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A key to Colombia peace: Reintegrating the ex-fighters

Programs that help former FARC rebels and paramilitary troops reenter society is seen as crucial to the nation's long-term peace. The U.S. is on board, checkbook in hand.

March 08, 2009|Chris Kraul

MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA — On some days, former Colombian rebel Wilmar Quintero says, he feels like a research monkey.

He recently spent his morning taking "psycho-social" tests, sitting through an hourlong accounting course and meeting with victims of this country's endemic violence at the Peace and Reconciliation Program training center in Medellin.

But he's not complaining.

"It's a beautiful opportunity for the education, the social aspects and to be able to go forward with my life," said Quintero, 24, a former fighter in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who is now seeking a business degree.

Quintero is one of 40,000 former leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary combatants whom the Colombian government is preparing for reentry to society through training, counseling and financial aid.

The mounting battlefield successes of the country's military aside, failure to make law-abiding citizens of Quintero and other hardened fighters could doom Colombia to continued violence.

The United States, which since 2000 has spent more than $5 billion on a counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism effort known as Plan Colombia, is on board. Washington has ponied up millions to support the reentry program, which embassy officials here describe as crucial to long-term peace.

Administrators say it could take years or even decades to measure the results. But there are hopeful signs. Once-skeptical U.S. sponsors say the national program, modeled after one developed in Medellin, may eventually serve as a template for war-torn societies.

Quintero's tightly monitored regimen reflects an overhaul of the reintegration program. After four years in the FARC, Colombia's largest rebel group, Quintero decided to take advantage of an amnesty being offered by the government as well as the benefits of the program -- education and a $200 monthly stipend -- for laying down his arms. He said he heard about the offer on the radio.

Back in 2002, when the government first tried to socialize hardened fighters, its approach was to issue monthly checks to meet subsistence costs and, in essence, wish the participants buena suerte (good luck) in reentering a world they were ill-equipped to cope with.

That turned out to be a prescription for failure. Fifteen percent or more of early enrollees were back on the street when the checks ran out, joining gangs or committing crimes.

Officials learned that demobilized fighters needed much more help in adjusting than anyone had realized, said Susan Reichle, Colombia director for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which covers about 10% of the program's $150-million annual cost.

"We have learned the problem is complex and that the objective won't be achieved in a short time," said Frank Pearl, Colombia's reintegration commissioner since 2006.

Quintero, like thousands of others, receives his stipend on the conditions that he attend classes, show up for counseling and submit to periodic testing. At each venue, he displays a magnetic identification card for a U.S.-sponsored tracking system that verifies his attendance.

Since the overhaul, the homicide rate and other crime statistics have dropped dramatically in Medellin, once the capital of global cocaine trafficking and one of the most violent cities in the world.

Experts credit the lower homicide rate -- one-tenth what it was in 1991 -- to Medellin's more intensive approach to reintegrating former paras and rebels, including psychological counseling for the ex-fighters and their families. Other parts of the program include encounter groups for victims, their families and their victimizers.

"Medellin got a head start because the first big block of paramilitary demobilizations took place here in 2002 and also because the city is home to so many of these fighters," said Jorge Gaviria, director of the city's Peace and Reconciliation Program.

Medellin's innovations have since been incorporated into the national program, Pearl said. Rebels and right-wing militia members who once were mortal enemies now take classes and work on community projects together.

Oscar Zapata, a former paramilitary fighter who hopes to open a cabinetry shop next year with training and financial help, recently teamed up with ex-rebels to rebuild housing in a poor Medellin barrio that his comrades burned down in urban warfare several years ago.

"The mothers who lost their sons and their houses were there as we rebuilt them," Zapata said. "It was difficult at first but in the end no special problem. We respect each other now."

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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