On October 17, formal negotiations commenced in Oslo between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). They will be followed by further peace talks in Havana in mid-November. In the press, much has been made of who will be present to represent each side at the negotiation table. Yet the cornerstone of any eventual deal -- the demobilization and reintegration of FARC rebels -- has been curiously missing from the debate. Notably, there has been little public dialogue about the Colombian government's nine-year-old disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate (DDR) program and whether it is equipped to process and successfully incorporate thousands of remaining FARC guerrillas into society should a peace agreement be reached.

Recently, I met with one former FARC commander who was not invited to the negotiation table. Elda Neyis Mosquera, also known as Karina, demobilized in 2008 at age 45, after 24 years with the FARC. The only female to reach the rank of front commander in her day, she is accused of killing some 200 military officials, police, and civilians. She is also charged with conducting dehumanizing treatment of prisoners and dismembering corpses. In popular rendition, she is an ugly, one-eyed, crazed-killer negra. Given the undercurrent of machismo, racism, and classism in Colombian society, Elda's being black and "unattractive" has made it easy for the Colombian press to portray her as a monster. Perhaps that is why Elda's alleged cruelties are the stuff of legend, whereas those of her male equals and superiors are not. 

When I met Elda, I found her to be neither ugly nor crazed, although she did lose an eye during combat and wears a glass replacement. Her physical description, however, is woefully beside the point. Without excusing her crimes, she, like many minors who were recruited, was a child of the FARC. And Elda's superiors clearly approved, if not encouraged, her actions. Otherwise, she would have been promptly relieved of her post and would not have climbed so high in the chain of command. More important, her infamy distracts from the fact that she, like other former FARC fighters with whom I have spoken, has invaluable insight into how the DDR, and any other demobilization program, should be improved.


In August, I visited Elda in the modest, sparsely furnished house she lives in with two other demobilized FARC combatants. It is located within the confines of the army base so as to protect her from assassination attempts. The colonel in charge of the group graciously granted my request for a private interview with her. He led me to her house, made introductions, and left. Elda invited me to sit down at a small kitchen table. The sound of chickens squawking outside competed with the rhythmic chop of helicopters.

At the age of six, Elda's parents, both of whom were members of the Partido Comunista del Colombia (PCC), sent her to sell arepas on the streets of her village in the department of Antioquia. With the proceeds, she bought herself notebooks and pencils for school. When she was 12, her father bluntly told her that, given her race and bad looks, a man would never have her. She would therefore need to work harder than men in order to survive. To toughen her up, and in accordance with the family's ideology, Elda's father sent her to a finca (farm) for JUCO (Juvenil Communista) training, thinking that she would make something of herself. And so when the FARC, then closely tied to the PCC as its military wing, recruited Elda from the finca at age 15, it was with her parents' blessing.

Haunted by her father's advice, Elda strove to become "the best guerrilla" and was constantly terrified of being accused of weakness or sloth. At 17, her commander, Efrain Guzman (nicknamed Friopacho) sent her to Meta, a district in the center of Colombia, just east of the Andes, to enroll in military and officer training. Elda excelled at the FARC's curso de commandantes and was given command of a 12-man squad three months after she arrived.

Whatever pride she felt, however, was short-lived. Soon after her promotion, Friopacho called her into a meeting and asked her if she had ever killed. She replied that she had not. "You're useless for war, then," he told her. He continued, "There's a suspected spy among us. You must execute him." As Friopacho knew, the "spy" was a close friend of Elda who often bunked with her. I asked her if she shot him. "No," she said, "they made me use a machete. They pointed to his neck and instructed me to cut only the artery so that I would have to watch him bleed out." For weeks after the incident, Elda hid her panic attacks and sobbing fits. Of all the things she did as a FARC combatant, the execution of her friend is the one of which she is most ashamed. "His ghost still visits me today," she told me.

But there was no turning back, and certainly no time for self-pity. For the next 22 years, Elda rose up the ranks. Her troops and commanders regarded her with a mixture of respect and resentment. Many male commanders did not think a woman, especially a black woman, should have power over men. So Elda constantly struggled to prove herself. She figured that she would never win respect, so she would rule out of fear instead. Her alleged crimes during that period include ordering prisoners to be sodomized with various objects, having men under her command play soccer with the heads of executed prisoners, and burning a woman alive for the crime of being the wife of a policeman. Although she denies being guilty of those things, Elda admitted to me that during her 24 years with the FARC, she had "no idea of how many men were killed" by her bullets.

