How Colombia plans to turn 32,000 ex-jungle-dwelling guerrillas intouseful members of society

BOGOTÁ—Neftali Sanabría Cruz joined the FARC in 1998 out of desperation. “Where I’m from, the state just wasn’t around”, he remembers. “The government, the law, was the guerrilla.”
Rising through the ranks, he eventually found himself in command of 70 guerrilla fighters in Usme, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Bogotá. With Colombia’s armed forces in disarray, the FARC controlled the strategically important roads that led from the capital to the flat plains in the south. By 2003 however, the army had regrouped and rearmed. When it stepped up its attacks, he decided to quit.
But running away was arguably more dangerous than staying. “I thought about it for three days”, he says. “There’s a lot of mistrust in the organization. You can’t really tell anyone that you’re planning to leave, you can’t ask around to see if anyone wants to go with you, because you can’t rely on them not to rat you out.”
He fled to Bogotá, where relatives took him in. But the FARC were on to him. “I was carrying a lot of information”, he says. “The group didn’t like that, so I was closely followed”. In the days after his escape he was too afraid to leave the house. Afterwards he ventured out as little as possible, conscious that he was being watched.
It wasn’t until he was put in touch with the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR) that he was able to move on. The ACR runs a reintegration programme which helps former fighters of all stripes prepare for a return to civilian life. It found him a place to live and provided a monthly stipend. Over a decade later, he now works as an administrator for Bogotá’s busy public transport system.

Laying down arms

A bloody civil war has gripped Colombia for over fifty years. The conflict has pitched left-wing guerrilla groups such as the FARC, right-wing paramilitary groups, and government security forces against one another. Over 220,000 people have been killed and 6.7 million have been officially recognised as victims—most of them civilians. In 2003 president Álvaro Uribe entered negotiations with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s largest paramilitary group, which led to its disbanding. Thirty-six thousand paramilitaries demobilised in the following three years. In 2012 Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos, began peace negotiations with the FARC, which are continuing in Havana.
Since the reintegration programme started in 2003 57,082 combatants have demobilized (pdf), of whom 47,944 (84%) decided to take part in the reintegration process. Of those, 8,916 people have now graduated from the program, which can take up to six-and-a-half years to complete. 27,451 fighters are currently part of the scheme—attending classes and meetings in the 120 municipalities where the ACR has a presence.
Attention is now focused on Havana, where the Colombian government is locked in fragile peace negotiations with the FARC. An agreement would bring a formal end to the country’s civil war and would vindicate president Santos, who has staked his reputation on the peace process. It would also involve demobilizing up to 32,000 former guerrillas. That presents the ACR with arguably the biggest challenge it has faced.

The hard path

Integrating ex-fighters into society is often harder than getting them to lay down their arms. At first, some find it difficult to trust those trying to help them. “I didn’t believe anything anyone said to me”, remembers Sanabría. “I was terrified they were going to betray me because, well, that’s the first thing that comes into your head.”
Some have good reason to be cautious. When Sanabría first heard about the ACR in June 2004, he made contact with his former FARC unit. The sergeant told him he had permission to enter the reintegration program, but that he would be watched closely. Other demobilized fighters face death threats or violent attacks. The ACR provides security and legal advice for those who need it. The newly demobilized are at first housed in “peace homes”—small houses whose locations are kept secret.
Each former combatant is assigned a social worker, who can help with more practical problems, such as opening a bank account, finding health care or obtaining a national ID card. They get a monthly stipend of up to 480,000 pesos ($189) a month, as long as they stick with the program. Later, they get help finding adult education classes or vocational training courses. “Some are interested in fixing up cars and motorbikes, that kind of thing,” says Linda Castro, one of the social workers. “Nursing is also quite popular among women. But we help people with all sorts of careers. We once had someone train as a florist and three months ago a few guys started work as baggage handlers at the airport.”

A fresh start

The ACR is proud of its track record. It says half of those who have been through or are going through the reintegration process have found a job, in either the formal or informal economy. Large companies such as Coca-Cola, Electrolux, Coltabaco (Philip Morris’s Colombia operation) and Éxito (a supermarket chain owned by the French giant Casino) have employed ex-combatants through ACR. 
But Colombian companies are often more reluctant to employ people who were directly involved in the conflict. A former paramilitaryrecently told the Colombian paper El Espectador that his past represents a “permanent stain on my CV.” After he got a job as a security guard, his boss turned up one day holding his criminal record, telling him they didn’t want people like him working there. He survives by repairing computers for his neighbors, but is tempted when he seems his former comrades earning around five times as he does through crime.
Yet despite the allure, most ex-combatants are keeping out of trouble. As part of a study published last year, researchers asked 1,158 former fighters to complete a survey. Their responses were then cross-referenced with information from Colombia’s prosecutor. Only 24% either admitted to or had been found guilty of a crime after demobilizing.
The stigma within Colombian society isn’t just reserved for the fighters. Those working for the ACR also find it difficult to be open about what they do. “Where I live, my neighbours don’t know I work with demobilized people, because I don’t want to cause myself any problems”, says Castro. Many Colombians refuse to believe that former militants want to turn over a new leaf. “Here people tend to think of things in black and white,” says Joshua Mitrotti, the ACR’s director. “But after fifty years of war, it’s more like a range of greys.”



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