Since the early days of La Violencia in the mid 1900s, the armed conflict in Colombia has been mostly fought in rural areas far from the halls of power.
As a guerrilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has operated in regions marked by the virtual absence of the state, maintaining their influence throughout decades in the jungles along the border with Ecuador, the plains extending southeast towards Venezuela, the Pacific coast, and central and southwestern departments such as Antioquia, Caquetá and Meta.
These areas, which have witnessed some of the worst violence throughout this conflict, now provide the setting for a new chapter — the demobilization of thousands who make up the world’s oldest active guerrilla group.
It could appear contradictory that after more than a half-century of internal conflict, Colombians living in the worst affected regions of the country should contemplate the impending peace agreement with dread. But in many areas, the prevailing feeling is that things will become much worse before they begin to improve.
”Without available jobs, or a society ready to accept or hire ex-combatants, people will always return to crimes”
The worries stem from various issues. For one, most of these regions face unemployment rates higher than the national average due to a lack of investment and job creation in the face of ongoing security issues.
In Florencia, Caquetá, which the Colombian Reintegration Agency (ACR) confirms will be the largest recipient of ex-combatants after the peace deal, tensions are high as the city’s inhabitants begin to suspect a lack of economic opportunities available in order to meet the influx of thousands of ex-combatants. Many also believe that when faced with a lack of economic opportunities, the demobilised could turn to crime.
Aside from the issue of employment, citizens are also worried about the stability and capacity of the state in departments such as Caquetá, where in the words of one resident: “the conflict is still alive.”
During a public information event held by the ACR, citizens expressed their concerns that the state is often unable to meet the needs of ordinary citizens, much less those of thousands of former FARC rebels. Their concerns may not be ill-founded, looking back to a “failed” demobilization of paramilitary troops between 2003-2006.
Despite the legal disbandment of the United Autodefenses of Colombia (AUC), many former paramilitary soldiers continue to operate with just as much impunity as before in successor groups known as bacrim or criminal bands, such as the Águilas Negras and Urabeños.
Civilians are not the only ones with preoccupations related to the coming peace agreement. For ex-combatants, the task of reintegration is rife with dangers and uncertainties.
“Efraín Vásquez Rodríguez,” who requested his name be changed for security reasons, joined the paramilitaries after several years as a professional soldier of the Colombian military. He expressed his concerns from the vantage of a wheelchair, to which he was confined after an attempt on his life just two years after his 2006 demobilization.
“I was targeted because of my past as a paramilitary,” he tells me.
Once a high-ranking commander of FARC, “Victor García Albañez” (name also changed for security reasons) decided to demobilize after years of separation from his two daughters. Today, he tries to live under the radar, struggling to make a living and a positive difference in a society resistant to accepting him and his past. I asked him what he thinks is necessary for creating lasting peace in Colombia.
“Many people say that the key to a successful post-conflict society is education,” states García Albañez. “But the truth is that without available jobs, or a society ready to accept or hire ex-combatants, people will always return to crimes such as extortion and theft in order to feed themselves.”
The same question was put to Vásquez Rodríguez, former AUC. “It is hard because there are no jobs available, and aside from that, people don’t want to hire ex-combatants because they feel we are untrustworthy,” he explained.
Despite the obvious differences between these two men, one ex-FARC and one ex-paramilitary, they feel the same pressures upon reentering society.
“Without employment, many people return to illegal activities,” said Vásquez. I then ask him if he thinks his former paramilitary colleagues have reverted to illegal activities. “Of course,” he states, throwing his hands in the air. “I would say at least 50 percent are now part of what are called ‘neoparamilitary groups.’”
“To tell the truth,” he states quietly, “if I weren’t in this wheelchair, I would be right there with them.”
The creation of economic opportunities in these regions alone will not solve reintegration issues. Perhaps the greatest struggle is the polarization of Colombian society, and the stigma placed upon these former members of illegal groups.
For Fabrizio Hochschild, resident regional coordinator of the United Nations for Colombia, this deeply rooted stigma poses a threat to lasting peace. During a visit to the capital of Caquetá in January, Hochschild expressed his concern: “Where there is fragmentation and polarization, they will have a lot of difficulty.”
Though the task is huge, it isn’t impossible as organizations are helping to pave the way, such as the Florencia-based Center for Reconciliation. Here, ex-combatants from FARC and AUC work together with the victims of the armed conflict, to foster the development of a peaceful community in a neighborhood that is home to some 80 percent of the department’s demobilized individuals.
Confidence in the prospect of creating a lasting peace in Colombia depends on more than the creation of economic opportunities and resolving still-prominent economic and political issues. The biggest challenge will be to tackle the problems of stigma and animosity in society, a job that demands the active participation of every citizen in the process of reconciliation.
“We see many debates and fights, but few discussions,” asserts Hochschild. “People with similar ideas talk a lot with each other, but it is very rare for people with different points of view to share with one another. What’s missing is a change in the social sphere.”