The Hard Road for Colombia’s Wounded Former Combatants

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Published on: 25 June, 2024

By Glaeldys González Calanche

When Isabel first surveyed the reintegration camp for former guerrilla fighters back in 2017, in the northern Colombian village of Pondores, she was struck by what she didn’t see. There was no sign that the stretch of lush land around her was suitable for human habitation. This was to be her new home, and yet there were no houses or infrastructure of any kind. 

That did not make Pondores an outlier among the so-called Territorial Spaces for Training and Reintegration, widely referred to in Colombia as ETCRs, since most of them didn’t even have the most basic services. These encampments were created as part of the 2016 peace agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government. In exchange for fighters laying down their weapons, the government pledged to help over 14,000 former guerrillas reintegrate into society. These 24 camps, scattered across Colombia, were the sites where their new lives would begin. 

Isabel
Isabel, one of the 130 former members of the FARC who live in Pondores and who suffer from a physical disability caused by war. La Guajira, Colombia. October 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

Isabel, a name that she was not given at birth but that she has used for decades, shared the same hopes that many ex-combatants harboured as their armed campaign ended: to see families they had been estranged from for years, to rebuild their livelihoods on farms or perhaps open their own businesses. Looking into the vast green forest blooming despite the scorching temperatures, Isabel had an inkling that this transition to civilian life would be harder than she had at first imagined. This was especially true for her: along with nearly a third of the 130 former members of the FARC who live in Pondores, Isabel has a physical disability from her time as a combatant.

Isabel’s injuries were the result of an intense military bombardment that shook the forests of southern Cesar, not too far from Pondores, one early morning in 2005. The raids took her group of fighters by surprise, gravely wounding nearly a dozen. Twenty-three-year-old Isabel’s arms were crushed by the airstrike. Badly hurt, she crossed the eastern range of the Andes, walking at night to avoid being detected, until a month later she reached Zulia, a Venezuelan state bordering Colombia. There she received medical care and was safe from the watchful eyes of the Colombian security forces.

Her case is not unique. Nearly 1,300 former combatants hurt in the course of the conflict – or roughly 10 per cent of combatants who joined the peace process – are formally recognised as disabled by the Colombian government. According to the Reincorporation and Normalisation Agency, the government body responsible for supporting former fighters, this number is likely to be an underestimate: at least another 200 former FARC fighters are petitioning the Ministry of Health to certify they have a disability caused by the war.

Crisis Group’s Glaeldys González talks with Álvaro, a former FARC member, in Pondores, La Guajira, Colombia. Álvaro was left blind and lost his hands in an explosives accident in 2004. He rebuilt his life in Mérida, Venezuela, where he lived for 18 years. However, due to worsening political conflict and socioeconomic collapse in Venezuela, he returned to Colombia in 2019. Despite considering joining the ETCR, he saw no future there and chose to settle with his family in a nearby area. October 2023.

CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

Harsh Realities for People with Disabilities 

Isabel’s disability made it difficult for her at first to help make Pondores liveable. She couldn’t take part in the construction of makeshift houses made of drywall and metal roof panels; she couldn’t gather water from a nearby river for the shared bathroom.  Instead, Isabel and other former fighters who are disabled banded together to help organise construction plans and set up a communal kitchen.  

Putting their housing into place was just the first challenge the camp residents had to meet. When they served in the FARC, their basic needs – such as getting fed – were provided for. Now they needed to find a way to support themselves. Isabel joined forces with other ex-FARC members to launch a farming business with support from the Colombian state and the UN, aiming to grow and sell herbs such as basil and spearmint. The group also tried to promote ecotourism in the region. But these projects eventually ran aground due to a lack of funds.

Seven years after it was signed, and despite its imperfections, the 2016 peace agreement has brought huge benefits: violence is much less pervasive than it once was (although it is progressively worsening once again), and around 90 per cent of former combatants remain in civilian life. That, however, says more about their commitment to peace than to the implementation of the accord, which has been far from flawless. There are several reasons why helping former combatants forge new lives has been so difficult, including the fact that during negotiations very little time was devoted to discussing how exactly the transition to civilian life would work. The model for demobilisation that was adopted, at the FARC’s insistence, was also very different to the one used by the Colombian state for other former fighters, meaning that much had to be invented on the hoof.  

