The Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR) Director Alejandro Eder said the agency had an “emergency reaction plan” for when peace talks succeed. He said the ACR is ready to receive up to 40,000 ex-combatants given its experience gained over the past 10 years rehabilitating 56,000 former right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas.
Eder said the main challenge was to get the support of the wider Colombian society, which hopefully provides jobs for the ex-combatants.
“It is difficult for people understand these people need a second chance,” said Natalia Oviedo Meza of ACR.
The government estimates there are 7,800 active FARC members, with approximately another 10,000 people on the margins of the group. That seems a low estimate.
Colombia’s second-largest illegal armed group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), is estimated to have just under 1,500 fighters. The government has shown a willingness to initiate peace talks with the ELN.
The Colombian government spends US $90 million a year on the ACR program. It is far less expensive to help former combatants find a lawful life than it is to keep fighting them in the jungles.
On average, 10 fighters demobilize every day in Colombia.
Seventy percent of demobilized are either completely illiterate or just barely able to read or write their names. Few have had much formal schooling. With the guidance of ACR, ex-combatants must first catch up on elementary school education; they then go on to vocational training and hopefully to a job.
At the same time, throughout the process which takes seven years, they receive psychological support. The government currently provides one psychologist for every 100 ex-combatants, and counseling is on offer about twice a month. But that seems insufficient when over half of former combatants who have joined government reintegration were sexually abused as children, and when the average age at the time of recruitment was 16 and the average time spent in the group was eight years.
To stay in the program, an ex-combatant must be active at least once a trimester. That, too, seems insufficient.
The ACR formula is not a guaranteed success. About 20 to 25 percent of those who have gone through the program return to a life of illegality — the lure of the profits of the drug trade is too great. And 10 percent of those who have gone through the program have been tried and convicted of crimes committed after they demobilized, according to ACR figures.