Why are former FARC rebels leaving reintegration camps?
More than 55 percent of former FARC rebels have left the 26 reincorporation zones set up under the 2016 peace agreement.
El Estrecho, Colombia – For more than 35 years, Blanca Ducuara Gomez lived in Colombia’s mountains, patrolling the countryside as a member of the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
But today she lives in a FARC disarmament camp (also known as reintegration areas) in the southern state of Cauca, where she has a perfect view of the lush valley and the surrounding mountains from her small, wooden balcony that she now calls home.
The FARC sprung up as a peasant movement in the 1960s, fighting corruption and huge inequality in the country, especially in rural areas. What resulted was a civil war that lasted more than 50 years and saw over 220,000 people killed and seven million displaced.
One year ago, Gomez finally put down her weapons after a landmark peace deal was signed, and entered a demobilisation camp created to help the rebels transition into citizen life.
However, like many of the other, former combatants, Gomez has become disillusioned by the peace process, saying the government isn’t following through on its commitments to reintegration. This includes everything from housing to medical services and work opportunities, all of which were promised in the peace agreement.
“At the moment, it’s hard for us, and a lot of people feel it,” said Gomez, from her camp in El Estrecho, in the southern state of Cauca where the FARC once had a major stronghold. “Many people have left because the government hasn’t complied [with its agreements].”
According to Gomez, people in the camps were initially optimistic about the future of peace in Colombia. They even nicknamed her son “el hijo de la paz”, or the son of peace, since he was born on November 24, 2016 – the same day the landmark agreement was signed.
But today, there are less than 50 former rebels living in the El Estrecho camp, out of the 315 who originally demobilised in this area last year.
The figures are similar in camps across the country. The UN recently calculated that more than 55 percent of all the FARC members have left the 26 reincorporation zones.
Many of them have left to join their families back home, find jobs in other regions, or are even suspected of joining dissident factions or other armed groups.
But the reasons for leaving are often the same; there is not enough motivation to stay in the camps.
Lacks running water, proper homes
Of all the 26 reincorporation zones, El Estrecho is an extreme example of underdevelopment. The camp lacks running water, the former combatants all share one toilet, and people are still living in makeshift tarpaulin tents made of plastic.
But El Estrecho is also a new zone. The former combatants relocated here in December last year from their previous location of Policarpa, Narino, saying the government failed to comply with any of its development promises, including basic housing, which was meant to be finished before they even laid down their arms last January.
Officials say the lack of development in Policarpa was due to its complicated and remote location, a common problem for most of the reincorporation camps.
“The [demobilisation] areas where the FARC built are areas that are very difficult to access,” said Luis Hernando Moreno, regional coordinator of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace (OACP), the main liaising body between the FARC and the government.
“Policarpa was so far out there, even the guerrillas couldn’t get there,” Hernando continued.
But this highlights an important reality for Colombia, where more than 40 percent of the rural population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank, and where state investment in public infrastructure, particularly roads, schools or hospitals is rare.
In many rural areas, like Policarpa, roads either don’t exist or were made by the communities themselves. This is one of the major, structural reasons the war began in the first place. A lingering and important issue, rural reform is the first point in the peace agreements.
The local FARC leaders expect things to be different in El Estrecho, which is only nine kilometres from the Pan-American highway. They say officials have no excuse for resources not getting to the camp.
‘Things are moving too slow’
Apart from the basics of housing and water, the biggest concern for the former combatants here is receiving help to develop their own economic projects.
This includes land for agricultural use and funding for entrepreneurial or cooperative projects, two of the main demands across all of the camps.
According to Leovigildo Moreno Zambrano, a member of the FARC’s pedagogy unit, now in El Estrecho, things are moving “very slow. Too slow.
“What is lacking is real political will on the part of the state,” he told Al Jazeera.
Most of the former fighters do have bank accounts and identification cards and are receiving a small monthly stipend of roughly $230.
These are just three points in the peace deal the government has complied with so far, directed at the former rebels individually.
But without productive projects, or education and work training, the former rebels struggle to fill their days.
According to Moreno, the FARC is playing politics by focusing on what the government is not doing, rather than providing solutions.
“The politics of the FARC right now are to show the defects of the other, instead of transforming,” he told Al Jazeera. “You have to blame the state, because in some way that helps to delegitimise the state and legitimise your discourse.”
There are no laws forcing the former rebels to stay in their territories, but the outflow of people is raising alarm bells among international monitors.
In November, the UN warned the exodus was a troubling sign that may be increasing the number of FARC dissident groups, and told the Colombian government that it must “substantially accelerate” its reintegration effort.
The former FARC combatants are also a prime recruitment target for other armed groups that continue to exist in Colombia’s rural areas.
These include paramilitary groups, narcotraffickers, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and other, smaller groups.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which has long worked with war victims in Colombia’s countryside, the only way out of this cycle is to give the demobilised rebels alternative opportunities to avoid recruitment.
The NRC has implemented high-school education programmes in several of the FARC camps for this very reason, after an evaluation of the former rebel fighters showed that more than 80 percent had not finished high school.
“The fact that some have left without receiving a process of reincorporation, yes we see it as a big risk,” said Christian Visnes, the NRC’s Country Director in Colombia.
“We offer education so that these people can reincorporate into civil life; that’s the first step to ending the war,” he said.
‘It’s very frustrating’
In November, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos admitted that the government has made mistakes in the process, but told the country to “be patient”.
But since Colombia is in an election year, many citizens are already looking forward to what a new government will bring, rather than expecting new commitments from Santos, who will not be up for re-election, nor does he have a direct successor.
According to the latest polls, left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro is in the lead, but Ivan Duque, a member of the far-right Democratic Centre (Centro Democratico) party and vocal adversary of the peace agreement, is not far behind.
On March 11, Colombians held congressional elections, where the Democratic Centre party and other right-wing candidates won most of the seats. But, the number of Green Party and other alternative party seats also doubled – including the 10 spaces saved for members of the FARC, as agreed in the peace agreements
Back in El Estrecho, Blanca Gomez says being patient for politicians to implement change isn’t always easy, especially when people continue to lack resources in the camp and they consistently hear about violence increasing in certain areas in the country, including the assassinations of some of their own colleagues.
“We have to wait to see what solution the government is going to give,” said Blanca. “But us here without arms or anything. It’s very frustrating.”
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