Inside a reintegration camp for Colombia’s ex-guerrilla fighters

The election of Iván Duque 4 years in the past was a menace for us. However we are going to proceed to comply with the peace settlement no matter who’s the following president of Colombia. We’re extra decided than ever to adjust to the peace accords, and that is the explanation they need to kill us.”

Olmedo Vega spent 35 years as a guerrilla commander throughout Colombia’s armed battle – one of many longest the world has ever seen. “The Farc is my household – I grew up with the guerrillas. However now I actually need to decide to this new life right here in Agua Bonita, together with my previous comrades.”

Over the previous 4 years, we’ve got carried out 42 in-depth interviews with former guerrilla troopers in Agua Bonita and among the different 25 Territorial Areas for Coaching, Reintegration and Reincorporation (ETCR in Spanish), developed by the Colombian authorities and the UN to resettle 1000’s of former Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) fighters after the historic 2016 peace settlement.

We sought to grasp the obstacles confronted by ex-combatants as they attempt to reintegrate into civil society. The results of the 19 June election has seen President Duque’s reign come to an finish, changed by Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla. This alteration could have main implications for the way forward for Colombia, the survival of the peace settlement, and the prospects of all these former combatants who’ve dedicated to a life with out battle.

After six many years of preventing, it’s estimated that nearly 20 per cent of the inhabitants is a direct sufferer of Colombia’s civil battle – together with nearly 9 million internally displaced individuals, 200,000 enforced disappearances, as much as 40,000 kidnappings, greater than 17,000 baby troopers, practically 9,321 landmine incidents, and 16,324 acts of sexual violence.

For the virtually 13,000 former Farc guerrillas, the tip of the battle initiated a means of “disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration” into Colombian society. However whereas optimistic steps had been taken on each side, greater than 300 massacres have been recorded because the peace deal was signed on 26 September 2016. Some 316 Farc ex-combatants and 1,287 human rights defenders have been murdered throughout this era of “peace”, placing the settlement underneath rising menace.

Residents of Agua Bonita wrestle with poor transport hyperlinks and an absence of jobs

(Juan Pablo Valderrama. Creator offered)

‘A spot to have a dignified life’

The Agua Bonita (“Lovely water”) guerrilla demobilisation camp is positioned on a small plateau on the sting of the Amazon basin, about an hour’s bumpy drive from Florencia, capital metropolis of the Caquetá division in Colombia’s Amazonía area.

Since 1970, Caquetá had been the headquarters for each Farc and the guerrillas of the Common Liberation Military (EPL). It’s a geographically strategic hall for illicit drug trafficking (notably associated to the manufacturing of cocaine), the transport of unlawful weapons and the smuggling of kidnapped individuals. It is usually one of many first locations the place guerrilla teams used landmines to wrest territorial management from the Colombian military.

In 2017, when ex-Farc combatants first arrived within the empty space the place Agua Bonita now stands, they labored with native builders for seven months to assemble 63 homes utilizing glass-reinforced plastic and average-quality plywood. Native employees from Florencia and the close by cities of Morelia, Belen de los Andaquíes and El Paujil helped them construct the camp.

The neighborhood began with a inhabitants of greater than 300 ex-Farc combatants. As of late, it boasts a library with 19 computer systems and 4 printers, a bakery, comfort retailer and restaurant

“Originally, it was troublesome to work side-by-side with the native builders due to our stigma as guerrilleros,” recalled Federico Montes, one of many neighborhood leaders. “However after six months of working with us daily, a few them moved with their households to dwell right here!”

Agua Bonita is located amid one of the biologically numerous terrestrial ecosystems on the earth; dwelling to round 40,000 plant species, practically 1,300 hen species and a couple of.5 million completely different bugs. Pink-bellied piranhas and pink river dolphins swim within the waters right here – but in each 2019 and 2020, Colombia was named the world’s deadliest nation for environmentalists by human rights and environmental observers World Witness.

Based on Montes, Agua Bonita’s excessive year-round temperatures and humidity imply “the climate is ideal to develop yucca, plantain, cilantro and pineapple. And in case you are feeling extra adventurous, you may have timber of araza, copoazu, yellow pitaya and different Amazonic crops. We’re in the course of a fruit heaven right here.”

The neighborhood began with a inhabitants of greater than 300 ex-Farc combatants. As of late, it boasts a library with 19 computer systems and 4 printers, a bakery, comfort retailer and restaurant, a soccer pitch, well being centre and neighborhood centre with a daycare facility for toddlers. Former combatants farm eight hectares of pineapple money crop and have their very own fundamental processing plant for fruit pulp. Additionally they have six 13m-long fish tanks, an enormous hen home and dozens of enormous communal gardens.

