Categorized | Conflict, Drugs, Security Issues, World

Colombia’s Rebel Reintegration Quagmire

Image by kozumel

Image by kozumel

Colombia has endured more than five decades of civil discord. Peace negotiations between FARC representatives and the Colombian State have, though, been ongoing since 2012 as the country attempts to realise a future of security and peace. Yet it is the massive human toll that is perhaps the most potent issue to arise from this conflict. Reports estimate that it has claimed the lives of over 200,000 people, most of whom were civilians. More than 5.7 million refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and the 6.2 million registered victims also reflect the volatile effects of violence.

If Colombia is to cultivate a stable and progressive post-conflict landscape, it is paramount that the remaining rebels and fighters are accommodated. Approximately 19,000 individuals – both fringe members and active combatants of rebel organisations such as FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) – are being encouraged to participate in the rehabilitation process. Will these initiatives be able to both lessen the human impact of decades of conflict and, ultimately, be able to effectively reintegrate the thousands affected?

The Agencia Colombiana para la Reintegración (ACR)

The Colombian government’s arm tasked with the reintegration process, the ACR, claims that since 2002 it has rehabilitated approximately 57,000 former combatants (from both left-wing guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitary organisations) back into society.

These include more vulnerable individuals who were initiated into guerrilla groups as teenagers and were moulded by war; as such, many have been deprived of a full education and also suffer from a lack of basic social skills. The former Director of the ACR, Alejandro Eder, has emphasised the challenges of reconditioning such fighters, whose social norms differ considerably from mainstream society, and the efforts of the programme to teach rebels general behaviours such as ‘how to stand in line at the bank’, and how to pay [in a shop]’. Such activities were likely to have been non-existent during their time as guerrillas, where ‘drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, and murder’ were more commonplace. Thus, the programme aims to provide education, vocational training, as well as ‘psychological help to overcome the trauma of years of jungle warfare’.

Alternative reintegration programmes

Alternative approaches such as the ‘Forest Warden Families Programme’ also exist in order to help former combatants adapt to civilian life. The majority of FARC associates originate from agricultural regions and, therefore, this scheme attempts to encourage them to positively engage with the environment and support rural development, thereby building sustainable livelihoods. A paper by the ‘Combating Terrorism Center (CTC)’ details some of the successes as many demobilised fighters have now undertaken new roles as forest wardens or coffee and banana plantation workers, thereby aiding the reintegration process and perhaps also preventing demobilised FARC members from relapsing back into illegal activities. According to the CTC paper, the success of these developments can be demonstrated by the “higher living standards and the creation of thousands of alternative livelihoods”.

Conversely, many families have migrated to cities only to return to their rural origins shortly after, as their skills are not easily transferable, nor are they as in demand in urban regions. This predicament is made more problematic as upon returning these individuals may be more likely to experience poverty, or be required to revert to less economically fulfilling roles such as labourers. What previous working autonomy they previously held could also be compromised, considering that being under the employ of other farmers will perhaps become the necessary and only option in order to survive.

Can criminals change their stripes?

However significant have been the successes that the reintegration programmes have produced, there are still those who are drawn back into illegality and criminality. Whilst these figures are seemingly low, according to former ACR Director Alejandro Eder the relapse rate is ‘between 20% to 25%’, which may originally have been partly due a self-fulfilling prophecy effect. Eder explained that when fighters first enrolled on the rehabilitation programme, ‘we dealt with these people like criminals’, which perhaps spurred a feeling of hopelessness amongst demobilised troops, thus leading them towards illegal lifestyles. However, it should be noted that the ACR have now altered their approach towards rebels and are much more accommodating when supporting fighters, who, as mentioned, may have been recruited as young teenagers.

Nevertheless, the Colombian state and security forces remain concerned due to the temptation of the profitable criminal sector, especially the drug trade which to some fighters could be worth a reported $20 million a year. Indeed, rather than undergo a multi-year reintegrating education, individuals may be encouraged to instead join influential crime gangs ‘which engage in extortion, drug trafficking, illegal mining and murder’. It is also believed that several of these gangs include former paramilitaries within their ranks.

What of the future?

When the right-wing group known as the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) demobilised in 2006, troops in the lower echelons of its paramilitary hierarchy were exempt from being prosecuted so long as they participated in the reintegration initiative. Now, as part of the ongoing peace negotiations,  impunity is again being discussed for FARC rebels, which could potentially involve a disarmament agreement. With these issues taken into consideration, it is not unexpected that feelings of anger resonate with civilians across Colombia against individuals who they perceive as being responsible for much of the country’s recent conflict. Just last December, thousands took part in nationwide demonstrations to protest against these possible reprieves for rebels who many believe have terrorised their country. Negative sentiments are seemingly prevalent as accountability, not amnesty, is sought for apparent crimes and human rights violations. One fervent supporter of answerability is former President Álvaro Uribe who led a rally in Medellín. Uribe claims that the FARC should face justice for the crimes they may have committed.

The public opposition may also have been the result of a series of incidents which have led to this anti-impunity feeling in Colombian society. Firstly, as part of the rehabilitation agreement, former combatants receive a stipend of around $270 per month, which despite being less than Colombia’s minimum wage, could still be a source of public discontent. Compounding matters, the government operates ‘hogares de paz’ (or peace homes). These are designed to provide temporary respite to fighters after their initial desertion or surrender. Although they are the first step of the ACRs reintegration plan, they have been described by The Guardian as places where “hardened fighters can surrender to Colombian forces and spend the next three months playing volleyball, watching football and eating all the ice cream they want.” A hot tub and computer room have also been reported at one of these venues. Glorified accounts and stories such as these are unlikely to garner favourable support from mainstream Colombian society, particularly when over 30% of the population is living below the poverty line.

Regardless of what the reintegration programmes may or may not entail by way of benefits, there have been some success stories, suggesting that Colombia has the potential to progress and develop a strong post-conflict society far removed from the heartache of conflict. Conversely, there are those who continue to question the rehabilitation process. Morningside Post Editor-in-Chief, Cristóbal Vásquez, asks ‘how are you going to reintegrate a group of killers and their families who depend on the drug-dealing, contraband and money laundering?’ Perhaps more disconcerting will be if demobilisation occurs and subsequent attempts to reinsert fighters into society are successful. Who will then inherit the void left by the FARC? If cartels or alternate splinter guerrilla organisations come to the fore to seek power and fill this criminal void, it is possible that Colombia will have to brace itself for yet another cycle of violence.

Image courtesy of kozumel. [CC BY-ND 4.0] via Flickr

A. Khan

About A. Khan

Adil Khan is a Criminology graduate from The University of Liverpool. His interests include political transparency, human rights, justice and post-conflict development strategies. Adil has worked in China and Uzbekistan, and his commitment to researching issues in the developing world has taken him to West Africa, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan. He is currently interning for Global South Development Magazine and is planning to pursue a career in the non-profit sector. He can be reached at adil.khan@gsdmagazine.org

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