fighter.
To access benefits offered by the ACR – such as healthcare, psychosocial assistance, job training and economic integration – the demobilized fighter must apply for a certificate from the Operating Committee for Disarmament (CODAP).
Providing a service to the community is part of the psychosocial assistance process. In Ariguaní municipality, Magdalena department, six people who belonged to illegal armed groups but were placed in the reintegration program rebuilt the playground in the Villa Natalia neighborhood.
“We don’t give away anything to anybody here, but we’re open to helping those who want to leave the war in the past,” ACR director Alejandro Eder said.
When he was 20 years old, Maicol Quintero (name changed for security reasons) received threats from paramilitary groups while studying at a university in Cartagena. A person who had offered him shelter took him to a camp run by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), where he spent two years as a guerrilla fighter. He signed up for reintegration after escaping from the FARC, following a bombing in Caquetá department.
He earned his degree and now, at age 34, is one of the 36 demobilized fighters working for the ACR.
“My job is to promote a relationship of trust between the business sector and the reinserted fighters and encourage those who are just starting out on this arduous journey,” Quintero said.
A person in the reintegration process costs the state 4 million pesos (US$2,137) per year, compared with a prisoner who costs 13 million pesos (US$6,946), according to “The Return to Legality or Recidivism of Former Combatants,” a report released by the NGO Fundación Ideas para la Paz on June 26.
Dayer Valencia (real name withheld for security reasons) grew up in Nariño department, in southern Colombia, and abandoned his family at age 14 to join the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (UAC) Central Bolívar Bloc. In 20 years of operations, the Central Bolívar Bloc has left behind 14,000 victims in several regions of the country, according to the Office of the Prosecutor.
In 2005, Valencia joined the collective demobilization of the Bloc, which included 7,603 people and ended in January 2006. He returned to the mountains where he grew up with two other colleagues, but one of them was killed soon thereafter.
Valencia then fled to Bogotá, where he continued with the reintegration program. He now works for a shoe company.
Last year, 228 people in the process of reintegration were murdered, according to the ACR.
“After fear, the main consequence is the social stigma,” said Carlos Gómez, who demobilized from the FARC in 2008 and has been selling honey and honey-related products in Santander department.
Initially, Gómez opened an Internet café using the economic incentives offered by the ACR. But the business failed, largely because of the ghosts of his past.
“One of the great challenges of peace is to learn to forgive,” Eder said.
Learning from mistakes
Eight years ago, 31,671 people put down their weapons as part of the AUC demobilization.
However, the inconsistencies and improvisations in the process and the massive amounts of illicit money generated by the drug trade led to the rapid formation of armed groups known as emerging criminal bands (bandas criminales emergentes or BACRIM).
In 2003, during the demobilization of the Nutibara Bloc, 868 demobilized fighters spent three weeks in La Ceja, Antioquia, where they received psychological evaluations and attended re-socialization workshops in order to return to civilian life.
They then returned to their neighborhoods of origin, where most of them operated. Later, they attended three additional workshops and were each given US$335 to start a savings account, according to a study by the Political Studies Institute of the University of Antioquia.
Despite the re-socialization effort, many of them continued to commit crimes and joined the BACRIM.
The demobilization of the AUC had a negative impact due to the lack of planning and transparency and the short period during which reinserted persons were monitored and accompanied, according to “Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration in the Colombian Context,” a study published in 2011 by the Dutch NGO Pax Christi.
The challenge of the post-conflict era
“Peace processes always leave vestiges, as happened in El Salvador and Guatemala,” said Gonzalo Sánchez, director of the Center for Historical Memory, charged with recording the testimonies of the former guerrilla fighters.
“In Colombia we have a more complex panorama, given that there already exist organized criminal structures that can take in those persons who do not wish to reintegrate into civilian life. If the social and economic issues, which are the true causes of their entry into these illegal armed groups, are not addressed, crime will continue to be an alternative for many of them.”
Demobilization among the FARC has increased 20% since the start of the peace talks in Havana, in November 2012, according to Eder.
“It is our duty to be prepared for the eventuality of a massive demobilization, and that’s why we’re working in coordination with several state entities and the private sector,” he said.
One hundred fifteen companies are joining efforts with the ACR to offer employment, training and project financing to the most judicious former fighters.
“We must all contribute to ensuring an organized post-conflict process, where the demobilized fighters are able to find a place in society,” Roberto Pizano, of the Carvajal Foundation, said.