Agua Bonita’s excessive year-round temperatures and humidity imply it’s a ‘heaven’ for fruit rising

(Juan Pablo Valderrama. Creator offered)

One of many important sights for guests is the colourful murals painted on the 65 modest homes, portraying the whole lot from native natural world to guerrilla leaders and Farc paraphernalia. Probably the most recurring options are the phrases “peace”, “reconciliation” and “hope”.

“Our important purpose,” stated Montes, “is to create a spot to have a dignified life, the place all collectively may be free, protected and safe, dwelling in correct homes with entry to well being, employment, and training.”

But because the institution of Agua Bonita in 2017, 29 ex-combatants have been killed within the space. Based on Olmedo: “Throughout the federal government of Duque, there was a scarcity of meals, goodwill and financial help in Agua Bonita – a complete lack of governmental help. However the presidential elections are giving us hope for a greater future.”

‘A variety of stigmas and destructive attitudes towards us’

Within the run as much as his election in June 2018, Duque, as chief of the right-wing Centro Democrático celebration, fiercely opposed the peace settlement with the Farc, vowing to renegotiate what he described as a “lenient” deal whereas pledging to not “tear the settlement to shreds”.

After 4 years in cost, Duque – Colombia’s least in style president in polling historical past – has undermined the implementation of the peace settlement, and additional polarised the nation and its politics. Ranges of respect for human rights, safety, high quality of life and poverty have all worsened underneath his militaristic tenure.

Olmedo Vega: ‘I consider within the peace course of as a result of now we’ve got the chance to check’

(Juan Pablo Valderrama. Creator offered)

Olmedo Vega, 49, has lived in Agua Bonita from its earliest foundations. After we met him, Vega was participating in a video letter change venture with younger individuals from Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest metropolis. “A number of the questions from these college students had been actually troublesome to reply,” he instructed us. “There are a number of stigmas and destructive attitudes towards us as ex-Farc members. ‘Terrorist’, ‘assassin’, ‘killer’, ‘scumbag’ … these are the phrases some individuals used to introduce me.”

However today, Vega is proud to name himself a pupil too. One night, throughout dinner, he requested us: “What did the arrival of an American astronaut on the Moon imply politically?”

As we fumbled for a solution, he interrupted to say: “I’m finding out 4 hours daily to get my {qualifications}: two hours within the morning, two within the afternoon. We’re 30 comrades working so arduous to sit down the ICFES (Colombian A-level exams) subsequent September. For this reason I consider within the peace course of, as a result of now we’ve got the chance to check. I need to be a health care provider sooner or later, that is my dream. I need to assist individuals, and to construct a extra equal society in Colombia.”

That night, Vega provided us cancharina for pudding and the sugar cane drink agua de panela, a Farc culinary custom. And he talked about one matter repeatedly: the homicide of his finest buddy, Jorge Eliecer Garzón, by paramilitary teams in 2021.

“Jorge was my pal. He taught me easy methods to be a superb guerrillero, a superb comrade. He strongly believed within the energy of peace and reconciliation. I can’t perceive why he was assassinated in entrance of his household in that bakery.”

One of many many thought-inspiring murals painted on the homes of Agua Bonita

(Juan Pablo Valderrama. Creator offered)

Expressed as a chilly statistic, Garzón was ex-combatant no.290 to have been murdered because the signing of the peace settlement. The explanations for these killings differ, from stopping the political participation of ex-Farc members to asserting management of areas for the manufacturing and worldwide distribution of cocaine. On the whole, safety and justice for demobilised Farc fighters have by no means been a precedence for the Duque administration, and paramilitary teams have taken benefit of this.

At one level within the night, Vega recalled: “Jorge used to say to me: ‘You need to consider in how peace can change the world. However to heal and be in peace, I don’t must forgive what these paramilitary teams have accomplished to us. Jorge didn’t need to be murdered. After his killing, I used to be damaged.”

Principally, nonetheless, Vega remained conciliatory, and optimistic. “We’re extra decided than ever to adjust to the peace accords – that is the explanation they need to kill us. We have to defend the peace settlement. Phrases of reconciliation and arduous work are our solely weapons now. I’m feeling optimistic. That is the easiest way to honour the reminiscence of Jorge.”

