Recap: Hemispheric Forum on the Dynamics of FARC Demobilization
July 2014 FARC HF
02 Jul 2014

On June 25, the Perry Center convened a Hemispheric Forum on the timely topic of desertion among members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and how best to manage demobilization and reintegration into society as peace talks continue between the Colombian government and the FARC in Havana, Cuba.

The event took place in the Proceres Lecture Hall at the Perry Center in Washington, DC, and was livestreamed to an international audience in both English and simultaneously translated Spanish.

The Forum began with opening remarks by Perry Center Acting Director Ken LaPlante, introduced the topic and emphasized how important Colombia’s peace talks and its handling of the demobilization of former insurgents will be for that country’s peace prospects. The treatment of FARC deserters and a formal program of demobilization will be watched closely by Colombian society and the international community, and other countries undergoing similar conflict resolution predicaments have much to learn from the Colombian experience. Mr. LaPlante was followed by Perry Center Academic Dean Dr. Luis Bitencourt, who served as panel moderator, introduced the panel, and commenced the forum.

Dr. David Spencer, a Perry Center professor and longtime field researcher focusing on the Colombian conflict, reflected on lessons to be learned from the past ten years of FARC demobilization. He drew from two datasets on deserters, one collected in 2003 and one in 2013. These datasets represent the demographic characteristics of FARC deserters, and, taken together, show the changes over time in the profile of typical FARC deserters. As the licit economy in Colombia has improved, younger FARC members with the highest levels of education deserted more readily. While FARC’s origins stem from an ideological and intellectual movement, as the group evolves into a criminal outfit specializing in drug production, kidnapping, and extortion, the ideology and political appeal diminishes for some recruits. This also leads to a lower average education and skill level among those members who remain in the ranks of FARC, a potential problem for demobilization, when these unskilled and uneducated fighters must be integrated into a society for which they are not equipped to excel. Understanding the demographics of those members that remain in FARC can lead to more targeted demobilization incentives and a clearer picture of FARC’s membership and goals.

Ms. Christine Balling, President of Fundación ECCO in Tolima, Colombia, spoke about Colombia’s demobilization program and focused on the demobilization of female members of the FARC. Having worked with the Colombian Military’s Demobilization Group to produce the country’s first Tactical Guide on Demobilization and as an advisor to SOCSOUTH on demobilization and counter-recruitment issues, she has gained substantial first-hand experience with Colombia’s demobilization program. She explained some of the issues that motivate women in particular to join FARC initially, including the sense of power and agency, the feeling of being part of a community, and being close to boyfriends and other loved ones who are already members. She shared compelling anecdotes about the experiences of demobilized women whom she interviewed, and explained how important it is to target these motivations (power, belonging, agency) rather than miss the point of why these girls and women became members in the first place. She drew attention to the fact that many women who are demobilizing were recruited as children and teenagers, and physical and psychological abuse by their peers and superiors have long-term effects particular to female members. Ms. Balling also explained that the Colombian military has a public relations problem when it comes to convincing female members of the FARC to present themselves for demobilization at bases throughout the country. FARC propaganda has waged a largely effective campaign to scare women away from the military, claiming that Colombian soldiers will rape them or otherwise abuse them if they surrender at a base. For their part, Ms. Balling says, she has seen Colombian soldiers take special care to be respectful and professional with the FARC female deserters, and it is the positive experience of these already demobilized female members that can prove to be the most effective inducement to those still undecided.

The final speaker was Mr. Adam Isacson, Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. He focused on human rights issues and demobilization, drawing from his extensive research on US security assistance throughout the Americas, and especially in Colombia. He pointed out that Colombia is the first country to undergo such a peace process while already a member party to the UN’s International Criminal Court. With the potential demobilization of long-term and high-ranking members of the FARC on the horizon, there is much debate within and outside Colombia regarding how to penalize known human rights violators. Full amnesty is distasteful to many, but the Colombian government must find a solution that upholds justice and also integrates demobilized individuals back into society. Mr. Isacson stated that just as there are distinct motivations for individuals to join FARC in the first place, FARC members in different blocs will need different incentives for desertion. Those “middle-managers” who handle day-to-day operations in the lucrative drug industry territories are loathe to part with the organization and take licit jobs with much smaller financial compensation. Rural and urban FARC members are variously motivated when it comes to life after demobilization. At present, Colombia’s main organization for managing demobilization is the Colombian Reintegration Agency (ACR). Mr. Isacson said the ACR must continue to analyze the demographics of deserters and apply differentiated treatment where applicable. Members who are women, children, or ethnic minorities, for example, may reintegrate in society more successfully when supported by a program with a component of differentiated treatment.

The panel concluded with a question-and-answer session that included both in-person queries from audience members and comments from international livestream viewers. The panel members presented many more points of analysis than can be covered in detail in this summary, and you are encouraged to view the recording of the event (available in both English and Spanish).

Event Recording (English)
Event Recording (Spanish)