In any event, in the eyes of the FARC leadership, Elda's methods and drive were worthy of promotion. In 2000, she assumed the command of the 47th Front, which operated in western Antioquia and was comprised of more than 100 guerrillas. She and Ivan Rios, her commanding officer, fought regularly. She recalls one argument in particular that occurred shortly after Rios returned from ideology training in Cuba. He gave an officers' lecture describing how a state is formed. He used Colombia as an example. This shocked Elda, because she had never known that Colombia actually had three branches of government and a constitution. She had no idea that the Republic of Colombia was, in fact, a democracy and that she could, in theory, elect members of congress who would represent her and the campesinos for whom she fought. The revelation that she had been lied to for so many years enraged her. After the lecture, she approached Rios and angrily exclaimed, "¡He perdido veinte años de la guerra!" ("I've lost 20 years to war!")

Rios was not amused. And by 2002, Elda's relationship with him and the other commanders had deteriorated so much that she resigned her command and returned to the rank and file of the FARC for her final six years. Despite her demotion, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's administration continued to regard her as one of the highest-priority targets, in part because she allegedly killed the president's father during an extortion attempt in 1983.


Two hours into our interview, the colonel returned to check in on how we were doing. I marveled at how respectfully and professionally he interacted with Elda. Although I do not know the colonel's personal combat history, many men in his brigade had sacrificed limbs and lives defending themselves against her frente.

After the colonel excused himself, our conversation turned to the DDR program. "The demobilization of the middle and lower ranks of FARC is the only way [to peace]," Elda told me. She has never been through the program herself due to the judicial proceedings pending against her. After she left FARC in May 2008, she served a year in prison before being released to the custody of the Colombian army's Seventh Division (the one to which she had originally surrendered). In exchange, she promised to assist the division with the demobilization of fighters in the area. The circumstances of her own surrender are unclear. She claims that she was afraid that she would suffer the same fate as her former commander, Rios, who was killed by one of his security guards in March 2008. The Colombian army maintains that she surrendered due to increased military pressure against her frente.

Elda's contributions to the Seventh Division's demobilization efforts have complemented the "hands-on" approach of the division's commander, Brigadier General Hernán Giraldo Restrepo. His community outreach efforts have greatly enhanced his troops' relationship with the citizens they protect. Indeed, his group boasts the highest number of demobilizations among all the army's divisions.

Although Elda did not directly participate in the division's DDR program, having spent more than half of her life with the FARC, her insights into the program carry weight. She "knows her people," as she said herself. Elda remarked to me that the DDR is well designed in theory, but in practice, the lack of psychological counseling, employment opportunities, and role models (she hopes to be one someday) casts doubt on whether the program could cope with large-scale demobilization and reintegration.  

The DDR program was first launched in 2003 to accommodate the demobilization of the paramilitary forces of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). It has three phases. The first, disarmament, starts when a guerrilla surrenders to a military authority such as the police, army, or air force. The guerrilla is then detained at a military base for 20 days, during which he or she is interviewed by army intelligence officers. The officers determine whether the guerrilla is, in fact, a member of the FARC (there have been hundreds of cases in which people have pretended to be FARC to reap the program's benefits), whether the guerilla knows of any others who could be swayed to surrender, and if he or she has any military intelligence to offer.

The next phase, demobilization, consists of a one- to three-month stay in a safe house, called an hogar de paz. Most of these are based in cities, including, until a few months ago, Bogotá. In August, Bogotá's mayor, Gustavo Petro, abruptly shut down all hogares de paz after police discovered that a car bomb had been planted by a former guerrilla five years out of the program. The car was found in a nonstrategic location in a poor section of the city but was apparently destined for the city's central police station. Petro's stance surprised many, especially because no terrorist attacks have been attributed to current safe-house residents and because he himself is a former guerrilla.

