A year after Colombia and its FARC rebels signed their peace accord, its implementation has been worryingly slow. But a recent census of demobilizing rebel fighters offers new guidance for Colombian and U.S. policies. The United States has a national security interest in Colombia reintegrating its thousands of FARC members into stable communities and livelihoods, in part because it may help stem Colombia’s resurging exports of cocaine and crime.

FARC members play chess in one of the zones set up to transition the former rebels back to civilian life, near La Paz, Colombia, Feb. 1, 2017. As the peace process moves ahead, mixed feelings in towns like La Paz are clear evidence of lingering divisions and bitter memories of the conflict. (Federico Rios Escobar/The New York Times)
FARC members play chess in one of the zones set up to transition the former rebels back to civilian life, near La Paz, Colombia. Photo courtesy of Federico Rios Escobar/The New York Times.

Supporting lasting peace in Colombia will depend on aiding the reintegration of former FARC rebels and preventing them from either re-arming to fight anew, or from joining cocaine-trafficking paramilitary criminal groups. The census data, gathered by Colombia’s National University, points to four key priorities for Colombia’s reintegration of the ex-rebels:

  • Provide land and a chance to farm. The FARC are rural in their origins, and 60 percent in the census say they want to work in agriculture. Yet government programs have tended to focus on formal jobs or non-farming business opportunities for them. Land tenancy should be explored with urgency to improve the mix of opportunities for ex-fighters.
  • Strengthen the former fighters’ opportunities for schooling. The ex-rebels’ education levels are low. While 90 percent are literate, only 21 percent completed high school and 11 percent reported no formal education. Ex-combatants seem on average to value education over employment, and higher education levels and completing high school equivalency during reintegration are associated with substantial reductions in the risk of recidivism.
  • Involve the ex-rebels in community governance. Research shows that communities with more participatory governance offer better opportunities for former combatants’ reintegration. And the FARC have experience with social and political participation. The census finds that 63 percent participated in social or political organizations, with 30 percent participating in local councils.
  • Support participation by indigenous ethnic groups in reintegration. The FARC is almost five times more indigenous than Colombia’s general population, with 18 percent of its members from one of the 80-plus indigenous groups. Reintegration policies should see this as a cultural resource, encouraging indigenous groups’ roles in reintegration, including supporting reintegration ceremonies that focus on spiritual restoration as part of the ex-rebels’ reentry into communities.

The data on FARC ex-fighters offers one more basis for hope. They have lots of children, which one study finds helps to anchor fighters in society and prevent them from returning to warfare or crime. The census reported 54 percent of fighters have at least one child, a figure that could be even higher today given the baby boom occurring in the FARC transition camps. So every policy that helps families, notably in rural Colombia, also strengthens the chance of stabilizing Colombia and cementing the peace that is promised by the year-old agreement.

Oliver Kaplan is an assistant professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, and was a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at USIP. This post is adapted from an essay published on the blog politicalviolenceataglance.org that is supported, in part, by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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