A web presentation from the Washington Office on Latin America

WOLA logo 15th Anniversary of Plan Colombia: Learning from its Successes and Failures

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The “DDR” Challenge

After a peace accord, the FARC’s fighters, urban militia members, and support personnel will demobilize and re-enter society. Well over 20,000 Colombians will need assistance to reintegrate into their communities and the nation’s economy.

Colombia’s government has much experience with demobilizing and reintegrating ex-combatants. Over 57,000 have collectively demobilized or individually deserted since 2003. Of these, 32,000 were members of the AUC paramilitaries, who turned themselves in via a series of mass ceremonies between 2003 and 2006.

The record of Colombia’s past reintegration efforts is mixed, though not bad compared to many worldwide DDR (Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration) experiences. The most difficult phase was that first big wave of ex-paramilitaries, for which Colombia’s national government was clearly unprepared. The government simply lost track of many of these individuals. Many ended up running afoul of the law, forming or joining new criminal bands (known in Colombia as “BACRIM”), or simply being killed. Only a minority from that first wave is now gainfully employed and truly integrated in society.

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A chart of demobilizations since 2003: can Colombia handle another wave like 2004-2006? Another chart shows that 52% of past demobilized are still 'in the system.'

An important lesson of that period was that a stipend and some vocational training weren’t enough. More remedial education was necessary for thousands of nearly illiterate fighters, as well as psycho-social support for people who had been traumatized and brutalized in the ranks. Breaking through businesses’ unwillingness to hire ex-combatants was, and continues to be, a stubborn challenge. So is the design of differential programs for male and female, child and adult ex-combatants.

Colombia has become quite adept at handling the 1,000-plus individual deserters it has received each year after the mass AUC demobilizations. A possible FARC demobilization, though, would overwhelm existing capacities at the Colombian Reintegration Agency (ACR) or its successor. The scale will be far larger, of course. Many of those demobilizing will be doing so because their commanders ordered it, not necessarily out of any personal desire to rejoin society. As their former commanders may seek to build a political movement in their rural base, many ex-FARC may opt to remain in rural areas, which will make it harder for reintegration authorities to track and provide services to them.

A challenge requiring a large concentration of resources will be the mid-level commanders among the demobilized. Many of them played a role in FARC fundraising, which means they have ties to the criminal economy and will feel a strong pull to remain active in organized crime. Close monitoring and tailored economic programs will be essential to keep them “in the system” and avoid their defection and formation of “FARCRIM.”

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