by Robinson Cook
Ever since Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced they would start negotiating a peace agreement, the Colombian public has been skeptical. These doubts are not completely unfounded—past attempts at negotiations failed several times, and if history serves as a guide, there is nothing to indicate that this time will be any different. However, should the two sides finally reach an agreement, it will be critical for the Colombian government to ensure that thousands of militarized young men are successfully integrated into the workplace and society.
Earlier attempts at demobilization and reintegration of other groups have fallen short. In 2006, several paramilitary groups agreed to lay down their weapons. These paramilitary groups were initially formed by wealthy ranch owners in the state of Antioquia to counteract the influence of the FARC in that region. Eventually, the paramilitary groups grew into larger armies, and at one time the largest of the paramilitary groups, the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), had nearly 20,000 members present across ten states throughout Colombia. The AUC committed several human rights violations, ranging from kidnapping, extortion, torture, rape, intimidation and massacres. They also became heavily involved in narcotics trafficking, which generated tens of millions of dollars in annual profits for the group between 1997 and 2004.
It was under this backdrop that the Colombian Government, then led by a right wing president, decided to negotiate the demobilization of the AUC in 2004. The Colombian government and the AUC agreed to demobilize their forces over a two-year period, and while the leadership of the AUC laid down its weapons, lower-level foot soldiers simply formed smaller criminal gangs referred to as Bacrims (bandas criminal). These criminal gangs currently contain between 25 to several hundred members and exert control over smaller areas throughout Colombia. They continue to be responsible for extortion, narcotics trafficking, illegal mining and land grabbing from poor farmers. It is estimated that these criminal gangs now exert influence in more than 40 percent of Colombia and have become as big of a problem as the larger guerrilla groups.
This past experience illustrates that any demobilization agreed to by the leaders of the FARC secretariat will need to include a mechanism that provides employment for the lower level FARC members to prevent history from repeating itself. Even if the FARC leadership agrees to a peace deal, this does not mean that the commanders in the lower level Blocs and Fronts, which form the second level of command in the FARC chain of command, will agree to give up their revenue streams that are largely derived from illegal ventures. Estimated profits from these activities result in $500 million in revenues annually.
One solution the government can pursue is to provide job training in high-demand sectors, such as in customer service, manufacturing or construction. These jobs will probably pay better than what the majority of foot soldiers were receiving while in the service of the FARC. Furthermore, these young men, many of whom are under the age of 21, will not be subject to the stress of constantly worrying about their own safety.
Workforce development must be included in a larger, comprehensive solution to reintegrate members of the FARC. The fact remains that without a mechanism for providing former combatants opportunities to become productive members of their communities, Colombia will find itself with a weak and hollow peace agreement. Workforce development is not just a way to build the peace, but is also needed to sustain it.
About the Author
Robinson Cook is originally from Minneapolis MN where he worked for five years in the refugee resettlement sector helping refugees and low-income persons transition to self-sufficiency. For the past three years he has lived in Bogota Colombia where he successfully launched a 501c3 organization, The Bogota Wage Subsidy Project, that assists displaced women with achieving long-term economic stability through hands on job training by connecting them with employers for a three month training period. Mr. Cook holds an M.A. In International Relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a B.A. In Political Science from Howard University in Washington D.C.