It is easier to begin an armed struggle than to end one

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Feature by Howard Clark

As popular support waned in the 1980s, guerrilla groups made various attempts to switch to unarmed political struggle. The FARC itself, seeking to negotiate peace in the period 1984-87, set up a political party, the Patriotic Union. In the next five years, at least 2,000 of its leaders and activists were killed by paramilitaries, security forces and members of the drug cartels.

In the early 1990s there was a new wave of negotiations with the government involving guerrilla groups such as the M-19 (a splinter from the FARC formed in 1974 by Communist Youth); the Movement of Quintin Lame (an indigenous splinter from the FARC in the Cauca); the PRT (Revolutionary Workers' Party on the Atlantic Coast); the majority faction of the Maoist EPL (People's Liberation Army); the Current for Socialist Renovation (a minority faction of the ELN - the National Liberation Army); plus people's militias. In total, these negotiations brought about the demilitarisation of some 5,470 guerrillas and militia fighters. After the negotiations, some of the most prominent former guerrilla leaders - the very signatories of pacts with the government - were assassinated, and in the years since hundreds more former guerrillas have been murdered.

In May 2002, I interviewed Pastor Jaramillo - former ELN guerrilla and member of its International Commission - who after more than 20 years of living clandestinely abandoned the armed struggle in 1994, but then fled the country in 1999 after the murder of two of his colleagues and threats against him.
Pastor: Our current of the ELN, the Current for Socialist Renovation (CSR), entered into negotiations with the government in 1994. We were quite an important current, some members being part of the national leadership, others having leadership roles in their area. We had bases both among peasants and in the cities, and our members included both young people and people with 20 or more years experience of armed struggle. So this was a revolutionary group composed of a range of types of people.

We had decided that the armed struggle was no longer a way to achieve the kind of democracy we wanted for our country. We disagreed with certain tactics, such as abductions, which we felt were separating our movement from a mass base. Therefore in 1990 we began an internal debate - patient, prudent and very respectful - which concluded a year later with an agreement that our current would leave the ELN, forming a separate organisation, the CSR, and negotiating with the government. This current consisted of about 2,000 people, including 640 armed combatants.

Like the M-19 and others before us, in 1994 we succeeded in negotiating a pact with the government with several parts. For the areas where we had worked or where we had an armed presence, the pact required the government to make funds available for social investment—in health, education and housing. These areas were mainly in the Atlantic coast, in Antioquia, but also in Bogota' and Cali.

For two years, the government would provide ex-combatants with a guaranteed monthly income roughly equivalent to the minimum salary. It would further support education and employment generating programmes, with special provision for ex-combatants with disabilities.

Finally the pact recognised the legal existence of the Democratic Socialist Party of Colombia, including offering us two seats in the Chamber of Representatives. This party was made up of a fusion of the CSR and others. Although it has taken part in elections, these have mainly served to demonstrate that to win elections in Colombia you need money.
PN: Has the government a continuing programme to support the “re-insertion” of former-combatants?
Pastor: Yes. Each of the armed organisations that have negotiated with the government has taken care that the government should maintain a general programme for “national reinsertion”. This programme is partly handled by the Ministry of the Interior, where it has its own budget, but other ministries, such as Housing and Education, have to make provision in their areas to support the reintegration of former-combatants.

The government was slow in fulfilling some parts of the pact. Other parts have never been fulfilled: for instance, there are still homeless people, and the government did not fulfil its promises over university education.
PN: What programmes resulted from the pact?
Pastor: In various parts of the country we managed to introduce special courses of 21 months for people to obtain their high school diplomas: in Medellín alone these courses enabled 400 people to obtain their diplomas. These were not just for ex-combatants in our Current but community leaders, as we wanted to strengthen our links with them. The social investment programme also enabled the establishment of community centres and community health centres.

Each ex-combatant could apply for a grant to found their own productive project, and we established the Corporación Nuevo Arcoiris (New Rainbow) to administer the funds made available for this. In each province where there were people from CSR, we established branches of Nuevo Arcoiris as the legal apparatus through which government resources could be channelled for projects of social investment and the reintegration of combatants.

