Wed, Jul 30, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Colombian rebels get second chance at civilian life

RESTORATION The government has sweetened its crackdown on the insurgents and paramilitaries with a program that offers money and a chance to start again


In the dead of night, as Luis was on guard duty for his leftwing rebel unit, he saw his chance to escape. His heart pounding with fear, he dropped his rifle and started running through the thick jungle of the Colombian Pacific coast, leaving behind the only life he had known for the past 11 years.

Luis, 23, trudged through the jungle for eight days until he came to a town, where he turned himself in at the prosecutor's office last month. Prison, he thought, would be better than the guerrilla's life he had not wanted in the first place.

But Luis, who was forcibly recruited by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) when he was 12, got an even better deal.

As part of the government's effort to lure combatants from Colombia's guerrilla armies and right wing paramilitary groups, he was cleared of criminal charges and put in a program to integrate former fighters into civilian life.

"I wanted to change my life," he said, giving the false name Luis to protect his identity, like most of the former rebels who told their stories in interviews arranged by the defense ministry.

Colombia has been embroiled for decades in a civil war between Marxist rebels on the one hand and rightwing paramilitary groups and government forces on the other.

After peace talks failed last year President Alvaro Uribe was elected on a promise to crack down hard on the insurgents. But as its troops advance on rebel- and paramilitary-held territories, the government is taking tired, disgruntled fighters under its wing.

They are given room and board in one of several shelters in Bogota, vocational training, and money to start small businesses or titles to farmland.

In exchange they turn in their weapons and provide information on the group they belonged to and any crimes they may have witnessed.

Evidence from many former rebels and paramilitary fighters has helped clear up 70 unsolved crimes.

"The ex-combatants are useful for the army and prosecutors - they give testimony, they describe the sociological context of the armed groups," said the deputy defense minister Andres Penate, who heads the demobilization program.

The program for rebel deserters has been in place since 1999, but Uribe's government has made encouraging desertion a priority and has put aside about US$9.3 million for the program this year.

The campaign has turned a trickle into a steady flow. In the first half of the year 837 rebels and paramilitary fighters deserted and entered the program, nearly as many as in the whole of the previous three years.

The government is expecting more.

On the radio a former guerrilla describes the civil war as "sterile", and the government promises protection and rehabilitation to anyone who has not committed a heinous crime.

Leaflets dropped over territories controlled by the armed factions offer about US$350 for each rifle and more for heavy weapons and explosives. With an estimated 35,000 rebel and paramilitary soldiers spread across the country, the current desertion rate is unlikely to make a serious dent in the armed groups. But the government is counting on the campaign having a demoralizing effect.

Rebel commanders have taken notice. A FARC front in eastern Colombia has started circulating flyers which call on government soldiers to desert, offering about US$3,576 for each rifle and adding, "We guarantee you your life."

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