After decades of guerrilla warfare, Colombian rebels face the twin specters of discrimination and unemployment
Olmedo Vega spent 35 years as a guerrilla commander during Colombia’s armed conflict – one of the longest the world has seen.
He now lives in one of 26 resettlement camps set up by the Colombian government and the UN to relocate thousands of former FARC fighters and reintegrate them into civilian life.
“The FARC is my family – I grew up with the guerrillas. But now I really want to dedicate myself to this new life here in Agua Bonita, together with my old comrades,” he said.
Camp Agua Bonita (“beautiful water”) is located on a small plateau on the edge of the Amazon basin, about an hour’s bumpy drive from Florencia, the capital of the Caquetá department in Colombia’s Amazonía region.
From the 1970s, Caquetá was the headquarters of both the FARC and the People’s Liberation Army (EPL) guerrillas. It is a geographically strategic corridor for illicit drug trafficking (particularly related to cocaine production), transportation of illicit weapons, and smuggling of kidnapped people. It is also one of the first places where guerrilla groups used landmines to wrest territorial control from the Colombian army.
When the former FARC fighters first arrived in 2017, they worked with local builders for seven months to build 63 homes using average-quality fiberglass-reinforced plastic and plywood.
“It was initially difficult to work side-by-side with local builders because of our stigma guerrillarecalls Federico Montes, one of the community leaders. “But after six months of working with us every day, some of them have moved here with their families!”
Agua Bonita sits within one of the most biologically diverse terrestrial ecosystems in the world; Home to around 40,000 species of plants, almost 1,300 species of birds and 2.5 million different insects. Red-bellied piranhas and pink river dolphins frequent the waters here — yet Colombia was named the deadliest country in the world for environmentalists in both 2019 and 2020.
According to Federico, Agua Bonita’s year-round high temperatures and high humidity mean that “the weather is perfect for growing yucca, plantain, coriander and pineapple. And if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can have trees with araza, copoazu, yellow pitaya, and other Amazonian plants. We are in the middle of fruit heaven here.”
The community started with a population of more than 300 former FARC fighters. Today it has a library with 19 computers and four printers, a bakery, a supermarket and restaurant, a soccer field, a health center and a community center with a daycare center. Ex-combatants farm eight acres of pineapple cash crop and have their own basic fruit pulp processing plant. They also have six 13-foot aquariums, a large chicken coop, and dozens of large community gardens.
One of the main attractions are the colorful murals on the 65 humble houses, depicting everything from local flora and fauna to guerrilla leaders and FARC paraphernalia. The most recurring features are the words “peace”, “reconciliation” and “hope”.
“Our main goal,” Federico said, “is to create a place where life can be lived with dignity, where everyone together is free, safe and secure, and can live in decent homes with access to health, employment and education. “
After six decades of fighting, almost 20 percent of the population is a direct victim of Colombia’s civil war – including nearly nine million internally displaced persons, 200,000 enforced disappearances, up to 40,000 kidnappings, more than 17,000 child soldiers, nearly 9,321 incidents of landmines, and 16,324 acts of sexual violence.
Some 316 former FARC fighters and 1,287 human rights defenders were killed despite a 2016 peace deal. Since Agua Bonita was founded in 2017, 29 ex-combatants have been killed in the area.
According to Olmedo: “During Duque’s government, there was a lack of food, goodwill and economic support in Agua Bonita – a complete lack of government support. But the presidential election gives us hope for a better future.”
“I want to be a doctor later, that’s my dream. I want to help people and build a more equal society in Colombia.”
Colombia on Sunday elected Gustavo Petro, the leftist former guerrilla fighter and ex-mayor of the capital Bogotá, with 50.5 percent of the vote. Successfully reintegrating thousands of former FARC guerrillas will be one of his challenges as discrimination and unemployment play a major role.
Daniel Aldana is one of the youngest ex-combatants. He’s been trying to get a job since 2019, but said it’s virtually impossible to get an interview.
“When the employers saw that my identity card had been issued in La Montañita [the nearest town to Agua Bonita], they said I need a “special selection process”. That means they will double or triple check with the authorities if I have a criminal record or if my name is on a list of terrorist databases.”
Women struggle to adapt too. More than a decade ago, Esperanza* served as a commander, fighting alongside the FARC men. But as soon as she entered civilian life, she told us that she lost her autonomy again.
“Historically, this is a patriarchal culture. Those of us who go to war break with traditional roles and stereotypes that have been imposed on women that society angers us about. I used to give orders and command 100 gunmen, and now they expect me to teach cooking! What the hell?”
When the Colombian reintegration agency offered Tania Gomez the opportunity to do a sewing and childcare course, she recalled saying to the officer, “Are you kidding me! After 10 years of fighting the Colombian army every day, do you want me to open a kindergarten? I didn’t join the FARC to become a surrogate mother, I’m a revolutionary!’
*Some respondents only asked to be used by their first name.
dr Camilo Tamayo Gomez is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Huddersfield and Dr. Gavin Hart is Lecturer in Criminology at Liverpool Hope University. This article was originally published on The Conversation.