1674032914 The bittersweet achievements of the reintegration of the FARCs ex guerrillas

The bittersweet achievements of the reintegration of the FARC’s ex-guerrillas

Félix Arango does not keep any photos from his childhood. At the age of ten he had to run away from home because his stepfather beat him to death and his mother urged him to beat him even harder. He worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, plowing the land with his hands. He grew up alone without stepping foot in a school class. At the age of 38, still illiterate, he joined the FARC guerrillas. He laid down his arms after the peace agreement with the government in 2017. Learning to read and write in the transition to civilian life at the age of 64, Félix is ​​now a tour guide in Tierra Grata, a rural citadel in northern Colombia, where he lives with other ex-combatants and their families. From the land of his future home he can see the mountain ranges that he previously patrolled and used as a hideout.

Felix shows part of his cartridge belts. Felix shows part of his cartridge belts. Chelo Camacho

For a simple guerrilla like him there were no timetables or plans for the future. On long treks through jungles and mountains, he was often the last in line, on a mission to cover the wanderer’s footprints. Sometimes he carried up to 50 kilos on marches that lasted days and nights. A weight, that of being a guerrilla, that he carries so much that he still presents himself with his nom de guerre. He clarifies that he is officially registered as Alcides Rivera and shrugs when he recalls his childhood in Catatumbo: “I had a hard life. When I joined the guerrillas, I was left with nothing great because I was already taught to suffer.”


Tierra Grata, located in the department of Cesar, can only be reached by camper or motorbike. At the entrance, camouflaged soldiers huddled between the bushes. From the winding and dusty road you can see the Serranía del Perijá and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta with the highest mountain peaks in Colombia. In November 2016, after the final signing of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC, 23 temporary village zones were set up under UN supervision, where 13,000 ex-combatants were concentrated and their arms laid down. Tierra Grata is located in La Paz, Cesar, where 69% of the population died in the armed conflict (18,179 victims).

Ex-combatants make the bricks they build their homes from.Ex-combatants make the bricks they build their homes from: Chelo Camacho


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Félix arrived in the area with a rifle and a backpack. He changed them for several tourism courses to become a local guide for the company Ecotours made up of ex-combatants. Félix welcomes visitors and gives them guided tours of the sidewalk and hikes to the river in Manaure, the neighboring town. The area is excellent for bird watching: maría mulata, manacon, condor, toucans, peacocks, hummingbirds… flocks of macaws fly across the path. Colombia is the country with the greatest bird diversity, with 1,954 species, which is 20% of the world total.

More than 300 people live in Tierra Grata. Among them are 121 of the 162 men and women who have returned to civilian life there; 38 left for other cities and two died in traffic accidents. Only one returned to the war and is now part of the Segunda Marquetalia, a dissident group led by Iván Márquez. From there, Seuxis Pausias Hernández, aka Jesús Santrich, one of the main FARC negotiators at the Havana talks, disappeared. He declared himself absent because of an extradition request from the United States on charges of drug trafficking, a situation the Truth Commission described as a trap against peace. He returned to arms in the Second Marquetalia and was killed in May 2021 on the Venezuelan side of the Serranía de Perijá by an armed group that some sources say are FARC dissidents and others say they are members of the army.

Felix, on the other hand, continues to cling to civilian life. Like the other ex-combatants, he sleeps in a windowless room six meters long and four meters wide. It has a simple bed and clothes hanging from wires. He hasn’t lost hand washing like he did for over 20 years in the guerrillas. Today he dreams of building his house. Through loans, the ex-combatants bought 24 hectares of land to build 150 houses in a home-build project. In the black market, each house costs 35 million pesos (about $7,400 in today’s value). Félix already has his property but he could only buy sand and gravel as he only lives on the monthly income he receives from the government (90% of minimum wage).

The project started in May 2022. The designs of the houses are all similar: roof tiles made of fiber cement and concrete block walls. The ex-guerrillas buy the materials for the houses in the same village. Builders and ex-combatants work on construction every day. While sharpening a shovel, Fredys tells Tobías Pinto that he’s looking forward to his own house. He spent 35 of his 63 years in the guerrillas. Now he is part of a demining organization that was born with the agreement. “The most difficult thing about returning to civilian life is economic stability,” he says.

Tobías, a veteran peace signer.Tobías, a former combatant who signed the peace Chelo Camacho

60 babies were born in Tierra Grata; For this reason, the citadel project includes two parks for children and a kindergarten. Solís Almeida, a former FARC commander who spent 40 years in the jungle, shows what they built: a hardware store, a restaurant, a shop, a kindergarten, a block factory, two classrooms, a pool hall, a jewelry workshop, and carpentry . Some of these companies were run through international collaborations; The government has donated other buildings, such as the field and the health station, which also functions as a dentist’s office. Ex-combatants who were empirical nurses and dentists in the jungle have validated their knowledge in institutions such as the Seine and the Red Cross; They are now certified as Oral Health Technicians and Nursing Assistants. Some residents of neighboring municipalities prefer to have their treatments performed in Tierra Grata because it is cheaper than in the municipal capitals.

As part of the reparative jobs, labor or activities they take on as part of the transitional justice system, ex-combatants from this regrouping zone built a water treatment plant that benefited neighboring communities.

In these five years, around 80 ex-combatants have completed basic training. Solís Almeida, 60, graduated from Tierra Grata and is now studying public administration in Valledupar, 40 minutes away. As a former commander, he had to appear before the Special Justice for Peace and the Missing Persons Search Unit.

Former FARC fighters build houses and search for a new life in constant fear of being killed.Former FARC fighters build houses and seek a new life in constant fear of being killed. Chelo Camacho

When news broke in 2016 that Tierra Grata would be one of the areas where ex-combatants would regroup, residents of the nearest community, San José de Oriente, were reluctant. They feared the return of violence. Today they held meetings with victims from the community and visited the city to hold health days.

Carolina Vargas Cabrera, 42, is the women, gender and diversity departmental adviser for Comunes, the political party formed after the signing of the agreement. Together with 32 women, he wants to set up an entrepreneur’s shop to sell backpacks, hammocks, clothes and jewelry that they have repaired. Her plans also include a beauty salon. To achieve this, they hold raffles and sell groceries, but he says it has been difficult to get support. “I worry about the lack of jobs for women. There are already many courses and courses here that require experience, among other things, but they don’t give us the opportunity,” he says. The stigma against ex-combatants has extended to children. “In the school where they study, our children are called the little guerrillas,” he regrets. Carolina says ex-combatants have only gotten permanent jobs as bodyguards in the state’s National Protection Unit, but many no longer want to handle guns.

The peace signers have been in the transition to civilian life for a little over five years, but their greatest fear remains that they will be exterminated. According to the UN, 355 ex-combatants have been killed since the agreement was signed. Although there have been no murders in Tierra Grata, they feel fearful and vulnerable from the state.

FARC-EP flag and uniforms at the ETCR Memorial House in Tierra Grata.FARC-EP flag and uniforms at the ETCR Memorial House of Tierra Grata Chelo Camacho

Meanwhile, they struggle to make the citadel grow. They have created a memorial house with bookshelves and a replica camp to declare war on their nomadic life during 60 years. Félix tells how they made cambuches and took shelter from the rain in the jungle. Walk on the dry leaves and think, “I dream of having a good life. I still have ground to walk on.”

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