Demobilization, Colombia’s guerrilla members return to life

Demobilization, Colombia’s guerrilla members return to life

By Dialogo
January 13, 2014

The process of collective and individual demobilization in Colombia is long-lived; however, it is the individual demobilization, with no previous negotiation or conditional agreement with the government, which is successfully taking place in the country nowadays.
During Juan Manuel Santos’ administration, demobilization has gained momentum as a complementary war strategy supplemental to military confrontation; a sort of massive propaganda campaign built for Acción Integral (Integrated Action) and Territorial Consolidation aimed at reaching definitive peace.
At the same time, given its long trajectory, it can also serve as an example to other countries suffering similar internal conflicts. Unlike demobilization processes in other countries, Colombia executes its process in parts; it includes the voluntarily demobilization of guerilla members willing to abandon their weapons, followed by disarmament, and finally, reintegrating into civilian life, where they become productive members of Colombian society.
To get a better understanding of this process, Diálogo visited Bogotá in order to have a conversation with Colombian Army Brigadier General Germán Saavedra, currently the coordinator of the Group for Humanitarian Attention for the Demobilized (GAHD).

DIÁLOGO: Brigadier General Saavedra, could you tell us about the Group for Humanitarian Attention for the Demobilized? How did the idea arise, what is its significance, its purpose, focus, and achievements so far?

Brigadier General Germán Saavedra, coordinator of the GAHD: The Group for Humanitarian Attention for the Demobilized is under the National Ministry of Defense. It was created in 2001 with the purpose of encouraging people belonging to organized armed groups operating outside the law to make the decision to demobilize individually and voluntarily, and thus receive guaranteed attention to their basic needs and the needs of their families during their reintegration to civilian life.
The importance of this program lies in the opportunity that the Ministry of Defense grants to the members of these terrorist organizations to abandon their weapons and criminal activities in order to reintegrate into civilian life. In the current war plan set for military operations, demobilization is a top priority even over capture and death, for which the Minister of National Defense [Juan Carlos Pinzón] has created Campaign Counsel Groups (GAC), in charge of developing the demobilization strategies in the different divisions and task forces throughout the country.
Currently, over 26,700 former members of these terrorist organizations have demobilized individually, and many of them have collaborated with information that led to tough blows against these structures. Results range from the recovery of kidnapped people, deactivation of landmines, submission of war material, the seizure of drugs, destruction of laboratories, demobilization of entire structures, to the neutralizing of targets of high strategic value.

DIÁLOGO: What type of attention does the GAHD offer the demobilized guerillas? How does the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process work?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: In Colombia, the individual disarmament and demobilization stages are the responsibility of the Ministry of National Defense, while the collective disarmament and demobilization fall under the responsibility of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace. The reintegration stage for individual, as well as collective processes, are under the responsibility of the Colombian Agency for Reintegration, ACR.
The disarmament stage begins in the military or police units where the person arrives voluntarily and surrenders their weapons. They stay there for a period of between five to 14 days, and it is then that they begin to receive immediate attention and an administrative report is written. This report records the relevant documentation that will be later submitted for the analysis of the Operative Committee for the Abandonment of Arms, CODA; among other documents, this report includes the interview completed by the person of interest, which includes questions such as what group this person belonged to, the motivation and circumstances of their abandonment.
The demobilization stage, executed by the GAHD, begins with the displacement of the person from the military units to peace shelters, where they remain for a period of 60 to 90 days, while the CODA certifies the demobilized members to receive legal, psychosocial, and financial benefits that will allow the transition to the reintegration path, which is the responsibility of the ACR.

DIÁLOGO: How many shelters are there in Colombia currently?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: Right now, there are four peace shelters strategically located according to the type of demobilization and geographical location in the country; this way, we can have unmarried demobilized people and demobilized people with their families.
From within the military unit, the GAHD grants a number of benefits to the demobilized person and their immediate family members; these benefits include security, accommodations, food, clothes, a toiletry kit, the transfer to the peace shelters where they receive psychosocial attention, training, identification papers, legal counseling, health evaluations, recreation and sports.
The reintegration stage begins when the demobilized member actually integrates into society to enjoy a life of freedom and independence. A group of ACR professionals monitor the reintegration process so that the demobilized men and women can develop a determined step-by-step work plan according to the capabilities and condition of the person, the demobilized can build a life project within the law that will allow him or her to enjoy the freedoms and possibilities that Colombian society has to offer. This stage can take from two to seven years. During this period, the demobilized member will have access to social and economic benefits such as psychosocial support, management to health access, education and work training.
If he or she honors all the commitments involved in the path to reintegration, he or she can receive up to $480,000 Colombian pesos per month.
If the demobilized individual or his/her family members develop a business idea (a proposal that results in a productive project), at the end of the process, the ACR will provide them with an economic benefit of up to eight million pesos. If they did not come up with such proposal, they can use this resource to supplement a housing option or to pursue higher education.