So that all those combatants or militants who wanted to return to the land could do so, we had it written into the government's programme of agrarian reform that we would submit projects to the government's agricultural institute who would study and approve them. Many combatants, like me, had been living clandestinely, either working politically or in the armed struggle, and so some of us had no experience of productive work. Some people bought taxis, some started other projects.
PN: What did you do?
Pastor: I was a member of a cooperative with 13 members of the CSR who drew up a project to plant orange, lemon and avocado orchards. In 1997, three years after the negotiations, we finally were able to rent land and plant over a thousand of each type of tree, generating employment for people not involved in our political organisation. We saw this as a pilot project and so also embarked on other social projects, for instance with single mothers.

The re-insertion in our place was not difficult as some of us were already known and accepted there. It was more difficult in some other places, in particular with relationships with other estates growing fruits, but the Colombian people are tolerant and able to forget, forgive and correct. We're a people sufficiently educated to accept the differences that are part of coexistence in a modern society. Wherever the CSR had had a presence, we remained organised and working.

We managed to run this farm for two years, but in January 1999 two of the 13 of us were assassinated by paramilitaries, and the rest threatened - I felt I had a choice; either denounce the paramilitaries and run, or return to the guerrillas. I decided to go into exile.
PN: What has happened to other former combatants?
Pastor: Some have returned to the armed struggle, some even abandoned all political activity and became common criminals, while others have carried on trying to open new political spaces. Of the 640 armed former-combatants in the CSR, they assassinated 92 and others, such as me, were forced to leave the country. Some of the other guerrilla groups that negotiated have had even more people assassinated. There have been more than 200 deaths among the EPL, the M-19 had a similar level including the leader Carlos Pizarro, plus about 200 of the former militias of Medellín were assassinated.

The Colombian state has a tradition of negotiation with insurgents, but also a tradition of betraying those insurgents after negotiation. This we knew, going back to the period of the civil war known as “La Violencia” (1948-1958) - most of the leaders of the insurgency in the east were assassinated after the negotiations. So we knew that this could happen to us, but we were ready to make the effort and even the sacrifice to try to establish alternative paths to justice in Colombia. The Colombian military has many career officers with backward ideas, who do not believe in negotiation and reconciliation but rather think it necessary to assassinate former guerrilla leaders from the various groups that demilitarised. It is clear that the Colombian states sponsors groups with the role of killing former guerrilla leaders.
PN: What do you recommend to those now considering negotiations with the government?
Pastor: A lot depends on the conditions in which you negotiate. Neither FARC nor the Colombian government wanted to end the war when they were negotiating in 2001-2002.

There has to be a real will to end the war. That means either that one side is losing or that both sides see that they cannot win through war. In any case, all negotiations have to count on international factors, with the presence of some governments or prestigious international agencies and with guarantees that international human rights bodies will monitor the implementation of the agreement and the situation after demobilisation. Then you have to put your cards on the table. As insurgents you need to know what you want from the government, but also you need to know what the government is capable of conceding. As small groups, we wanted to negotiate us laying down our arms and returning to a wider political struggle.
PN: Do the guerrilla still have their dreams?
Pastor: I think so, the FARC as well as the ELN. They are accused of being narco-traffickers: especially as some guerrilla groups are in the coca regions, this has led to the corruption of certain guerrilla leaders. But that the whole guerrilla movement in Colombia is corrupt, no, that isn't true. I don't share that opinion. It is another discussion whether they can achieve their dreams through armed struggle, I don't share their opinions on that, but I do respect their views. Our former compañeros in the ELN did not put any obstacle in the way of our negotiations with the government - we had our internal discussion with mutual respect, and we negotiated with the government with transparency, towards the organisation and towards the people as a whole. Our former compañeros could understand that we did not want to continue with the armed struggle but were searching for a legal political space in which we could participate. We thought that the armed struggle was a spent force, but we also had to be prepared to accept the costs of embarking on an open and frank political struggle against the bourgeoisie, the oligarchy and the corruption. The costs have been the deaths caused, our persecution, and the social and political exclusion of some of the “re-inserted”.