BOGOTÁ, Colombia – At least 54,783 have dropped their weapons. Of that total, 31,300 former guerrillas have started reintegration into society.
Seventeen thousand enrolled in job training courses and 8,588 have already secured formal employment, according to the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR).
Behind these numbers are stories of courage and perseverance, such as that of small business owner Álvaro Pérez, 53, and salesperson Juan Pablo, 39.
Pérez, who was a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from 1996 to 2006, owns Colfepaz, a small tailoring business in Bogotá that can produce 20,000 articles of clothing and backpacks monthly. He employs 18 to 28 people, depending on demand.
Meanwhile, Juan Pablo, a former member of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), works as a salesperson in a shopping center in Bucaramanga, in the department of Santander. He still worries he’ll be the target of reprisals from the terrorist group or be discriminated against for his time as a guerrilla, but he spoke with Infosurhoy.com on the condition of anonymity.
“I can’t get a job telling people that I was a member of a paramilitary organization,” said Juan Pablo, who has kept his past with the AUC a secret. “If they find out you used to be a guerrilla fighter, the next day you could be fired.”
Juan Pablo was a rural worker in the department of Santander, and his property was being attacked by the FARC. He joined the AUC in 2004, but he couldn’t get used to the group’s culture, use of weapons and illegal acts.
He wanted to leave the AUC in 2006 – a decision that led to his being shot three times by unknown assailants.
“It was a miracle that I survived,” he said. “After that, I decided to leave Santander, and in 2008, I joined the government’s reintegration program.”
Juan Pablo is the first and only former member of an illegal group to complete the program, which is coordinated by the ACR. Later this year, the agency is expecting another 1,000 to cross the program’s finish line.
In addition to the AUC, the ACR initiative targets former guerrillas from the FARC, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the People’s Liberation Army (EPL).
The first step toward reintegration involves disarmament. Guerrillas interested in laying down their arms are encouraged to contact a local government or military official.
Pérez joined the FARC when he was 38, motivated by financial difficulties and a romantic vision of the organization. At the time, he worked as a tailor and sewed uniforms for the guerrillas.
But he quickly became disillusioned with the movement.
“I saw the FARC’s crimes and abuses firsthand,” he said.
The atrocities and false promises – he only received the salary he’d been promised for three months and wasn’t able to send money to his wife and three daughters – quickly showed Pérez the true face of the guerrilla movement.
Yet, he went on to spend a decade with the FARC.
“I wanted to leave earlier, but I was worried that my family would be pursued,” he said.
In 2006, he overcame his fear. Together with nine other guerrilla fighters, he sought out the ACR and began the long road to reintegration.
The ACR’s reintegration program offers psychiatric and educational services to the former guerrillas, who receive a basic high school education in addition to vocational training. Many of the former fighters joined these illegal armed groups prior to completing their elementary school education.
The initiative also offers psychosocial care to relatives to facilitate the former fighters’ reintegration with their families.
To promote integration with the community, the ACR concentrates its efforts on reinserting the former guerrillas into the labor market. The former fighters are monitored, minimizing their opportunities for criminal recidivism.
Once they abandon illegal groups and seek out the ACR, the former fighters receive $480,000 Colombian pesos (US$267) monthly, contingent upon their participation in at least 90% of the activities proposed by the agency, including lectures, courses and community service.
A greater number of guerrillas would desert if they weren’t afraid of being targeted by the terrorist groups or being discriminated against because of their past, according to Alejandro Eder Garcés, the director general of the ACR.
“We need to raise public awareness about society’s role in welcoming and pardoning the former guerrillas,” he said. “It’s understandable the former members of these illegal groups are met with skepticism by society. But accepting the former guerrillas into the community is an important step toward building peace.”
Pérez and Juan Pablo are examples of successful demobilization and reintegration. But most former fighters fail to complete the process and return to lives of crime.
The ACR does not keep data on recidivism, but it points to a lack of family support, difficulties in finding work and, particularly, the failure to complete all of the stages of the reintegration program as the main reasons why those enrolled in the program return to their old lifestyles.
“The individual who completes 90% of the activities and remains committed to the road to reintegration has much better chances of completely reintegrating and not relapsing,” Garcés said.
For Pérez, regaining his freedom to come and go as he pleases and have a normal life with his family were the biggest incentives.
“I work seven days a week,” he said, adding he makes every effort to project a positive image to prove he’s “a good person.”
Juan Pablo, considered a model student in the ACR program, has turned his life around, as he’s earned his high school diploma through the reintegration program and dreams of attending college.
“Life gave me a new opportunity, and I know that it will take me much farther,” he said.