In a historic referendum in October of last year, Colombian citizens narrowly rejected a peace deal with the country’s largest guerilla group— the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
In the months that followed, government and FARC forces maintained a ceasefire and representatives from both sides renegotiated terms. Before the end of the year, a revised peace accord was signed and ratified by Congress. Fast forward a couple months, it’s 2017, and almost 7,000 members of the FARC have laid down their arms and have relocated to 26 U.N. monitored demobilization zones across the country.
It’s important to note the critical role U.S. assistance has played in getting to this point. In 2000, the U.S. and Colombia began a joint initiative aimed at strengthening Colombia’s institutions and military. The 15-year, $10 billion security aid package known as Plan Colombia increased U.S. military and diplomatic support, leading to strategic victories that forced the hand of the FARC and other paramilitary groups. With U.S. assistance, rebels were eventually brought to the bargaining table.
Today, Plan Colombia enjoys bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress and is celebrated as one of the top U.S. foreign policy achievements of the 21st century. Given this success, former President Obama pledged to increase U.S. assistance to Colombia in the form of a new program that would reflect the changing political climate in the country: “Peace Colombia.” This would increase U.S. funding by about 25 percent when compared with 2016 levels, helping Colombia implement programs vital to peace-time efforts such as the removal of land mines and addressing neglected rural areas.
“Just as the United States has been Colombia’s partner in a time of war, I indicated to President Santos we will be your partner in waging peace,” stated President Obama.
Continued U.S. support to Colombia during this critical period is vital to sustaining peace. The legacy of Colombia’s 52-year civil war will continue to be a contentious issue for years to come. The war has directly impacted the lives of millions of Colombians, costing the lives of more than 220,000 people and displacing millions more.
Thankfully, important work is well underway. The United States Agency for International Development—Colombia’s largest bilateral donor, has partnered with the Colombian government, the private sector, and community organizations to help address the development and social challenges of those transitioning back into society.
The U.S. actively supports the Colombian government’s Agency for Reintegration. The ACR has assisted the reintegration efforts of approximately 26,000 demobilized former combatants to date, and works to provide education, vocational training, grants for microbusiness projects, health care, and support finding employment opportunities. The ACR’s efforts are vital— and in its absence, the possibility runs high that former combatants will turn to gangs and other criminal activity.
When factoring in the family members and support networks of ex-combatants, it’s estimated that close to 30,000 people could be in need of reintegration services.
Reintegration support also extends to former combatants under the age of 18. Upon demobilization, child soldiers come under the protection of another government agency, the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare (ICBF), which has now assisted over 5,000 former child soldiers. After turning 18, minors are placed under the protection of ACR— continuing their support into adulthood.
Yet still there are those who refuse to believe that former-combatants can turn over a new leaf. Similarly, local employers in Colombia are reluctant to hire former combatants. The ACR is work to change this. And in April, FARC rebels living in a nearby reintegration camp offered to rebuild a town devastated by landslides. The powerful gesture demonstrates the benefits of former combatants and community members working together.
Reintegration will be a long, complex process. U.S. support is vital to aiding Colombia’s efforts to successfully reintegrate former combatants— and strategic to our own national security interests. Colombia is Latin America’s fastest growing economy, a major trading partner, and the leading U.S. ally in South America.
With the war at an end, Colombia can reduce military spending, divert resources to education and health services, and improve the lives of its citizens. Continued U.S. support at this key moment has the potential improve the lives of many in Colombia, now that peace is finally in sight.