The spectre of political assassination

Colombia’s present presidential marketing campaign has been haunted by the spectre of political assassination. Petro, the leftist former guerrilla and ex-mayor of Colombia’s capital Bogotá, needed to name off public appearances after his marketing campaign obtained first-hand info concerning assassination plots by paramilitary teams. His working associate, Francia Márquez, a black environmentalist, additionally obtained demise threats.

Petro beat development magnate Rodolfo Hernándeza, businessman-politician who’s considered as a right-wing conservative and populist outsider, with an unexpectedly huge margin of some 716,890 votes however the two had been technically tied in polling forward of the vote.

Newly elected Colombian President Gustavo Petro and his working mate Francia Marquez


Colombia is the one main nation in Latin America that has by no means had a leftist chief earlier than. The nation’s right-wing events and liberal institution had appeared decided to take care of this file, amid campaigns which have been often accused of racism, sexism and classism towards Márquez particularly.

But based on a latest survey, 79 per cent of Colombians consider the nation is on the mistaken monitor. Political events have a collective disapproval fee of 76 per cent, with the Colombian Congress solely marginally much less unpopular.

The profitable reintegration of 1000’s of ex-Farc guerrillas into civil society stays one in all many daunting challenges for the following Colombian authorities. Reintegration issues encountered by ex-combatants worldwide have included an absence of academic alternatives, the absence of appropriate profession choices and inadequate psychological help.

In Colombia, we’ve got recognized three essential elements which can be difficult profitable reintegration for Farc ex-combatants: an absence of participation within the civilian financial system, an absence of entry to academic alternatives, and a failure by the authorities to train “equal citizenship” that ensures social and civic reintegration.

I’ve to battle towards this stigma daily, and it’s worst when I’ve to use for a job as a result of generally individuals have the mistaken concept about us. I’m a proud ex-combatant

At stake is all the way forward for the peace settlement, and with it, prospects for decreasing poverty, inequality and different dynamics of financial exclusion. Three generations of Colombians have no idea what it means to dwell in a peaceable society. The reintegration of ex-combatants is essential to constructing a normal understanding that reconciliation is essential to creating a brand new Colombia, the place violence shouldn’t be the reply to overcoming your issues.

‘The stigma makes it unimaginable to get a job’

The entry street to Agua Bonita shouldn’t be simple. There isn’t any public transport, and the roads are extraordinarily precarious. The poor transport infrastructure of Caquetá usually severely hampers the productiveness of this area.

Whereas the camp – which operates fully as a cooperative – has not suffered from commerce boycotts, not like another reintegration camps, uncooked supplies can take months to reach right here. And the dual spectres of discrimination and unemployment loom giant over residents right here.

“I’ve loads of tales of individuals saying to me: ‘You can’t get a job since you don’t deserve it, simply get out of right here,’” Vega instructed us. “I’ve to battle towards this stigma daily, and it’s worst when I’ve to use for a job as a result of generally individuals have the mistaken concept about us. I’m a proud ex-combatant that simply needs the peace of Colombia and a good job!”

Daniel Aldana is among the youngest ex-combatants dwelling in Agua Bonita. He has been attempting to get a job since 2019 however, as a result of extent of criminalisation and stigmatisation of ex-Farc guerrillas within the area, he stated it’s nearly unimaginable for him even to safe an interview.

“When the employers noticed my id card had been issued in La Montañita [the nearest town to Agua Bonita], they stated I wanted to have a ‘particular choice course of’. Meaning they may double or triple-check with the authorities if I’ve a police file or if my identify is on a terrorist database listing. When you say you’re from Agua Bonita, the individuals say you’re a terrorist. This stigma is making it unimaginable to get a job right here.”

There must be a course of to take away the stigma hooked up to ex-Farc members

(Juan Pablo Valderrama. Creator offered)

Aldana shouldn’t be alone. Jorge Suarez, a builder who spent greater than 13 years as a Farc commander, recalled going for a job interview in Florencia. “It was so humiliating. ‘Murderer’, ‘assassin’ and ‘scumbag’ had been just some of the phrases the individuals on the recruitment company used to check with me. By no means once more.”

Suarez added: “The issue is that individuals don’t belief us. Now we have accomplished the whole lot to indicate that our intentions for a peaceable future are actual, but to this point we’re getting solely two issues again: no correct jobs, and tons of bullets.”

Such experiences should not distinctive to ex-combatants dwelling in Agua Bonita. Esteban Torres, a former guerrilla doing his reintegration within the Pondores camp (ETCR Amaury Rodríguez) in La Guajira, instructed us he had skilled the identical destructive response.

