Who Will Hire Colombia’s Ex-Terrorists?

Colombia is getting ready to make room for thousands of ex-combatants looking for work once a peace accord is reached with the FARC. Will these fighters ever really fit in?

Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — As peace negotiators here close in on ending the hemisphere’s longest-running conflict, it must be clear to the FARC rebel secretariat that they can no longer compete in the global marketplace for people willing to kill untold numbers of civilians for political gain. Though their fiftysomething leaders may be far from obsolete, a bigger challenge lies ahead for their country: How can it incorporate the terror group’s demobilized rank-and-file into society? Who will employ them?

No HR manager anywhere can ever ensure that a new worker doesn’t come to the office and (true story!) punch his boss’s lights out on a whim. Among conflict-resolution professionals, there’s plenty of research and theories out there on post-war struggles in workplaces around the world.

But to find the most recent, relevant, and effective of mass reintegration projects for those fresh from a decades-long fight, the best example may be in Colombia itself.

After all, it’s been here before.

Between 2003 and 2006, the feared right-wing AUC paramilitary group demobilized, after decades of extortion, assassinations, massacres, drug-trafficking, and kidnappings that arose out of the narcos chaos of the 1980s. In all, some 30,000 fighters who had been profiting from the cartels’ lawlessness disarmed and re-entered society. Unemployment among their ranks remains stubbornly high.

“Colombia hasn’t forgotten the lessons learned from that,” said Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, a D.C.-based NGO that focuses on human rights and economic justice issues. “You’ve got a lot of the same institutions with some of the same people in place, these people cut their teeth on that experience.”

This time around, it’s 8,000-plus hardened FARC combatants who could all hit the job market at the same time if a peace accord gets inked—and comes at a time when the price of oil, Colombia’s most crucial economic lifeline, has collapsed and the peso is severely weakened.

It’s not to say that these guerrillas aren’t hard workers; daily 20-mile hikes and jungle survival require business-like dedication. But because so many would likely be placed in construction work and other manual labor roles, Colombia’s companies are already worrying not only about their finances, but about the security, reputational, and morale problems they’ll encounter if they choose to hire these ex-combatants—particularly if they land at the very same locations that were once guerrilla targets.

Among Colombian firms, there are two levels to the debate: that of the necessary socialization of the guerrillas and their economic incentives to do so—and that of the government’s obligation to prove there’s a financial benefit to companies of taking on that risk.

Of course, longtime opponents are skeptical the fighters will ever truly lay down their arms. Peace negotiators have been burned before. One example: The United Nations’ Sierra Leone pact disarmed more 70,000 combatants in 2004, but as many as 2,000 are believed to have been re-recruited for wars in the neighboring Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. Considering that many recent conflicts started with a small number of combatants—often several hundred—even small failures have potentially broad ramifications.

That may be why one former Colombian army colonel who now works as a security consultant (and who preferred to go unnamed) said he fears the group will turn over their weapons to friendly nearby governments, then regroup in their traditional strongholds—all within the terms of a peace accord.

“This way they may retain their control of these territories, continue to cultivate coca plantations to ensure their income, and return to arms if everything does not work out as planned,” he continued, voicing a concern common among members of the armed forces.

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That may seem to be reason enough for multinationals to be hesitant to directly invest in Colombia. Yet some are blazing a trail in on optimism about the talks. One example: In January, Canadian real-estate and infrastructure firm Brookfield purchased the government’s majority stake in power generator Isagen for nearly $2 billion. With hydroelectric projects in Nariño, Antioquia, and Tolima—all close to FARC hotbeds—Brookfield is clearly showing confidence in a new future for the troubled region, and year to year, investment is only growing.

Yet it’s less known how new outsiders will fare when working in zones known to be rife with so-called Bacrim—the “bandas criminales,” or criminal gangs that grew from the remnants of old paramilitaries. In late March, one such group, known as the Urabeños (or Usaga Clan), declared an armed strike in at least five regions of northern Colombia, requiring all transport companies and businesses to cease work and all citizens to remain indoors. For 24 hours, the departments—the local term for provinces— of Antioquia, Choco, Cordoba, Cesar, and Bolivar were brought to a standstill, revealing the extent of the Urabeños’ hidden authority.

There are, of course, conflicting views as to what might occur to former FARC combatants absorbed into Colombia’s workforce and how their opponents may respond.

“Companies themselves may become targets if they employ ex-combatants,” the former army colonel suggested. “They will have to negotiate with the paramilitaries.”

“If you were a victim of this armed group and never received similar opportunities, you’d be pretty bitter,” WOLA’s Isacson said.

So if a final peace agreement is signed this year, one expects the Colombia government to start offering increased potential benefits to companies willing to step up and aid the reintegration process.

“Companies should already be informed of the existing legal measures which favor them such as tax exemptions regarding the employment of ex-combatants,” said Álvaro Villarraga Sarmiento, director of Truth Agreements at the National Center for Historical Memory in Bogotá. “These people will have received the preparation and training required,” he continued.

Though the proposed March 23 deadline for a final agreement is now past—a six-month limit set by President Juan Manuel Santos when he met with FARC Commander in Chief Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias Timochenko, in Havana—the negotiations have come a long way since their commencement in November 2012. With the issues of agrarian reform, political participation, justice and illicit drugs bested, Santos has every right to be optimistic. (And just last weekend, FARC announced plans to release some 170 child-soldiers from its ranks.) Quite a few national companies, including supermarkets, banks, and even a national airline, have declared their intentions to employ former guerrillas—although “not enough,” according to WOLA’s Isacson.

Ex-FARCers may face some competition, too: Colombia’s second guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional), has agreed to parallel but separate peace talks, possibly adding 1,500 or so additional ex-combatants to the labor mix.

While there may not be an exact manual available to Colombia’s companies in order to prepare themselves for the arrival of former guerrillas in the workplace, they can work to show the government that they are ready and equipped.

“Companies that start planning for this early, and design post-conflict plans, will be able able to show the government and the public a willingness to support the peace process, and at the same time improve their reputations,” said Benjamin Hockman, associate director at Control Risks, a London-based risk consultancy that works in Bogotá.

“The situation presented in Colombia is now for companies to identify suitable employment opportunities for demobilized guerrillas and to balance things justly so that ex-combatants are not perceived as being favored over ordinary citizens,” he said. “It’s about rising to the challenges to harness immediate and long-term commercial opportunities.”

While many guerrilla wars stretch on indefinitely, it seems that the FARC’s, which began in 1964, is coming to an end. There will be future difficulties but an agreement now would at the very least ensure that some of the original motives for a lifetime of waging a war from the jungle might be addressed.

Whatever the case, companies will need to insist that the government is doing the most it can to socialize these former fighters. And companies themselves are going to have to lay down clear rules from the beginning that certain behavior will not be permitted.

The hardest work starts once a final peace agreement is signed.