On September 24, 2014, Cristina, a former Colombian guerrilla, experienced the ultimate act of absolution. In an audience with Pope Francis, Cristina asked forgiveness on behalf of all of her comrades for the years of pain they have caused her country. Cristina is one of hundreds of thousands of Colombians who have fought in the country’s half-century-long civil war that has left over 200,000 dead and pushed approximately five million Colombians from their homes. But, like many others, Cristina chose to abandon this life of violence. In 2006, Cristina laid down her arms and began the long road of reintegration that led her to receive the Pope’s pardon.
Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, is currently in treaty negotiations with the FARC—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—bringing the country the closest to peace it has been in the past 50 years. But peace isn’t the only hurdle. If an agreement is reached, the country will face the subsequent challenge of how to manage the simultaneous demobilization of tens of thousands of combatants, some of whom have spent their entire lives as guerillas.
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Forging a Pathway to Combatant Reintegration
The Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR) believes it has the answer. This government entity, which reports directly to the Presidency of the Republic of Colombia, is tasked with coordinating and executing the social and economic reintegration of demobilized people from organized illegal armed groups. Confident in his agency’s ability to successfully reintegrate former combatants, former ACR Director Alejandro Eder boasted that the ACR could double the number of demobilized combatants it currently mentors. In an interview with the BBC, he further articulated that they have an “emergency reaction plan” and are ready to receive up to 40,000 ex-combatants. Such is the faith Eder has in the innovative model of his agency.
Colombia is on the frontier of former combatant reintegration. Decades of armed conflict have provided the ACR with ample opportunity to learn what works and what does not. The model developed and employed by the ACR today has drawn international attention. It is comprehensive, multi-dimensional, and personalized. Demobilization involves each combatant’s entering a program customized for the individual by a reintegration advisor who provides accompaniment and support during the lengthy community reentry process.
The unique path is personalized based on the specific needs and goals of the individual. The ACR’s model is comprised of eight dimensions: personal, productivity, family, habitability, health care, educational, citizenship, and security. Each dimension is broken down into specific steps, such as psychosocial care for the demobilized person and their family, access to education and training programs, provision of healthcare services, business development and employment support, education about the duties and rights of citizens, and financial provisions. The ACR employs this multi-dimensional method in order to address all aspects of a person’s life, to ensure that the demobilized individual will be holistically reintegrated into society. The organization contends that it is not sufficient to provide a monetary stipend and a job. Persons in the reintegration process receive training in skills that allow them to pursue constructive projects as well as the personal support to ensure those projects become a sustainable foothold to keep them out of illicit activities.
The average duration of the reintegration process is six and a half years per person, though this varies significantly from person to person based on individual needs. In most cases, individuals abandon their affiliation with guerrilla groups with very little to no education and no skills that could lead to gainful employment. Some individuals even lack knowledge of common, everyday tasks. According to Eder, even the most basic conventions of society must be learned:
“You have to teach people how to stand in line at the bank, and how to pay [in a shop] because when you have an AK-47 slung over your shoulder, nobody wants to charge you.” As a result, the road to becoming a productive, law-abiding citizen can be a rather long one.
Moving from Reinsertion to Holistic Reintegration
The ACR was the first agency of its kind in the world tasked solely with former illegal combatant reintegration, so it has had to employ a learn-by-doing approach to the process rather than looking to similar organizations in other countries as a guide. The origins of the ACR date back to 2003 when the Program for Reincorporation to Civilian Life (PRVC) was created under the Ministry of Interior and Justice.
The PRVC’s focus was reinsertion—an 18-month long process that sought to prepare people for their return to civilian life through psycho-social support, health care, education, and financial assistance. The collective demobilization of 30,000 combatants in 2006 forced the government to reassess its reinsertion program. While the model it was employing was efficient and well-managed, it lacked a holistic approach to reintegrating former combatants that accounted for external social factors such as family support networks and employment opportunities.
Instead of a short-term assistance-focused approach, the ACR determined that it needed a more long-term, sustainable strategy. Demonstrating its commitment to effective reintegration, the government created a specialized unit named the High Presidential Council for the Reintegration of Individuals and Armed Groups. Under this new agency, the aim switched from reinsertion to holistic reintegration and the active participation of society in the process of reintegrating former combatants into civilian life. In 2010, the Council was renamed the Colombian Agency for Reintegration and placed directly under the President.
Creating a Culture of Reconciliation
The ACR has found that focusing on sustainable reintegration—instead of reinsertion—and adopting a multi-dimensional model is the most effective way to foster each combatant’s conversion to productive, law-abiding citizens. Currently, more than 30,000 individuals are moving through the reintegration process and 76 percent are gainfully employed. To date, over 8,000 former combatants receiving ACR support have started an entrepreneurial activity with seed capital provided by the ACR.
“The ACR has found that focusing on sustainable reintegration—instead of reinsertion—and adopting a multi-dimensional model is the most effective way to foster combatants’ conversion to productive, law-abiding citizens.”
Probably the strongest indicator of the success of the ACR’s model is the recidivism rate. As of January 2013, a meager one percent of people undergoing or having undergone reintegration returned to an illegal armed group, and only one in four participants reverted back to criminal activity. That number may seem high, but considering the recidivism rate of individuals who have served time in the Colombian criminal justice system is 70 percent (comparable to criminal recidivism in the United States), a recidivism rate of 25 percent is highly favorable and speaks to the success of the ACR’s model in helping former combatants remain peaceful, law-abiding citizens.
Despite the ACR’s success, challenges still persist, and much remains to be done. “The reintegration we are doing well, because there are already more than 20,000 people that are demobilized and legally working,” said Eder. “The biggest challenge now,” he added, “is eliminating the apathy and rejection shown towards this population.”
Cristina, describing the day she met Pope Francis, noted that her fear of rejection was one of the first hurdles she had to overcome as a former combatant. Demobilized individuals carry a negative stigma in society, causing neighbors to distrust them and businesses to reject their applications for employment, two factors that are pivotal to the success of the ACR’s reintegration model. Reintegration, much like peace, requires the involvement of all members of society—not just the government. This is a significant demand of a society terrorized by decades of violence that has destroyed lives and shattered communities.
Bitterness and demands for retribution continue to permeate Colombian society, but more and more people are joining those allied towards forgiveness and reintegration. On the day of her audience with the Pope, Cristina was joined by Sandra, a victim of illegal armed conflict who has survived kidnapping, torture, and the loss of her husband and son at the hands of guerillas. If anyone has a right to seek revenge, it is Sandra. Instead, she has chosen to forgive. Today, Sandra employs former combatants and leads reconciliation activities in her community. Only when more people like Sandra raise their voices for change will society forgo vengeance for forgiveness, enabling reconciliation and sustained peace to come to Colombia at last.
Amy Crumbliss is a Senior Program Coordinator at PYXERA Global where she supports several international corporate volunteerism projects. Her educational and professional background consists of international development, trade, economics, cultural exchange, international relations, and Latin American studies.She is also fluent in Spanish. Amy joined PYXERA Global because she believes strongly in the power of collaboration to tackle today’s biggest global problems.