How to Keep the FARC Guerrillas Out of the Fight

Weapons handed over by the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Credit Fernando Vergara/Associated Press

After years of tumultuous peace talks, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC, bid a final farewell to arms in June. The act heralds the end of a 52-year conflict. But for Colombia to decisively break with its past, it must be smart in its approach to reintegrating FARC combatants back into society.

The task is daunting: How do you keep people who have been fighting for decades from rearming? Giving aid to former fighters remains controversial, but new evidence-based strategies provide reason for hope that reintegration can succeed despite the challenges.

The FARC members’ background presents a first hurdle. As Communist ideologues with links to the narco-economy, many of its members were recruited from poor, rural families as children, and have been guerrilla fighters for so long they know no other life. Most have had little formal schooling and are not accustomed to civilian life.

The approximately 7,000 fighters in the group are in a holding pattern in 26 rural camps.. Those suspected of war crimes are waiting for their cases to be handled by transitional courts. Most rank-and-file fighters have been granted amnesty and could leave the camps this month.

The process has been slow. The camps for the rebels during the transition were not ready on time. Fast-track procedures to approve legislation in Congress were struck down by the constitutional court, stalling laws for land reform, political participation and a truth commission. There has also been obstruction by the political opposition, which feel the agreement stints on justice and punishment for the former rebels. They have mobilized protests and political support against the agreement in Congress. Polls show a majority of Colombians feel the process is on the wrong track.

Meanwhile, another rebel group, the National Liberation Army, is still active, though engaged in its own peace talks. Social leaders and activists calling for land restitution and human rights have been the targets of violence by neo-paramilitary criminal bands. This worrying trend revives memories of FARC’s previous attempt to transition to politics, in the 1980s and 1990s, when thousands of members of the associated leftist Patriotic Union party were assassinated.

FARC’s disarmament shows that the government and rebels are committed to the peace deal. The United Nations recently approved a mission to monitor reintegration, and Colombia’s Reincorporation and Normalization Agency helps the newly demobilized fighters ease back into civilian life. Although the prospective caseload may seem substantial, it is small relative to the more than 50,000 fighters the agency reintegrated over the past 14 years. Under the accord, FARC will also have the option of becoming a political party.

Still, there has already been dissidence among six FARC “fronts” or units in coca-growing regions, and some fighters have renounced the peace deal. Just a few weeks ago, one of the rogue fronts bombed a military patrol, injuring two soldiers and four civilians. If past is prologue, estimates from Colombia’s previous armed group demobilizations portend a 15 percent to 20 percent recidivism rate over five years.

Our research on the reintegration of Colombia’s former guerrilla and paramilitary combatants provides guidance. We analyzed survey data and arrest records and conducted interviews to identify the factors associated with recidivist fighters — those who returned to criminal or belligerent activities. To make living as law-abiding citizens more appealing to former rebels, the government and international partners should take a three-pronged approach to assisting them.

First, assistance must address individual needs, particularly in underdeveloped rural areas that have been neglected by the state. We found that education programs can help counter recidivism. An ex-combatant we interviewed from a previous demobilization affirmed the enduring value of education in light of the limited period of the reintegration program: “If I finish my studies, I’ll always have that. I’ll be able to get by, find a job, and improve my quality of life.”

Meanwhile, fighters who joined the rebels for motives like revenge or adventure-seeking present tougher cases than those who joined for ideological reasons.

Men are more inclined to recidivism than women, as their notions of masculinity may be tied to their identities as fighters. Since demobilizing women may face different struggles, psychosocial care must address gender-specific needs.

Second, reintegration is a family affair. We found that having children and good relations with family members are anchors that keep ex-combatants on the right side of the law. As another ex-combatant we interviewed said, “I have a daughter and she gives me many reasons not to go back to crime.” A positive sign is a baby boom happening in the camps; previously having children was taboo for fighters.

Third, communities have a crucial role to play. Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, and other officials have emphasized that “the territories” located in rural areas will be ground zero for carrying out the peace agreement.

We found that ex-combatants participate more and fare better in communities that have strong social ties. Support for communities and victims, for example, in the form of development assistance and nurturing of social organizations, can be an effective and fair, though indirect, path to aiding former fighters. Communities, for their part, can encourage local reconciliation and welcome them to join in meetings and activities, from soccer games to communal public works.

Colombia’s embrace of peace is a bright spot in a region plagued by violence. Successful reintegration can increase public trust in the peace process, offering lessons for the world on how to manage post-conflict problems. The coming months will tell whether victims and those who made war can turn a new page in the country’s history.

Oliver Kaplan, an assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, is the author of Resisting War: How Communities Protect Themselves. Enzo Nussio is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich.

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