The government initially thought the sites would house the ex-combatants for only six months, but it was soon clear those plans were not realistic. But since they were not meant to be permanent hamlets, their locations had been chosen on the basis of security considerations – namely, they were far from civilian centres, in places where no other armed actors were active and could be easily protected by the military – rather than with a view to turning them into thriving entrepreneurial hubs. The FARC had at first planned to use these areas for what they termed collective economic projects – in other words, cooperative ventures that would provide a livelihood to its members, and would help the group keep their political footprint in regions where they operated. But although 80 per cent of signatories to the peace deal took part in these new business activities, a lack of technical assistance, funding and the general isolation of the sites doomed many of them to failure. Thousands left the zones, whether to cities or better connected rural areas. Some, but not many, have joined dissident FARC movements that continue on the path of armed violence. 

“Many neighbours left because the government did not fulfill its promises regarding land, health, and education”.

Álvaro, one of Isabel’s neighbours

Nowadays, fewer than 2,000 ex-combatants live in the original reincorporation sites. Álvaro, one of Isabel’s neighbours who lost his eyesight and both hands due to an accident with explosives, told Crisis Group that “many neighbours left because the government did not fulfill its promises regarding land, health, and education”. 

Alvaro.
Álvaro, a neighbour of Pondores, stands in front of a mural painted with the word peace. He aspires to be a community leader one day, although he does not see the conditions to take on such a role yet. La Guajira, Colombia. October 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

That said, many of the disabled former fighters opted to stay. They value the strong bond they share with their neighbours, who also endured life-changing injuries and now face similar difficulties. Some admit they remain because they don’t believe they would be able to find work outside the camp. In La Guajira, the north-western department of Colombia where Pondores is located, unemployment rates are among the highest in the country. Employment opportunities are often out of reach for people with disabilities as most companies lack the means to use and accommodate workers with physical limitations. To make matters worse, few employers are open to hiring former FARC fighters. “Personally, I haven’t been able to go out because I don’t feel confident”, said Isabel. “I always expect that I will be rejected. Because I am an ex-combatant, there is a lot of discrimination”. “Curruco”, another former FARC member who lives in Pondores and lost much of his sight in combat, told Crisis Group that each day is a quest to find something meaningful to do with his life. Despite his persistent efforts to find employment, he hasn’t received an offer. He is convinced he is being rejected because of his near-blindness.

Curruco.
Curruco, a former FARC member living in Pondores, stands in the door to his house. He is committed to building peace starting at home and dreams of having a library full of history books to teach his seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren the value of peace through Colombian history lessons. La Guajira, Colombia. October 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

Another reason to remain in Pondores is that in addition to discrimination, ex-combatants face the threat of violence. At least 400 FARC ex-combatants have been killed since the peace agreement was signed. Most of these murders remain unsolved, but research suggests that armed groups such as the FARC splinters known as “dissidents” and the Gaitanistas (also known as the Gulf Clan), a criminal outfit that controls much of northern Colombia, are behind many of the assassinations. One of the Pondores residents was killed in 2020, and several claim to have received threats from armed groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN). Outside the encampment, which has a permanent police post and a group of officers who patrol the surrounding areas, they feel at risk – particularly those members of the community who have assumed leadership roles. Staying in the camp, however, has its drawbacks. Isabel, for example, has now gone seven years without having her arms examined by a doctor. The closest hospital is in Fonseca, a half hour away, and it only offers basic medical care.

