Colombian rebels abandon arms

Under President Uribe, a government program reintegrates fighters from the left and the right.

Before fleeing Colombia's biggest rebel group, Gregorio Ramos had a mission: to kill the governor of the state of Caquetá.

Mr. Ramos went undercover as a civilian, pleading for a job with the governor. He said his grandmother had died and he needed money for her funeral. But after receiving work and getting to know the governor, Ramos couldn't go through with his macabre assignment.

"He was a good person," says Ramos, who now lives in a halfway house run by the Defense ministry in a secret location in Bogotá. Ramos confessed the plan to the governor and turned himself in to the local priest. Now, the ex-guerrilla hopes to start fresh.

Ramos is part of a growing wave of weary fighters leaving their combat days behind. A little-known program to reintegrate rebels into society has taken on new life here, with record numbers surrendering to authorities. Coupled with a hard-line military effort by President Alvaro Uribe, the two-pronged approach has many, including former fighters, saying it could weaken the rebel base and help forge a path toward peace in this war-torn country.

"In this way, [Mr. Uribe] will win," says Ramos.

Earlier this month, 22 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) surrendered in the heart of Colombia's coffee-growing region. Since January, 548 members of the FARC, right-wing paramilitaries, and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have fled, nearly double the 265 who surrendered in all of 2002. The government hopes 6,000 of the country's some 29,000 fighters will surrender this year.

Uribe didn't create the government's reinsertion program, which was started in 1998, but he has reinvented it. Government officials point to the fact that the FARC no longer has the Switzerland-sized haven given them under former President Andrés Pastrana in the late '90s. But they are also pouring $14 million into the program - four times what the Pastrana government invested - both to advertise it and to prepare for the large numbers they expect to surrender - if not this year, then the next.

"This program existed before. But no government before has ever made it a central part of their policy," says Andres Peñate, the vice-minister of defense in charge of the program.

Indeed, ex-guerrillas interviewed for this article said they knew nothing about the program until recently. They say "maltreatment" by their leaders, combined with military pressure and recent widespread radio advertisements, caused them to desert. (Paramilitaries, who weren't allowed to enter the program until 2003, also helped increase the number of participants).

"The government is hitting us. It is noticeable," says José, an ex-FARC squadron commander from Nariño, who recently transferred to Bogotá.

"[The FARC] are saying: 'If you turn yourself in, we will kill you,' " Ramos adds. But "the combat has been heavy - many guerrillas are going to leave."

The program starts by clarifying the legal status of former fighters - for example, if they have committed crimes against humanity or have outstanding arrest warrants. A small minority goes to jail if their crimes are serious enough; the majority receive official pardons.

The ex-fighters then become charges of the Interior Ministry for up to 18 months. While living in group homes, where they can bring their families, they learn vocations such as carpentry or breadmaking. Some receive high school degrees or learn to read and write. Those who complete the program receive a stipend of about $2,000. One group of 20 ex-FARC members founded a fruit-pulp company that exports to the US, and is fairly successful, Peñate says.

But former M-19 guerrilla Antonio Navarro Wolff, now a senator, says it is "difficult" to demobilize individuals rather than groups because of lingering threats from their former comrades in arms. "[The reinsertion program] is not going to end the war," Mr. Wolff said. "There are too many expectations."

He says it is important to make a distinction between individual desertions and peace accords, in which entire groups like his were reintegrated into society in the early 1990s.

"We are far from reinserting them into a permanent life," Wolf explains. "They cannot go home" because of the dangers facing them and their families. "It is very important, the link with their families," he says.

Indeed, the security of their families was uppermost in the minds of ex-fighters here in Pereira and in group homes in Bogotá. The government says it will help protect them, but many have large families, and government resources are scarce. Identity changes are rare and are provided only for a mid- or high-level commander with key information.

At the governor's office in Pereira, 12 surrendering paramilitaries entered the room wearing black facemasks. The 10 FARC members sitting across the aisle wore nothing to shield their faces, except one who had tried to escape and whose wife was brutally killed as a result.

Martha Lucia Ramírez, Colombia's defense minister, greeted each ex-warrior. They then all sang Colombia's national anthem. "The responsibility of Colombian society is to welcome you," Ms. Ramírez said emphatically. "You can become good people."

Before leaving, Ramírez once again shook the hand of each ex-enemy. The ex-FARC members then shook hands with their former enemies, the paramilitaries, as if at the end of nothing more than a tough game of soccer.

The ex-fighters were allowed to ask questions of Peñate and were blessed by a priest before embarking on their journey. After picking up backpacks containing their few personal effects, they boarded a plane to Bogotá. Ex-FARC and paramilitaries sat together, along with journalists and government ministers. Many had never been on a plane, nor seen the capital city of 7 million.

"I am very happy to be here," said "Pepe," a former paramilitary fighter who gave only his war alias. Pepe deserted with several fighters after his second commander was killed by his first.

"I would like to move forward - to work," says Pepe. "I would like to be free. That is my dream."

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