BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — It was 3 a.m. one night in November when Boris Forero decided to leave the remote jungle camp at El Naranjal, convinced that the pattering of tropical rain and cover of darkness would conceal his escape. His heart was racing, and he felt torn between missing his friends—the guerrillas he fought beside for much of his life—and fearing that if they knew what he was doing, they would kill him. For several hours, he scrambled through the muddy jungle, carrying with him two pistols and four hand grenades for protection. Then he took a seven-hour bus ride to his destination, Chapparral, Tolima, where he finally reached enemy lines and walked up to the gates of the Caicedo Battalion military base.
Forero’s decision to defect from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, Colombia’s largest rebel group, did not come easily. His father, a Marxist to the bone, was a founding member; at the age of 18, Forero joined up too. “I had a clear idea that there was no future in staying in the armed struggle,” says Forero, now 49, five months after his escape. “Although I felt afraid of appearing before a military unit—fear that I would become a desaparecido [disappeared] — I managed to come and introduce myself and was treated with respect and without abuse.”
Forero knows there’s no going back. “A demobilized individual is a traitor,” he says. “If I ever return to an area where the movement has control, an order for my execution is guaranteed.”
Since 2003 when it started peace talks with the FARC in Havana, Colombia has maintained a voluntary disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program that has significantly reduced insurgent numbers. The FARC still has around 8,000 fighters, and several thousand more belong to other rebel groups including the National Liberation Army, or ELN. Fresh out of combat, former guerillas are initially placed in a kind of halfway house called the Hogar de Paz(The House of Peace), 20 minutes north of central Bogota. For the duration of a three-month program, according to the Ministry of Defense, demobilized fighters are offered up to $750 a month for food and accommodation, as well as a one-time stipend of $75 for clothing and personal use. That amounts to a significant sum in a country where the monthly minimum wage is $209. They are helped into a simple first job, such as a construction worker or street sweeper. Crash courses on basic mathematics, financial literacy and reading and writing are provided—this is vital since around 70 percent of fighters are illiterate, according to the Colombian Agency for Reintegration.
These days, Forero has swapped military fatigues and boots for shiny black leather shoes and a suit—though his lazy right eye, damaged by a grenade blast, hints at his past. During informal sessions set up by the Agency for Reintegration, he puts his prior position of authority to use by instructing recently demobilized guerrillas, most of them two or three decades younger than him, on subjects such as what to expect in life outside the jungle, and what society expects of them.
For Forero, one of the hardest things about his transition is the lack of any hierarchy. “Demobilized fighters must understand that in the city, freedom is no longer a structure—an organization that will meet their basic material needs. We have to develop individual autonomy,” he explains. Rebel fighters, Forero says, are abysmal at budgeting, and the older the person, the harder it is to install sensible financial habits. “Setting spending priorities is very difficult,” he says. He described a 55-year-old former soldier known by his nom de guerre, “Good Boy.” The man struggled with the lack of structure outside the rebel group, Forero says. “One day, he went to the supermarket and spent all his money on potato chips, candy bars and soft drinks. For the rest of the month, that was his meal.”
Joshua Mitrotti, director general of the Agency for Reintegration, says 90 percent of those who enter the program suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. They are encouraged to attend psychological workshops beyond the initial three-month program, and they receive monthly incentive payment of around $57 for turning up.
Although the Agency for Reintegration is recording an average of two to three former guerrillas demobilizing per day, most Colombians are far from ready to accept what the government believes is a necessary expense for a chance of future stability. “We need to offer guerrillas a good way of life and we have to accept this sacrifice,” Lieutenant Colonel David Rodriguez, a military academic involved in post-conflict planning with the Ministry of Defense, tells me in his office at the Superior School of War in Bogota. “The fact is that many lives have been saved from the demobilization process through the reduction of conflict, so while it is unfair for some citizens, it is fair for the greater peace of this country.”
Many ordinary Colombians, including those who suffered at the hands of the rebels, resent the cash payments to former fighters, and have little confidence in the government. “In the last 31 years, the previous three approaches to a peace accord with insurgencies have broken down,” 57-year-old Sebastian Gonzalez tells me during a demonstration in March. “I am not against the peace progress; I’m against this lying genocidal oligarchy that lies and has delivered us to North American imperialism.”
Among the greatest concerns is that there could be a rise in crime as fighters demobilize, with some of them likely to be recruited by drug gangs. “If a peace accord is signed, our military intelligence estimates that 30 percent of former insurgents are going to constitute new illegal armed groups, especially those that maintain control of the illicit drug trade,” says Rodriguez. “Our plan is to contain them by using our military forces to support the national police through a legal framework.”
Peace talks in Havana missed a March 23 deadline, but both sides have said they believe a deal can be reached by the end of the year. Even if the talks collapse, the government plans to continue the demobilization program. Already, there are some metrics to prove its success: Of the 49,000 people who have entered the program, more than 25,000 have learned to read and write, and 12,000 have reintegrated into society with the full rights of a Colombian citizen, according to the Agency for Reintegration.
For men like Forero, who spent three decades in the jungle, part of the challenge of reintegration is dealing with the modern world and changes in society. “For me the cultural change in tolerance was the most surprising,” he says. “When I arrived in Bogota and encountered tolerance for homosexuals, it struck me as a huge change that was not thinkable before.”
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