- Alejandro Eder, Director, Colombia’s Agency for Reconciliation
- Aldo Civico, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Rutgers University; Founder and Director of International Institute for Peace
On January 29, AS/COA hosted a discussion with Alejandro Eder, director of the Colombian Agency for Reconciliation in Colombia (ACR), focusing on the lessons learned and challenges of reintegrating demobilized former guerrillas and paramilitaries in Colombia. Eder discussed the aims of the program and how it has evolved since its founding 10 years ago. Dedicated to collective and individual demobilization and reintegration, the ACR has helped nearly 34,000 paramilitaries and 23,000 ex-guerrilla fighters who have taken part in the program. In light of the ACR’s decade-long experience, Eder believes the ACR is poised to assume a key role in a future reintegration process, given peace negotiations now taking place.
Colombia’s Reintegration Model and Peace Negotiations
Eder opened the discussion by providing a brief overview of the goals of the ACR, which designed its peacebuilding reintegration program on UN and World Bank models, drawing from already established processes. Eder said the ACR “Colombianized” these frameworks in order for them to fit the country’s history and culture. What makes the Colombian process unique, Eder said, is that reintegration is taking place parallel to the ongoing conflict. Even as violence persists, the government has worked to carry out a peacebuilding policy by working with victims and displaced persons and increasing state presence in rural areas.
However, the Colombian government began a new peace process in October, beginning negotiations with the guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Talks are currently underway in Cuba, with potential for another group, the National Liberation Army, to join. Eder expressed confidence that the lessons learned over the past decade have prepared the ACR for the future reintegration process of former FARC combatants.
The ACR’s Approach
Over the last few years, the ACR has changed its strategy to better address the specific needs of the demobilized. The program provides six and a half years of continual programs to address the psychological effects of militancy and helps participants learn societal norms while rebuilding self-esteem. The program also provides academic and vocational training. Participants focus on volunteer social work, promoting reconciliation between victims and victimizers, as well as community development.
The ACR works to provide incentives to participants to prevent them from returning to combat. The program is meant to be temporary, providing assistance to help the demobilized become productive and self-sustaining citizens. The economic assistance provided is intentionally below the average minimum wage in order to prevent dependency on ACR support. As the program progresses, stipends are gradually reduced until participants are self-reliant. Seed capital is offered at the completion of the program, which can be used to start a business, pursue higher education, or purchase a home. Eder said that those who have their own homes are 90 percent less likely to return to fighting.
Challenges for the Future
In comparison to similar programs in other countries, Colombia has a low rate of relapse. However, its challenge is one of “quality, not quantity,” said Civico. The government’s current policy has tracks specifically geared toward high-ranking officers and low-level combatants, but it lacks a track for the demobilized middle-level commanders. One of the goals of the ACR is to develop a track that can attract and retain rising officers, who have much to gain through illicit drug-trafficking and rising through the ranks.
The ACR also aims to help the Colombian people transition from fear to forgiveness and reconciliation. The agency has support from over 700 private companies, but Eder admits that more is needed. In his meetings with companies, he sometimes encounters hesitation to get involved. In the future, he hopes to garner more support from companies by expanding the ACR’s job placement program.
When reflecting on his six years working with the ACR, Eder was surprised by the human connection he made with the demobilized. He shared an anecdote about a young woman who had been kidnapped by militants as a child. Being too young to hold a machine gun, she was sent into battle with a stick so she could become accustomed to combat. When she was older, she took part in fighting. As a teenager, she was rescued by the police and placed in the reintegration program, which sent her to school and reunited her with her family. She is now a medical student studying to become a neurologist.