The Road Ahead

Isabel and her fellow disabled fighters have now made Pondores a hotbed of advocacy for ex-combatants who were maimed during the war. While it seems that the high proportion of former fighters who are disabled living there is a mere coincidence, they have banded together to push the state to adopt a disability-inclusive approach in its reincorporation policies. Elkin Sepúlveda, a former fighter who lost an arm and one eye in a landmine accident, is one of the founders of an association for fellow ex-combatants who are disabled. Its members, Sepúlveda said, have started to question whether the reincorporation process’ focus on treating everyone equally is actually unfair, and fails to provide those with particular needs the care they need. They are demanding that the government help them create community-run businesses that could accommodate their physical limitations and pay a living wage. Perhaps their most daring demand is to be recognised as victims of the conflict by the Colombian state. This would allow them access to the disability pension offered to civilian victims of conflict, but not to ex-combatants. 

Elin Sepulveda.
Elkin Sepúlveda, a former FARC member currently leading the CONELAEC, an association for handicapped ex-combatants. He pursues a career in computer engineering while remaining committed to promoting the rights of ex-combatants with disabilities. Pondores, La Guajira, Colombia. October 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

Isabel recently joined Comunes, the political party that emerged from the former FARC insurgency, as a way to push for greater support for the reincorporation for fighters who are disabled like herself. The fate of Comunes serves as a stark example of the difficulties plaguing the transition from armed group to civilian organisation. The peace agreement granted it ten seats in the Colombian Congress until 2026, but the party – beset by internal divisions and saddled with the FARC’s tarnished public image – has struggled to make its mark: it elected only one mayor in the most recent local polls in 2023, and its very existence is threatened by the potential failure to meet the 3 per cent minimum threshold in the 2026 polls. Despite these challenges, Isabel believes Comunes can help advance their cause: “I have faced limitations, but there are many areas where we can be helpful and productive. This has brought me to politics”, she told Crisis Group. “There are few leaders who are disabled represented in politics … The idea is to support one another”. 

Isabel next to a political ad.
Isabel poses next to a propaganda sticker of the political party Comunes on the wall of her house. Pondores, La Guajira, Colombia. October 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

After years of being ignored, the Colombian state has finally started to respond to the demands of ex-combatants who are disabled. In 2021, it launched the so-called “Programa CaPAZcidades” (Capacities Programme) which – with foreign support – assists former guerrilla members with disabilities, the elderly, and those suffering from illnesses that are expensive to treat access health care services. It also enables access to employment and education opportunities. According to Sepúlveda, the program “obviously has gaps and shortcomings and needs to be built up along the way, but it is a start”. International cooperation has also been crucial in allowing the organisation of ex-combatants who are disabled to grow; it now has eight representatives who serve as liaisons with ex-combatants across the country. But officials in the current government are the first to acknowledge much more needs to be done.

Despite facing criticism from the leadership of Comunes as to his respect for the 2016 peace deal, President Gustavo Petro has promised to accelerate implementation of the pact. That sets him apart from his predecessor Iván Duque, who dragged his feet on seeing through many of its provisions. His interests go beyond the well-being of the former combatants. Petro’s signature policy, known as “Total Peace”, aims to negotiate reductions in violence with all the country’s armed and criminal groups. The government knows that other insurgencies are looking closely at the 2016 accord, mindful that the conditions in which the former FARC are living offer a good indication of their own potential fate should they decide to sit down and negotiate. 

Daily life in Pondores isn’t easy, but residents take great pride in their efforts to bring peace to Colombia. Besides the camaraderie that draws her close to her neighbours, Isabel gains strength from her family. After returning from Venezuela, she reunited with a daughter she hadn’t seen in fifteen years and who had made her a grandmother. Isabel now has two other children, a boy born in Venezuela – who was raised by his paternal grandmother – and one born in Pondores, whom she raises with her partner. Isabel says she is fuelled by a desire to improve their lives. “There are many people who are overlooked, who have no rights”, she says. “We must prioritise them. This is what I’m doing, inviting them. Not only ex-combatants, but all people with disabilities”. In advocating for greater support for her community, she has found a sense of purpose that keeps her moving forward.

A street scene in Pondores.
People walk in a street in the ETCR of Pondores. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

This multimedia essay was developed with the support of the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation (ARN) and the Association of the National Committee of War Crippled Ex-combatants, Older Adults and High Cost Illnesses (CONELAEC).