The duration of a guerrilla's stay in a safe house depends on how long it takes for authorities to determine whether he or she is guilty of a crime that is punishable with jail time, such as murder, kidnapping, or drug trafficking. While waiting, guerrillas' movement outside the house is severely restricted. They are provided clothes, food, shelter, and medical services, along with minimal psychological counseling. They are asked to plan out a new life on a sheet of paper called mi proyecto de vida, which outlines whether they can return home to family members, frequently impossible for guerillas who have been with the FARC for more than a few years, what sort of job training they would like to receive, and what their other life goals are. When a guerilla's background is finally cleared, he or she is issued a Comité Operativo para la Dejación de Armas certification stating that he or she is fit to reenter society via the final phase of the DDR program.

The last stage, reintegration, is overseen by the Agencia Colombiana para la Reintegración (ACR) office, which reports to the president. Once former guerrillas arrive at their new chosen hometowns, they are responsible for finding a place to live. They then report to the local ACR service center, where they collect approximately $450 of economic support per month and an insurance card to cover two months of health care. The ACR program offers psychological counseling for up to two and half years. And if a former guerrilla attends at least 90 percent of the sessions, he or she receives an extra $70 a month. Similarly, education benefits, which include basic literacy training up to high-school level, are available for up to two years. A 90 percent attendance rate in such courses earns an additional $70 per month. Job training in fields such as nursing, mechanics, and technology is also provided for up to six years. All benefits are revoked if the participant breaks the law or ACR compliance terms.


Since the DDR's inception, 54,598 fighters have enrolled in it. However, ACR data sheets do not include statistics on how many of those have successfully matriculated. This is largely because the program lacks the capacity and resources to follow up over the long term.

To be sure, there are some inspiring success stories -- most of them involving women. (Based on the accounts of the more than 20 demobilized fighters I have met, women succeed because they can call on the strength and determination that they developed to survive within the machismo culture of the FARC in the first place.) Unfortunately, however, there are many more men and women who do not make it through the program. There are three main problems, which echo Elda's critiques. First, there are no successfully demobilized fighters participating as role models. Second, psychological treatment during the demobilization phase is not as intensive as it should be. Third, the employment programs during the reintegration phase are broadly ineffective.

As Elda convincingly argued, successfully demobilized and reintegrated fighters should be directly involved in each phase of the process. Those who come from similar racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and have lived "the FARC life" are best prepared to shepherd other fighters into normal life. They are, after all, living proof that starting over as law-abiding citizens is possible, no matter how overwhelming it seems to those fresh out of the jungle.

Role-model participation would also enhance the mental-health component of the program, as many demobilized fighters leave the hogares de paz psychologically unprepared for the traumatic transition back to civilian life. As a result, many spend their stipends on alcohol and drugs. Some women, especially those in their 20s, panic and look for protection and income by working for a pimp as a prostitute. Males, stripped of their arms and macho identity, become willing recruits for drug gangs.

Even those who stay on the straight and narrow struggle to find jobs. Not surprisingly, the average business owner is not open to hiring an ex-guerilla. And although all former fighters are stigmatized, black and indigenous participants shoulder the additional burden of race. As one former female fighter with olive skin told me, "[After completing my job training,] I told a woman in my ACR office that I couldn't find a job. She told me to be patient and keep looking. 'But I was with FARC for ten years,' I said. 'You have a family business. Would you hire me?'" Without thinking, the woman replied, "Of course not."

The majority of the people working for the DDR program I have encountered are committed, if overworked, professionals. Leadership within the Ministry of Defense and the President's Office for Reintegration is strong as well. But some lack the sensitivity and empathy required to interact with those from lower classes and different racial backgrounds. A meeting I attended a few months before interviewing Elda was a glaring example. The gathering brought together a DDR program official, six former female fighters, and three employees of the public relations firm hired by the Ministry of Defense to produce a video publicizing demobilization campaigns. The goal of the meeting was for the PR firm to get feedback on the video and first-hand accounts from the former fighters that would help in filming a follow-up. What I witnessed was cringe-worthy.

