A Labyrinth of Peace: Colombia Grapples with Challenges of Guerrilla Demobilization

Former ELN Guerrilla Alirio Arroyave
Former ELN Guerrilla Alirio Arroyave
Peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government began last month with a press conference marked by fiery rhetoric from the Marxist guerrillas which was met by blunt responses from the government.

The conference was a timely reminder of the scale of the challenge ahead. For the FARC negotiators to reach a disarmament agreement with the Colombian government will require both sides to overcome almost half a century of war, betrayal and failure that has created polarized political visions soaked in suspicion and mistrust.

However, reaching such an agreement would just be the first step towards peace in Colombia. Behind the five principal FARC negotiators stand an estimated 8-10,000 armed guerrillas and if any agreement is to construct a lasting and genuine peace, these guerrillas not only need to be disarmed but also reintegrated into civilian life.

Colombia has been here before. Throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s, approximately 5,000 guerrillas laid down their arms in peace processes, the majority from the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), the 19th of April Movement (M-19) and a breakaway faction of the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Alirio Arroyave was one of the guerrillas that broke ranks with the ELN in 1991, over a decade after he joined the insurgency in the 1970s because of the persecution he had faced for his involvement in a peasant land rights movement.

“In Colombia there was no space for debate, for political confrontation, there was no space for democracy,” he said. “In that era everyone who spoke in a different language to the state was considered a subversive and persecution would follow.”

This began to change for Arroyave when a new Colombian constitution was written in 1991 through a process that formed part of peace negotiations with the M-19. “In this constitution there were elements to carry out social transformations, to construct a more dignified life, which was the reason we had joined the conflict,” he said.

The decision by Arroyave and others like him to search for a peaceful end to the conflict provoked an internal rupture in the ELN, which to this day is Colombia’s second largest insurgency and not yet part of the new peace process.

“From different sectors they started to signal that moving towards peace [would involve] turning ourselves in, a surrender and so a betrayal of revolutionary principals,” said Arroyave. “[The decision] was difficult because it began to break this vision we had inside, and this was a risk because the vision I had was that it was until the end – liberation or death.”

The guerrillas of the M-19, whose leadership played a key role in the writing of the constitution, faced the opposite problem to the ELN and one that is echoed today in concerns over whether the FARC is united in its readiness to leave conflict behind.

“Many of the militants were de-motivated, because they came to demobilize and hand over their weapons with their arms twisted,” said “Simon,” who was recruited into an M-19 urban cell as a teenager in the 1980s. “They would say, ‘hey, this is the struggle, it’s to the death.’”

As part of the peace process the M-19 formed a new political party and even fielded a presidential candidate. However, for many guerrillas, this was no substitute for armed struggle. “A lot of people understood this thirst for political power … at the highest levels and the mid-level commanders,” said Simon. “But not those who were militants at heart, no one had forced them to be there [in the armed struggle], they were convinced.”

According to Simon, small pockets of former M-19 militants remain active in Colombia’s cities today. However, the fallout from the demobilization of the M-19 was minimal when compared to that of Maoist guerrilla group the EPL, whose story echoes the worst fears surrounding the current negotiations with the FARC.

Approximately 2,500 EPL guerrillas laid down their arms in 1991 in a peace process which saw the creation of the political party Hope, Peace and Freedom. However, the ex-combatants were targeted by a dissident faction of their former comrades and by the FARC and the ELN, who viewed their demobilization as a revolutionary betrayal. Between 1991 and 1995 an estimated 348 members of Hope, Peace and Freedom were murdered.

Large numbers of former EPL insurgents joined right-wing paramilitary groups, either for their own protection or because they felt unable or unwilling to return to a civilian life. With their guerrilla training and combat experience, many rose quickly through the ranks and several would become some of the most notorious paramilitary leaders of the last twenty years.

A number of high-ranking members of the neo-paramilitary criminal gangs that plague Colombia today are former EPL guerrillas, while the dissident EPL faction continues to be a major player in the drug trade.

Fernando Quijano left the EPL only to join another leftist insurgency – the Independent Revolutionary Movement – Revolutionary Armed Commandos (MIR-COAR), which demobilized in 1998. He believes the fact that so many ex-guerrillas continued in the conflict was a failure of both the state and the guerrilla leadership.

“What successive governments did in these peace processes was first divide to then rule – break down the structure of the organizations and in return offer something individual, forgetting that this is a peace agreement with organizations, not an individual,” he said. “It made a mistake, a mistake it cannot commit now.”

“The organizations also made a mistake,” Quijano added, “of not having a design for building legal social bases to keep together this project of leaving behind arms and entering legality – so most [of the combatants] dispersed. Those that played politics because they liked politics had the opportunity because they were permitted to play that game but a lot of people were the opposite.”

Ex-combatants that managed to leave the conflict behind found that returning to civilian life brought its own problems. For Alirio Arroyave, these included the social stigma of being a former insurgent, the threat of paramilitary violence and most of all, a lack of work and opportunities. “If you look for work and say you are demobilized, you are not accepted anywhere, you are shut out” he said.

Currently, demobilizing combatants can enter the government’s Disarm, Demobilize and Reintegrate program, which offers counseling, education and welfare payments. However, the frequently underfunded and overwhelmed program has had limited success.

“You have to build a life project, a different life, and the state did not offer opportunities for this reinsertion,” said Arroyave. “I’m not saying there should be handouts, but that they should open up work opportunities.”

For Fernando Quijano, it is crucial such programs recognize the realities of guerrillas leaving behind the war, often after years of having known nothing else. “They have to think about what is going to happen to these men,” he said. “The question is, if they don’t succeed in designing a good policy for entering society again … where can these men end up, what can they transform themselves into?”

Today, Arroyave, Simon and Quijano have all now found a place in civilian life. Arroyave works with local governments building participatory democracy institutions, Quijano is the president of NGO Corpades – the Corporation for Peace and Social Development – and Simon works as a photographer.

While they believe an agreement between the FARC and the Colombian state may be near, all are skeptical that a disarmament deal alone will bring lasting peace.

“The conflict might end but building peace – that is a very big challenge. The state does not build peace, peace is built if you involve civil society,” said Arroyave. “I don’t believe in the possibilities of change from above, I believe in the possibility of change from below.”

Arroyave says the route to that change remains the constitution that persuaded him to demobilize nearly 20 years ago. “We have a constitution that is beautiful in its principals and ends, but this constitution did not manage to form alternative ways and structures,” he said. “Colombia’s big task is make a reality what it said in this constitution.”

Simon, who left the M-19 while the guerrillas were negotiating the peace settlement that would lead to their central role in creating the constitution, is more skeptical. “These youths [in the M-19], they risked everything because they had been sold something really good – a just country,” he said, “but in the end, white always wins.”

The former combatants also believe there will need to be a major change in attitudes in Colombian society for peace to take hold. “You have to change people’s perception,” said Quijano. “This country cannot continue thinking internally of the conflict as one of good guys and bad guys.”

For Arroyave, a lasting peace will require leaving behind the belief that change can be brought about by violence – from both the left and the right. “The war failed in Colombia – but on both sides not just one,” he said. “If we recognize this we are capable of building peace. If there is no recognition of this failure, we cannot change.”

James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. See jamesbargent.com