DIÁLOGO: How do you think campaigns like those launched in Christmas time, Río de Luz (River of Light), Juega por la Vida (Play for Life), Pedalea por tu Vida (Cycle for Life), etc. affect the guerrillas? Do you believe that such campaigns have increased the number of demobilized people?

Brig.Gen. Saavedra: Definitely.This is very innovative work, it requires great levels of initiative, and sports have allowed us to make this demobilization program public, to reach everybody, to reach people, society as a whole. Sport events are a form of entertainment that gives us the opportunity to talk about demobilization as the show is taking place. During sports events we can provide all the details of the benefits to all those people willing to abandon life in the terrorist groups as well as weapons. We actually saw that during the campaigns we organized for Christmas like Río de Luz or Juega por la Vida; demobilization numbers increased and that allowed us to push forward an aggressive broadcast to make it reach all the regions of the country effectively, anywhere these people may be located.

DIÁLOGO: How many demobilized people have successfully reintegrated into society? Do you remember any story in particular, or an anecdote that moved you in a special way?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: It is hard to give you a specific number of demobilized and reintegrated people because this process can take up to seven years. The ACR is making an effort to register the first groups in this process, because as of 2011, we established a procedure to account for the reintegration process. By July this year [2014], the ACR had about 1,906 successful reintegrations. However, based on the rates of criminal relapse, we could say that nine out of 10 demobilized individuals stay within the boundaries of the law; this would be the greatest success considering the results of other demobilization and reintegration processes in the world.
One of the clearest cases of effective demobilization and reintegration has been the one of alias “Ploter”, mastermind of Fronts 9, 19, 52 and of the “Miller Chacón” Company, all belonging to the Caribbean and Northwest Blocks of the FARC. He was a member of this organization for 14 years. In 2004 he made the decision to demobilize and turned himself into the Escuadrón Móvil de Carabineros de Ia Policía Nacional (Mobile Carabineer Squad of the National Police); since then, he started a new life that has allowed him to advance in his studies in Politics and International Affairs, Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law. He completed a Master’s degree in Governance; he is also a lecturer on peace and conflict talks and the making the Colombian model of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) known in Austria, Holland, Belgium, England, the United States and El Salvador. He set up a foundation that helps prevent illegal recruitment and the use of children and teenagers by groups acting outside of the law. And although he maintains his leftist principles, he knows that Colombia has legal ways to exercise any kind of ideologies, and that the way of the weapon is not the right way.

DIÁLOGO: What is your role in the policy for the prevention of forced recruitment and how do you interact with the other state agencies on the subject?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: The Group of Humanitarian Attention for Demobilized has allocated a specific area with the main task of gradually reducing recruitment and the use of minors by illegal organized groups. To this end, we are in the process of implementing the Strategy for the Prevention of Illegal Recruitment, which has been structured to be developed with interagency support and the validation of third parties based on missions imposed by the Area of Defense in 3673 CONPES 2010, as well as analyses performed to the evaluations implemented, the current conflict dynamic and the social factors that increase risk.
The strategy highlights the differential nature the use of children and adolescents (NNA) and the shared responsibility of the Public Forces, especially the National Police, in executing recruitment of these. The main objective is to influence the decrease of vulnerabilities by means of developing seven lines of action and different programs that include studying the matter, implementing pedagogical preventive programs, making society aware of this problem, developing protocols and training for the Public Forces, articulating programs at a national, regional and local level, and strengthening security in the areas of higher incidence of illegal recruitment.
Illegal Organized Armed Groups are wearing and weakening as a result of the actions of military operations and National Police operations, as well as the loss of an ideological foundation and the difficulty to voluntarily incorporate adults to their structures. All of this has caused them to develop actions that influence civil society and violate the national and international laws affecting conflicts. The children and adolescents have been especially affected by this phenomenon because they are recruited and used permanently, sporadically or transitorily, and are forced to participate in direct or indirect actions that threaten their lives and integrity, and hinder their fundamental rights. The recruitment and use of children and adolescents by organizations like the FARC, ELN and BACRIM is a systematical practice, that is to say, it is not something casual but quite the opposite; it forms part of the criminal plots of these organizations, their illicit methods and strategies. Unfortunately, these minors represent the raw material for the criminal structures and illegal actions of these organizations.
According to our database, between 2002 and August 2013, 3,650 boys and girls have left organized armed groups operating outside of the law, and the age at which they are recruited keeps decreasing. Furthermore, around 60 % of the 22,638 adults who demobilized individually in the same period were recruited when they were minors.