We met in an expensive coffee shop in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Bogotá. The DDR representative, impeccably groomed and immersed in a cell-phone call, arrived with the demobilized women in tow. They ranged in age from 20 to 26 and were dressed in donated jeans and T-shirts that were less than adequate for the brisk morning air. They took in their surroundings with a mixture of awe and unease. Thinking that perhaps I was the meeting's lead, they introduced themselves in name, rank, and serial-number fashion. Not one had been out of the jungle for more than eight weeks. All but two had been forced recruits.

Susana, 24, said that she was from the department of Tolima, a region west of Bogotá. I mentioned that I knew the department well, which seemed to break the ice. A tiny Nasa Indian, Marta, 22, grinned and said that she liked my accent. Susana followed up, asking if I knew Planadas, her hometown (which still has a strong FARC presence). When I answered that I had been there, Susana smiled again: "De verdad?" ("Really?") Our conversation also got the attention of the toughest-looking of the group, Claudia, 26. Her head swiveled in my direction, her gaze fixing upon me like an owl's on its prey.

When the three 20-something men from the media company finally arrived, with iPhones in hand, they did not bother to introduce themselves to the former guerillas. Barely making eye contact, the project manager opened with a few cursory questions. He then instructed his co-worker to "show them the Christmas video." The co-worker handed a laptop to the first woman, saying, "Just press the play button." The women gingerly passed the laptop among themselves, touching it randomly to no effect, as they had no idea how to "press play."

Eventually, the ex-combatants all viewed the video, which emphasized demobilizing in order to be with loved ones during the Christmas season. When the project manager asked what the women thought of the video, they replied that they did not flee the FARC for Christmas. Attempting to set the meeting back on track, the project manager tried a different tact: "So, have any of you had a forced abortion?" Susana's mouth dropped open. Marta looked to the DDR representative for guidance, but she was still on the phone. Claudia's head swiveled back to its original position, and she fixed her stare on the project manager. His iPhone was dinging, so he did not notice. As his thumbs played with the tiny touch screen, Claudia leaned forward as if she were about to lunge at him from across the table. I briefly considered pushing my chair back to allow her more access.


After the meeting, I accompanied the DDR representative and the six demobilized women to the hogar de paz where they lived. During a quick tour of the immaculate and well-equipped facilities, I caught a glance of a bulletin board upon which were posted several proyectos de vida, written in bright magic-marker colors: "Mi proyecto de vida:  educación, trabajo, familia (education, work, family). Although the DDR representative seemed in a hurry to leave, the six women were waiting downstairs. They wanted to talk. We went into the computer room, and the women asked the DDR representative several questions about what comes next.

Marta was looking at me, so I asked her if the beds were comfortable. "I don't know," she said. "I've never slept in a bed before." I asked her about her proyecto de vida. She shrugged with a waning smile. "My goals? I don't know. I can tell you that one night the guerrillas came and took me and the other children from my [tribal] community away. I didn't speak Spanish, so I didn't even know what they were saying! I gave up my native clothes and wore a uniform for ten years, so then I was no longer a Nasa. And now I am no longer a guerrilla. ¿Pues, ya, quién soy yo? So who am I now?"

When I left the hogar de paz, I wondered if Marta would ever meet someone in the DDR program who could truly empathize with her. To that end, I have found the members of Colombia's armed forces to be particularly respectful and effective during their interactions with demobilized guerrillas. It is a bittersweet irony of war: Between soldier and guerrilla there can exist a mutual understanding rooted in the common experience of combat and loss. The emotional strength and mental discipline required to empathize with one's former enemy should be admired and emulated.

Colombia's DDR program could prove to be exemplary if the country makes proper investments to make it more robust. More counselors are needed, especially those who are qualified to address the needs of black and indigenous participants. The government and concerned nongovernmental organizations should also increase microfinancing for small businesses run by and employing ex-combatants. The government could also create incentives for the private sector to hire former combatants. And, as Elda argues, successfully demobilized and reintegrated fighters should participate in the DDR program as role models. "Después de todo," the former fighter said, "somos todos gestores de paz." ("After all, we are all incubators of peace.") Those who meet this month and next to negotiate an end to Colombia's almost five-decade-long struggle with the FARC should remember that.

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  • CHRISTINE BALLING is Senior Fellow for Latin American Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.
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