“In Riohacha Metropolis, once I was on the lookout for a job, the individuals stated to me: ‘Properly, you appear like a pleasant bloke, however you may have blood in your palms. You’ll by no means have a job right here as a result of you may have the blood of harmless individuals in your palms, and you’re a terrorist – a shame.’”

Torres continued: “That’s whenever you realise that it is a long-term course of. We’d like a course of to take away the stigma towards us from Colombian individuals’s hearts.”

Classes from Northern Eire

In addition to our interviews with former guerrilla troopers in Colombia, we additionally performed 12 in-depth conversations with ex-combatants within the battle often known as The Troubles. Regardless of Northern Eire’s peace settlement having been in place for practically 1 / 4 of a century – and the nation’s very completely different societal context – we discovered most of the uncooked grievances raised by ex-Farc combatants mirrored by these former political prisoners in Northern Eire, all of whom requested to stay nameless.

There are numerous comparisons between ex-combatants from Northern Eire and ex-Farc


Whereas we heard frequent themes expressed by loyalist and republican interviewees alike, we spotlight some republican voices right here as these ex-combatants had been devoted to a type of counter-state insurgency that resembled the goals of the Farc’s armed wrestle towards the Colombian state.

One former member of the Provisional Irish Republican Military, (P)IRA, spoke about his difficulties discovering significant employment, although he had gained academic {qualifications} throughout his time in jail. “I might solely get low-level jobs. In jail I had studied so I had {qualifications}, however I used to be nonetheless solely working as a kitchen porter or doorman.

“Nobody would make use of an IRA man,” he continued. “In a single job, I used to be requested to go away as a result of individuals discovered about my previous. They weren’t comfy working with me any extra.”

One other ex-(P)IRA combatant defined the complexity of merely filling out a job software type. “A job software asks: ‘Do you may have a legal file?’ If we are saying ‘no’ as a result of we declare we don’t have a legal file – we aren’t criminals – then we’ve got lied and may be dis-employed, which has occurred to many individuals. But when we are saying ‘sure’, then we is not going to get by the vetting process.”

Our interviews additionally highlighted a typical resentment concerning the types of legally structured discrimination that former combatants in Northern Eire have skilled.

“We may be stopped from travelling to sure locations, and sure jobs are utterly off limits to us,” defined one other ex-(P)IRA member. “Even our capability to spend cash is restricted; we will’t buy dwelling insurance coverage and automotive insurance coverage. It’s an inhibitor. We will’t get enterprise loans … All of it provides as much as making issues tougher for us than for everybody else.”

A lot of our interviewees had both labored or volunteered for community-based organisations that sought to diffuse inter-community tensions in Northern Eire, and to steer younger individuals away from participation in violence. On the whole, an extremely small variety of ex-political prisoners on each side have returned to political violence, and only a few have been convicted for different types of violent criminality. But regardless of this, the loyalist and republican ex-combatants we spoke to complained of being largely denied equality of citizenship, and nonetheless face blockages to participation within the civilian financial system.

Esperanza: ‘These of us who go to battle break stereotypes set for ladies, so society resents us’

(Juan Pablo Valderrama. Creator offered)

‘Society resents us’

Greater than a decade in the past, Esperanza* served as a commander and discovered about equal rights as she fought side-by-side with the Farc males. However as quickly as she stepped into civilian life, she instructed us she misplaced her autonomy once more.

“Traditionally, it is a patriarchal tradition. These of us who go to battle break conventional roles and stereotypes set for ladies, so society resents us. I used to provide orders and command 100 armed males, and now they’re anticipating me to do a cooking course! What the hell?”

Issues highlighted by Esperanza and Tania Gomez, one other feminine ex-combatant dwelling in Agua Bonita, embody an absence of appropriate profession choices for ladies, and an absence of psychological help and understanding of their wants and pursuits following the battle. Such issues are main feminine ex-combatants to drop out of the reintegration programmes.

When the Colombian Reintegration Company provided Gomez the possibility to do a stitching and childcare course, she recalled saying to the official: “Are you kidding me! After 10 years of preventing towards the Colombian Military daily, you need me to open a kindergarten? I didn’t be part of Farc to change into a substitute mom, I’m a revolutionary!”