DIÁLOGO: What have been the greatest successes of the program?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: One of the greatest successes is the large amount of people abandoning their weapons; this includes women, but also men that came to realize that they have been deceived during those 10 to 15 years, and they have wasted all that time. They regret it all and they are willing to recover all that lost time. Now, with this program, the Government and the Ministry of Defense is giving them that opportunity.

DIÁLOGO: How do you see the program in the long-term, in a potential post-conflict scenario?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: The Group for Humanitarian Attention for the Demobilized will continue to have a key role in the short, medium and long term. First, as we continue our work amidst conflicts with organized armed groups operating outside of the law, we will keep our door open to guerrilla members; this will considerably decrease the criminal actions of these structures. Second, at the mid-term, when a collective demobilization takes place, we will shelter all those people that have been forced and deceived into joining these organizations. Lastly, at the long term, this policy could be applied to all other types of groups, because the DDR Program has proven to be more effective and efficient than all re-socialization programs that are applied in prison. In addition, thanks to the work aimed at preventing the illegal recruitment and use of children and teenagers, we will continue to contribute to a secure and peaceful country.

DIÁLOGO: What is your interaction with the Special Administrative Unit for Territorial Consolidation and with the Campaign Counsel Groups?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: The Campaign Counsel Groups are currently in charge of the interaction with the Special Administrative Unit for Territorial Consolidation. This unit has a staff in each of the units and task forces, which execute specific demobilization tasks, recruitment prevention, integrated actions, communication and legal tasks. It is thanks to this staff that the Group for Humanitarian Attention for the Demobilized channels the support to communications for the demobilization and prevention campaigns at the regional, local and community levels.

DIÁLOGO: What is the role of the Acción Integral (Integrated Action) in a post-conflict Colombia?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: Its role is very important because it enables the consolidation of all the areas that have been affected by this type of violence arising from this internal conflict. And this is the moment in which we work hand in hand to inspire trust and win the hearts of the civil population day after day. DIÁLOGO: In such case, will the government be able to support the 8,000 FARC members currently left demobilize? Brig. Gen. Saavedra: Of course it will. The experience the country has in demobilization from previous years has prepared it: the State has been preparing to receive all of the people willing to demobilize. That will be performed as a collective demobilization, managed and led by the High Commissioner for Peace.

DIÁLOGO: What is the cost per demobilized person?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: If we talk numbers, it is less expensive to support a demobilized person than to keep a guerrilla member locked behind bars. It is less expensive for the State to demobilize a person than to send that person to jail.

DIÁLOGO: Have you shared the lessons learned on this process with other countries?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: We have already visited several countries and provided them the know-how of how well organized or well-articulated it is, and they have all realized that reintegration is a key to the success of this process. We have demonstrated that this is a well-organized program that has financial support from the State, and that is the reason why we keep and maintain our work.

DIÁLOGO: On a final note, Brigadier General Saavedra, would you like to add something for our readers?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: I would like to tell you that in this process, in this Group for Humanitarian Attention for the Demobilized, we could see how the terrorist groups of the FARC and ELN violate human rights every day. We see the suffering of women; they suffer because they are raped, because they become pregnant, because they are forced to abort their babies, or because their babies are killed during the forced abortion practices.
We have already interviewed many women who claim to have lost two or three children to abortion… they also talk about the ill-treatment they receive in the organization, the human limitations they have access or rights to; all of which has allowed these people to make the voluntary decision to abandon weapons and enter the demobilization process.
It is a process happening within the conflict. We are living an internal conflict; we are at war; the operations are happening day and night, but whoever is willing to come will be welcomed. We are at war and we are welcoming them. That is an example of something unique in the world.
We are starting a campaign to publicize the benefits the demobilized individuals can enjoy if they make the decision to abandon the organized armed groups operating outside of the law, and seize the opportunity to live in freedom and independence. The motto of this campaign is “Demobilization brings about positive things,” and it expects to show that demobilization brings good things not only to the demobilized person, but also for the country that is craving peace.
fantastic article and interview. I am setting up a business in Colombia because of these programs. Good afternoon, I would like to know if someone becomes demobilized voluntarily from the FARC could he be sentenced for terrorism? I want to get back into the program