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Colombia makes reintegration of ex-FARC rebels into society a top priority
Diálogo / March 17, 2014

By Larry Luxner

Devising a way to reintegrate battle-hardened members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to join civil society is a top priority for the government, which is engaged in ongoing peace talks with the rebel group in Havana, according to Alejandro Eder, director of the Bogotá-based Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR).

The ACR is a government agency that is part of the Ministry of Defense.

Since 2002, the ACR has helped more than 57,000 men and women demobilize from guerilla organizations and integrate into civilian society, Eder said. About 35,000 of those former guerillas were from illegal right-wing paramilitary organizations, and 22,000 from the FARC and other leftist guerrilla groups. More than 1,000 people voluntarily left the FARC in 2013, and about 300 deserted its rival, the National Liberation Army (ELN), according to Eder.

“A lot of people in the media ask me if Colombia is ready for when the ex-combatants arrive,” Eder said. “The short answer to that is that they’ve already arrived. Many of them have already reintegrated. We have over a decade of experience doing this.”

In recent years, the ACR has overseen the demobilization of more than 18,000 former FARC members and between 3,000 and 4,000 fighters from ELN. Integrating them into civil society is a challenging process, because many of the former combatants are not well-educated, and almost all of them had psychological trauma, Eder said.

“Of the 1,400 people who demobilized last year, 45 percent came out completely illiterate, 30 percent were functionally illiterate — meaning they could read and write their names, and that’s about it — and 90 percent had some sort of psychological trauma,” Eder said. “Of those, 20 percent required clinical psychiatric attention to attend to that trauma.”

The average guerrilla was recruited when he or she was 12 years old, and spent an average of 14 years as a combatant, Eder said.

“I’ve met people who went into the FARC as young as six or seven years old,” he said. “Usually, they get a machine gun, an AK-47, in their hands by the time they’re nine years old. And since so many of them left such a long time ago, they don’t have any social networks or a safety net of family and friends they can fall back on. Their families often shun them when they come back because they don’t know what that person did.”

The number of onetime guerrillas who need to be reintegrated into civil society may grow substantially in coming months. The government and the FARC, which has been fighting the government for 50 years, are engaged in peace talks in Havana. Tens of thousands of FARC members would need to be reintegrated into civil society if the two sides reach an accord for a lasting peace.

One of the ex-fighters reintegrating into civil society is Pablo Andrés Coneo, a former FARC rebel who recently returned to his native Cartagena after years on the run. The ACR helped him start his own business — a mini-market and laundry that also offers customers Internet and fax services. Coneo has been working with two partners since October 2013. The government is helping Coneo with a modest business subsidy.

“I’m learning about business every day and we have a leader who helps us to run things, but now he lets us be on our own because we’re doing well,” Coneo told El Universal. In Cartagena, 81 percent of the ex-combatants who returned to civil society in 2013 are now employed, the newspaper reported.

When former guerrillas turn themselves in, they generally spend two to three months in government-run halfway houses, Eder said. Government officials use this time to help former guerrillas make the transition to civil society.

“During that time, they go through an interagency certification process which is led by the Ministry of Defense,” Eder said. “Each case is reviewed one-on-one to determine whether the person actually did belong to these groups, and whether he or she has outstanding warrants for crimes against humanity. If they do, they cannot come into this program and must go to prison. Before they could, but that’s no longer an option. Now they must face the full extent and punishment for their crimes.”

Reintegrating former guerrillas into civil society is a process, Eder said.

“The first thing we have to do is stabilize people psychologically and emotionally. That takes two to three years on average,” he said. “If you look at soldiers coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan, there’s a high level of post-traumatic stress disorder. And that’s the U.S. military. Imagine what it must be like after having been in the FARC or a paramilitary group since you were a child.”

The ACR is also providing basic education to the former guerrillas. The former combatants will need education to compete in Colombia’s modern economy, Eder said.

“Colombia is a high middle-income developing country, and you need a minimum level of education in order to get back into the workforce — at least how to read and write. So we take 96 percent of ex-combatants through the fifth grade. The 4 percent we don’t take are senior citizens or those with some sort of handicap or chronic illness,” he said, adding that cancer and AIDS are both prevalent among these men and women who have spent much of their lives in the jungle.

“Once we get everybody through elementary school, half of them will go on to high school. We also have around 800 who have gone on to college, studying everything from law to medicine to anthropology,” he said. “And we now have 50 ex-combatants working with us at ACR as social workers, psychologists and technicians. We call them reintegration promoters, which is a special category we created because these people don’t have any legal work experience.”

The ACR maintains 34 service centers in 26 municipalities across the country. The agency has demobilized ex-combatants in 740 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities. Each of them must perform a mandatory 80 hours of community service — regardless of what rank they achieved while fighting in the jungle.

“If you don’t take care of the mid-level managers — the ones who know how to run the show — it’s more likely they’ll be unsatisfied with the deal they’re getting, and they’ll go back to criminal activity,” Eder said. “So we try to identify people who have extraordinary leadership qualities and develop them in a positive way, regardless of what their rank was.”

Nationwide, nearly 72 percent of the 32,000 ex-combatants ACR has assisted over the years have found gainful employment, Eder said.

Educating former guerrillas and making sure they are psychologically stable is just part of the equation, Eder said. Authorities are also working with business owners in the private sector to assure them that hiring former guerrillas is a good thing.

Colombia’s private sector is booming, as the country’s economy reaps the fruits of decreased violence and eagerly anticipates a peace treaty that will put an end to 50 years of internal conflict between the government and the rebels.

It is understandable that some business owners are wary of hiring former guerrillas, Eder said.

“The private sector was victimized by illegal armed groups, and many companies suffered extortions, kidnappings and terrorism, and the reluctance to give ex-combatants a chance is still very high,” Eder said. “But this is something we’re trying to change.”

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