After decades of war, today the Colombian government claims to be putting an end to one of the oldest guerrilla organisations in the world: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The strategy that accompanies the government’s military strikes is to offer opportunities and guarantees to those soldiers who decide to leave the ranks of the group.
But can Colombia keep its promise of peace for the ex-FARC guerrillas returning home from the jungle – and can they resist temptations? In the following account, filmmaker Russ Finkelstein describes the issues behind the demobilisation programme and why many ex-FARC guerrillas are struggling with demobilisation.
The FARC has been fighting a revolution in Colombia for 47 years now. What first began as a Marxist-inspired struggle over land rights, social and agrarian reforms and resistance to neo-imperialism has been intensified and warped by the influence of the extremely lucrative cocaine trade.
At times, the FARC has held support among Colombia’s lower classes, especially in the countryside. In other contexts they have been feared and despised for their ruthless tactics. The Colombian government, the US state department and the European Union consider them to be a terrorist organisation.
Alvaro Uribe, who was president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010, made eradicating the FARC a top priority of his administration.
Contrary to his predecessor, Andres Pastrana Arango, who held peace talks with the guerrillas, Uribe took a hardline approach to ending the conflict; perhaps in part because his own father was killed by the FARC during a 1983 kidnapping attempt.
During his presidency, Uribe launched countless military operations against the group, and his former minister of defence and the country’s current president, Juan Manuel Santos, has kept putting an end to the FARC a top priority of the current administration.
For the guerrillas, the harshness of the jungle combined with enduring increasingly effective military strikes has made life for the combatants treacherous, if not intolerable.
Thousands of the groups remaining members have been tempted to defect thanks to the government’s demobilisation programme, which consist of a pardon for having been a member of a terrorist organisation as well as economic, educational and psychological assistance while integrating into civilian life. The Santos government considers the programme, along with the military pressure on the FARC, to be successful, citing the large numbers of demobilised combatants as forward progress in the seemingly endless war.
“The best way to win the war is to prevent combat from continuing while still being able to achieve one’s objectives,” said President Juan Manuel Santos at a recent forum on the demobilisation process, adding, “How can we defeat them as quickly as possible? Of course military action continues. They are constantly adapting, they have and continue to finance themselves through drug trafficking, and so what will put an end to them once and for all? We have told them to demobilise and form part of the [demobilisation] programme, because if they don’t it will either be jail or the grave. For this to be more convincing, we’ve got to make demobilisation more attractive, and we’ve got to make the threat of jail or the grave more effective.”
While we were making Hard Road Back, it became apparent that for the ex-combatants the war does not necessarily end with their demobilisation. The FARC continues to exist. They consider their defected former comrades, including those who participated in our film, to be traitors to the organisation, an offence punishable by death. Most of the ex-combatants we spent time with were hesitant at first to appear on camera as they generally try to remain anonymous for the sake of their personal safety.
Additionally, they do not usually discuss their pasts as they try to avoid discrimination they are likely to face in a society that generally considers them to be terrorists, extortionists, kidnappers, torturers, rapists and murderers. For these reasons many of the demobilised leave their homes in the countryside to settle in large cities where they can live anonymously.
For their personal surrender as well as for their participation in psychological counselling and basic education, the ex-combatants receive a modest monthly stipend from the government. The programme also allows them plenty of free time in which they are encouraged to work. We learned however after talking to dozens of ex-combatants in the programme, that with little if any education, few employable skills and the discrimination they face as former terrorists, the demobilised ex-combatants generally live lives of poverty.
At the same time, the war continues to manifest and change. New armed groups have sprung up in marginal neighbourhoods of major cities; which also happen to be the types of places where many of the ex-combatants settle after demobilising. These criminal elements, including urban wings of paramilitary groups, pay three to five times the amount of the monthly government stipend to those who work as hired guns. The money is often sufficient temptation for those with the experience and know-how necessary for this type of work.
After meeting dozens of ex-combatants and hearing them tell their stories, it became apparent that the existence of these new armed groups and the temptation they represent to the demobilised ex-combatants presents a significant challenge to the success of the government’s programme and to the prospect of peace as proposed by the current policies.
The government’s efforts may be diminishing the FARC’s numbers, but if a significant number of those who leave the group end up taking up arms to fight for other illegal armed groups, then the war will perhaps mutate and persist. The names of the groups doing the fighting may change though the profile of the individual combatants remains essentially the same. For the most part, they are poor and frustrated people to whom joining in the fighting represents a means of survival.
As is usually the case with people from the countryside anywhere in the world, the ex-combatants we came in contact with were all very hospitable, humble, friendly, respectful and accommodating. At first it was startling to recall that the people who had invited us into their homes and offered us their food had a few months or years ago been carrying out unthinkable acts in the jungle. We soon realised though that they are tired of fighting and are now doing their best to leave their violent pasts behind.
All of the former FARC combatants we met including Julio came from rural poverty. Julio first joined the FARC as a miliciano or plain-clothed, unarmed helper, when he was eleven or twelve years old. He was an orphan and had been forced to work in the fields as a young boy. To him, the well dressed, well-armed FARC soldiers commanded respect. Furthermore, they stood for political ideals that directly reflected the injustices he lived as a peasant from the countryside. He soon became dedicated to the organisation and was convinced that the FARC would topple the powers that be and establish a new and more just government in Colombia.
But after nearly two decades with the organisation and changing personal circumstances, Julio decided to defect. He moved to Bogota with his wife and son and has since been doing his best to make ends meet; though it has not been easy. Although he has given up on the FARC’s revolution, he still remains politically committed to social change and progress for Colombia’s poor. He has had to put his political ideals aside to some degree however in order to address the more pressing issue of his family’s wellbeing.
Julio is charming and charismatic. In the FARC he rose to the rank of commander and in civilian life he has attracted countless friends and comrades. He is currently organising a committee of ex-combatants in his neighbourhood which he hopes will, among their other objectives, help prevent the demobilised from falling back into the war. The idea is to pool resources, improve relations with the community and establish solidarity and camaraderie amongst the demobilised in order to improve their situation.
For the government, the success of the demobilisation programme is seen as a vital strategic step in putting an end to a gruesome war that has gone on for nearly half a century. But for the FARC’s former combatants, most of whom have endured hardship and turmoil all their lives, the government’s programme offers an opportunity to start anew and pursue something they have never known: a peaceful life. If they are to achieve this goal, however, they must be personally committed to peace in order to resist the ever-present possibility of reverting back to a life of violence.
A film by Manuel Contreras and Russ Finkelstein