Colombia's Former Rebels Fill New Roles in Society

ON a farm near this small southwestern town, former leftist guerrillas in work boots stomp out of a bunkhouse and down a muddy hillside at a cooperative agricultural project. Hundreds of miles to the north, other former rebels in suits and leather shoes are helping to rewrite Colombia's Constitution in a Bogot'a convention hall. Though working at different tasks, both groups form part of a risky, multifold effort to reintegrate Colombia's former rebels into civilian ranks. Government officials and ex-guerrillas say the program's success is essential to achieving a lasting peace here.

Under the government peace plan three groups have disarmed, the April 19 Movement (M-19), the National Peoples Army (EPL), and the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT). Another group, the Quintin Lame, plans to disarm at the end of the month.

About 3,500 former guerrillas from the groups are eligible for a monthly subsidy of about $85, an amount just above Colombia's minimum wage, during the first six months after disarming. They have also been promised low-cost loans and other help to continue their educations, start agricultural projects, or open small businesses. The program also allows the groups to participate in Colombia's political system.

Despite its successes the program has failed to end Colombia's 30-year-old guerrilla insurgency since it has not been accepted by two other groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).

This year's offensive by the two groups' approximately 7,000 combatants has caused more than 700 deaths and about $800 million in economic damage, according to government statistics.

Plan has mixed results

Government officials are hoping to draw the groups into negotiations by showing them the gains achieved by rebels who have already disarmed. But the peace plan's results have been mixed. Promised loans for M-19 members' urban and agricultural projects have been delayed by bureaucratic bungling. Ex-guerrillas have had problems with lack of education and adapting to life with out military-style discipline.

Already about 85 guerrillas have either refused to accept the peace process or rearmed after a short, bitter taste of civilian life. Some have turned to common crime, while others have formed independent rebel fronts.

``Never in Latin America has there been a reintegration effort like this one involving so many ex-combatants and with so much at stake,'' says Rene Ramos, one of the former rebels at the convention. ``What we do or fail to do now will affect the country for decades. As an army general said recently, `there will be no true peace in Colombia as long as [former guerrillas] are not reinserted in normal life.'''

Mr. Ramos is the national head of the reinsertion program for M-19, which last year became the first rebel group to become a legitimate political party. Since then, the M-19 has parlayed its image as an alternative to the country's traditional Liberals and Conservatives into phenomenal national success, despite the assassination of its leader and first presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, in April 1990.

Antonio Navarro Wolf, who succeeded Mr. Pizarro, received 12 percent of the vote in last year's presidential elections, an unprecedented showing for a third-party candidate. Now the M-19 chief is leading another historical quest. In elections last December, the party won 19 of 72 seats in a national constitutional convention, which is scheduled to finish writing the country's constitution on July 4. The only party with more seats is the ruling Liberal Party with 24 seats.

``Our success in the constitutional assembly shows that we are an alternative political power in this country,'' says Mr. Navarro.

National success nevertheless belies problems faced by the M-19's regional rank and file. For example, the administrator of the 400-acre farming cooperative in southern Colombia, who still calls himself by his nom de guerre, Rene, sounds like any other farmer suffering a credit crunch. Rene says that a year after disarming, the 22 members of his farm, Batanicos, have still not received promised low-interest agricultural loans, roughly $2,500 for each individual. The group had to resort to bank loans to plant their crops.

Despite these problems, M-19 members are united by their shared purpose and the risks they face in trying to bring change. M-19 members in the constitutional assembly have joined other delegates to form a majority front determined to renovate national institutions, particularly the allegedly corrupt congress. These delegates are poised to write a constitutional article disbanding the current legislature and calling new open elections.

Elections are now controlled by powerful party machines, but if the legislature is disbanded, the M-19, which holds only one congressional seat, stands to increase its representation.

M-19 earned enemies

The M-19's perceived affront to traditional politicians has increased its enemies earned over years of guerrilla activity. So intense is the animosity that last month, the M-19 said that Navarro had left the country for several days because a plot to kill him had been detected. The ill will against the M-19 in Bogot'a has spread to the area near Batanicos. And Rene, who has been assigned two government bodyguards, says he and his farm have many enemies. These include the region's right-wing death squads, as well as the FARC and the ELN.

In the coming months, the government's peace program is likely to be be further taxed as it tries to incorporate the demobilized EPL and PRT. Santiago Escobar, a government peace official, says many of the problems the M-19 encountered are being worked out. ``Things should be easier for the EPL and the PRT,'' he says. Because the government is preparing to enter negotiations with the FARC and the ELN, officials are obviously anxious to prove that Colombian peace is more than a paper promise.

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