VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia -- On the outskirts of this verdant city on the foothills of Colombia’s central Andes, large metal gates and tall, dark green shrubs surround an estate. Inside is a swimming pool, beach volleyball court and rustic-looking red and white painted buildings with wrap-around balconies.
This hogar de paz, or “peaceful home,” is a kind of half-way house and one of four in the country operated by the Ministry of Defense for recently demobilized guerrillas. The Colombian government hopes former combatants from an insurgency that turns 50 years old on Tuesday — the largest and oldest in the Americas — will transition to a reintegration program. Once there, the guerrillas may eventually become productive members of society instead of turning to criminal gangs
Peace talks in Havana with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are now in their second year. If they are successful, an estimated 30,000 more fighters and their support networks could enter the reintegration program.
Under a shelter as a warm rain fell around them, seven demobilized guerrillas and three visiting local judges recently sat in a circle on white plastic chairs. Most of the former fighters were in their early- to mid-20s, and less than three months from the front line. They wore new clothes and sneakers, had neat haircuts, and their arms rested between their legs as they fidgeted like distracted high school boys.
As the judges spoke, the glances of the young men darted from side to side. When asked direct questions, they looked down and mumbled short, stumbling answers.
When the judges got up to leave, the demobilized fighters all smiled, and thanked the judges profusely for their visit.
On the estate, or finca, former fighters met regularly with psychologists, nurses and teachers. Some were learning how to read. All were discussing war traumas and their fears about being pursued, facing their victims and reentering society. Some participants estimated that about 43 of the 45 ex-combatants present planned to continue to a program operated by the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR), part of the Office of the President.
In Colombia, only lower-level fighters who did not commit a crime against humanity — such as murder, torture or rape — can enter the reintegration program. Former guerrillas can receive amnesty for the crime of rebellion in exchange for completing the program, never committing another crime and carrying out a symbolic act to repair society, which amounts to 80 hours of community service.
In the ballroom of the Grand Hotel Villavicencio, a crisply dressed 34-year-old civil engineer sat at a lunch table with a 27-year-old nursing student dressed in her neatly pressed white uniform. The two were the center of attention at the final stop of the judges’ visit. They were polite, professional and talking openly about their past as insurgents.
Nidia Lopez was a FARC guerrilla fighter. William Flores was a member of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces (AUC). Both had spent more than seven years in the reintegration program.
They served no jail time. Instead, they committed themselves to completing an average of seven years of counseling, education, career training and community service with victims of the conflict. Yet, most Colombians still reject them and thousands more who are laying down arms and beginning the arduous path of change and reinsertion into society, says Monica de Greiff, president of the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce.
“Basically, people think they are criminals,” said de Greiff, an avid supporter of ACR’s efforts. “They don’t think that they themselves could be victims.”
Flores joined the AUC after technical school around 2001. He and some friends from the state of Meta were tired of the injustices committed by guerrillas. They were offered good jobs as paramilitaries, combating them.
He quit after four years, when the government offered paramilitaries reintegration and suspended sentences.
“The truth is we seek their forgiveness because we want to start a new life. We are human beings who committed errors,” said Lopez, who was plucked from elementary school in the town of Cururú at the age of 12 by a FARC recruiter.
By the age of 20, Lopez was disillusioned. Her older sister, also a forced recruit, had been killed in a firefight with the Army, and her mother had to retrieve the body from a ditch in the jungle. Lopez and her boyfriend, also a fighter, decided to flee despite the threat of murder for deserters.
After a year of freedom and raising a newborn together, they were found by the FARC. On Dec. 22, 2008, the day before their son turned a month old, Lopez’s husband was executed.
ACR works hand-in-hand with the Ministry of Defense to relocate and reintegrate former fighters. Of the 56,000 demobilized fighters in Colombia, 31,000 have entered reintegration programs, and 6,000 have graduated.
“It’s a silent success, but it’s a great success,” said ACR director Alejandro Eder, who explained that many Colombians don’t know how the program works and reject the idea of supporting former militants from despised guerrilla groups. “It’s much safer to have an ex-combatant reenter society than to have a guerrilla in the jungle.”
The program is also more effective and cheaper than prison. In Colombia, it costs $7,000 per year to imprison an inmate, but $2,500 to support an ex-combatant in the program.
An ACR study found that 24 percent of all reintegration participants have committed a crime after entering the program, while a prison study shows that 70 percent of inmates commit a crime after leaving prison.
Flores had to lie at his first job interview. The interviewer, from a Mexican company, asked him about the time gap on his résumé — his time in the AUC. He told the interviewer he was working for the family business. “What type of business?” “Electronics.” The interviewer moved on.
De Greiff has visited the hogar de paz in Villavicencio three times in the past seven months, each time with corporate executives in tow. “Businesspeople don’t know what they can do to support peace, but when you tell them all they need to do is hire ex-militants, they say, ‘That’s not my obligation,’ ” she said.
A recent Colombian poll found that 80 percent of Colombians say they would hire a reintegrated combatant. Eder himself admits that respondents often give the politically expedient answer. Nonetheless, the figure represents a 40 percent improvement after a year-long informational campaign.
The Bogotá Chamber of Commerce employs 21 demobilized fighters in what de Greiff believes will be an example for other Colombian businesses.
Since 2008, Coca-Cola’s Colombian bottling affiliate has supported reconciliation forums between victims and victimizers, as well as job training for ex-guerrillas.
“These are people that need help to reintegrate into society,” said corporate vice president Silvia Barrero, who volunteered to teach one of Coca-Cola’s job-skills courses. “Like us, these people feel fear. They feel rejected, excluded [and] even judged.”
After helping to finance 49 of their start-ups, Coca-Cola currently does business with 35, buying everything from uniforms to artisanal works used as corporate gifts.
Yaned Celis, a judge from the city of Acacias, who met with the demobilized fighters on the recent visit, said her family had been victimized by guerrillas six times. The crimes included multiple kidnappings, and her brother remains missing after more than 30 years. Nonetheless, she supports the program and believes in forgiving those involved.
“I believe people commit errors based on the difficulties and opportunities they had in life,” she said. “If a person is never given another opportunity, the same things will happen again.”