No person says something concerning the murdered females – as soon as once more the highlight is on males! No person is saying a phrase about Maria, Patricia, Luz and the opposite 10 girls who’ve been murdered

For feminine ex-combatants, after lengthy years as a fighter, the concept of “mainstream” household life may be very unappealing. “What would my life be like sooner or later if I comply with this path?” Esperanza requested us. “Simply at dwelling with a husband, children and taking part in ‘completely satisfied home’ ceaselessly? No method! I wouldn’t final a day doing that!”

The reintegration course of has clearly failed to realize real gender inclusiveness. After we requested Nelcy Balquiro why she joined the Farc 11 years in the past, she stated with out hesitation: “I needed to vary the world and change into anyone. I needed to be a part of one thing essential. My dream now as a civilian is to empower on a regular basis girls about their rights and battle this patriarchal system. As a feminine ex-Farc commander, that is now my extra essential political mission.”

Discussing the wave of violence that’s killing ex-combatants, Balquiro countered instantly: “No person says something concerning the murdered females – as soon as once more the highlight is on males! No person is saying a phrase about Maria, Patricia, Luz and the opposite 10 girls who’ve been murdered [since the peace agreement] – it’s shameful.”

Balquiro needs to battle for equal pay and the appropriate to work exterior the house. She argued that “feminism is a important a part of being a feminine ex-combatant. We’re preventing now for Colombian girls to have freedom from abuse and male exploitation.”

‘We’re dreaming of peace’

Colombia’s outgoing chief Iván Duque might be broadly remembered as a president that did nothing to implement the peace settlement. Colombia’s election now affords a crucial alternative to handle the issues amplified by 4 years of governmental neglect and lack of political will.

Simón* is a Farc ex-combatant dwelling within the Icononzo camp (ETCR Antonio Nariño) within the Andean area of Tolima. “I don’t need to dwell in worry for an additional 4 years,” he stated.

“The sensation that paramilitary troopers can kill you at any second, working in alliance with the precise authorities, like what occurred in Putumayo lately … it’s turning into insufferable. This presidential election is the chance to construct new roads, new methods, and go away the torturous one which we’re having now.”

Tania Gomez: ‘I didn’t be part of Farc to change into a substitute mom’

(Juan Pablo Valderrama. Creator offered)

Based on Esteban Torres from the Pondores camp: “The implementation of the peace course of is just like [Colombia’s traditional festival], Barranquilla’s carnival. Those that dwell it, get pleasure from it – and we need to proceed the celebration. [Our goal] is not only to cease killing one another anymore in Colombia; it’s about creating a brand new tradition of peace, a brand new rhythm.

“Duque nearly killed the celebration. He didn’t know easy methods to dance together with folks that don’t like weapons and his extreme-right views. He simply likes the rhythms of battle. However now we’ve got the chance to start out tuning good vibes as soon as once more and alter our future as new residents of Colombia. My hope is to restart the celebration!”

Over the six-decade battle, the Colombian state helped to create and maintain a picture of Farc combatants as bloodthirsty barbarians. The brand new authorities might want to take courageous and imaginative steps to interrupt down these deep-rooted conceptions. There have already been some essential initiatives, such because the letter exchanges between former Farc combatants and Colombian civilians. Nonetheless, far more should be accomplished if the Colombian state is to keep away from the long-standing types of discrimination nonetheless being expressed by ex-political prisoners in Northern Eire.

It’s additionally essential, in time, to take away authorized obstacles to equality of citizenship. Comprehensible measures taken within the instant aftermath of the battle, similar to the necessity to carry types of private identification that spotlight an ex-combatant’s background, have to be topic to sundown clauses – to be lifted, for instance, if a person has met sure necessities that display their dedication to peace. Equally, legal information instantly associated to participation within the battle may additionally be erased as soon as ex-combatants have demonstrated their dedication to the settlement.

As well as, former combatants must really feel some management over their very own reintegration. Many participated in fight from a really younger age, and possess few expertise past these discovered in conditions of violence. Peace may be very troublesome for them to navigate. This must be recognised and integrated into the considering of the Colombian peace course of because it develops underneath the brand new authorities.

On the final day of our go to to Agua Bonita, we requested Olmedo Vega what his largest want for the longer term is. “From the underside of our hearts,” he stated, “it isn’t to go away us alone. Now we have suffered battle, and [since then] we’ve got grown in hope and love. We supply on our backs the historic duty of producing reconciliation. We’re dreaming of peace.”

*Some interviewees requested solely to be recognized by their first names

Camilo Tamayo Gomez is a senior lecturer in criminology on the College of Huddersfield. Gavin Hart is a lecturer in criminology, Liverpool Hope College. This text first appeared on The Dialog.

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