BUCARAMANGA, Colombia — For all the damage that airstrikes and smart bombs have inflicted on Colombia’s FARC rebels, the biggest threat they face may be the hot tub and the computer room at this converted motel along the highway.
Repurposed by the Colombian government as a “hogar de paz” (peace home), the motel is a kind of halfway house for guerrillas who desert. After hiding out in the jungle for a decade or more, hardened fighters can surrender to Colombian forces and spend the next three months playing volleyball, watching soccer matches and eating all the ice cream they want.
The creature comforts are just a first bite of the carrot offered by Colombia’s innovative Agency for Reintegration as it beckons the leftist rebels to defect and start down the long road from guerrilla soldier to rehabilitated civilian.
“I just got tired of fighting,” said one 30-year-old, lounging in shorts and flip-flops, with a ragged scar running from elbow to shoulder where a government bomb nearly ripped off his arm. He said he was 15 when he joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the rebel group known by its Spanish initials as FARC.
“That's half my life,” he said, as if that were just now sinking in.
Few Colombians remember a time when their country was not at war. More than 200,000 people have died in the 50-year-old conflict, but after 18 months of peace talks in Havana, FARC commanders and government negotiators have brought the country closer than ever to a truce.
If the talks eventually succeed, it could mean the sudden demobilization of 7,000 to 10,000 FARC combatants — men and women who would need counseling, social services and, most important, training for jobs decent enough to keep them from parlaying their combat skills into high-paid work for Colombia’s drug mafias.
If the negotiations break down, the Agency for Reintegration will most likely take on even greater strategic importance as the preferred way to reduce the rebels’ numbers without firing a shot.
The fate of the talks may hinge on Sunday’s presidential runoff, with incumbent Juan Manuel Santos campaigning on a promise to deliver a peace agreement. His government announced Tuesday that it has also opened talks with Colombia’s second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN.
Santos’s opponent, former finance minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga, has accused Santos of going soft on FARC “terrorists,” whom he calls “the world's biggest drug traffickers.”
FARC considers the reintegration program to be one of the government’s weapons of war. Its punishment for desertion — or attempted desertion — is death.
Colombian officials allowed the ex-combatants to be interviewed on the condition that their names would not be published, saying that revealing their identities would put them at grave risk.
Some of the fighters had “flown away” — their term for desertion — just a few days earlier. One said he no longer believed that the FARC could win, giving up after 16 years in the jungle. Another quit because he was sick with tuberculosis and his commanding officer refused to let him seek treatment. Another said he had survived five aerial bombing attacks and did not think he could live through another.
As the peace talks have advanced in Havana, the pace of defections has accelerated.
“Nobody wants to be the last one to die,” said Gen. Mauricio Zuñiga, the military official in charge of all five of Colombia’s peace homes, which took in more than 1,200 defectors last year.
Once in government custody, the fighters are interrogated to corroborate their stories and pry out new intelligence about troop movements and FARC leaders. Special analysts are brought in to root out rebel spies.
Then the long “reintegration” process begins, starting with three months of rest and recuperation for exhausted troops whose commanders warned them for years that they would be tortured if they ended up in government hands.
Instead, they get fresh clothes, a small cash stipend, a swimming pool and basketball courts. They take courses in math and literacy and are taught basic life skills, such as how to use an ATM, sign up for Facebook and schedule a doctor’s appointment.
“Also, that they can’t just urinate on any tree they want,” said counselor Liliana Pinto.
The government says that 90 percent arrive with post-traumatic stress disorder. It has invested heavily in counseling from psychologists and social workers, acknowledging that many ex-combatants will need years of therapy.
“We can't forget that this process is going to take a long time,” said Alejandro Eder, director of the Agency for Reintegration. “War is a crazy experience, and a lot of these people have been driven crazy, especially if they’ve been fighting since they were 12 years old.”
Most FARC defectors were recruited around that age, Eder said. The average length of time they have spent in the jungle is 14 years.
To a man, the rebels interviewed outside this city in northern Colombia, about 250 miles northeast of the capital, Bogota, said they voluntarily joined FARC and were not forcibly recruited. But few seemed to have taken up arms to wage class warfare or advance the Marxist worldview that FARC espouses, even as it engages in drug trafficking and kidnapping.
Nearly all of the former combatants came from families that had been shattered by violence or the death of a parent — in many cases, at the hands of the right-wing paramilitary groups that have been FARC’s mortal foes.
“When I was 2, they killed my parents and burned my house down,” said a 20-year-old whose face was disfigured from the blaze. “As soon as I turned 12, I joined” FARC.
In the poor, remote corners of Colombia that are rebel bastions, joining FARC was as natural as going to high school or signing up for military service, they said.
Adult deserters who enter the reintegration program face the possibility of criminal charges if prosecutors suspect that they are guilty of serious crimes such as kidnapping, narcotics trafficking or murder. But prosecution for their broader offense — “rebellion” — is typically suspended as long as they comply with the program and stay out of trouble.
The government relocates many ex-combatants and their families to new cities where they can change their names and attempt a fresh start. But even in a country of 47 million, the former fighters say they continue to look over their shoulders, fearing that they will be found out.
It is one of many strains of civilian life for former child soldiers who missed out on adolescence and formal schooling and who are now trying to rebuild ties to estranged family members and make friends. Many struggle to stay a step ahead of their demons.
At a community center for the disabled outside Bucaramanga, ex-guerrilla Gregorio Hernandez found atonement of sorts as a handyman, a decade after fleeing the ELN and six years after completing a prison term for homicide. He joined at 14, he said, “wanting to be Robin Hood.”
One of the few co-workers who knows about Hernandez’s past is Jorge Rios, a powerful man with no legs who welds and repairs wheelchairs.
Rios was nearly killed in a rebel grenade attack 20 years ago as a young soldier and has survived 83 surgeries.
But he bears no grudge against Hernandez, he said. The two men have become friends and have shown others “that we can all make peace,” Rios said.
“This war is absurd,” he said. “There is no reason Colombians should be fighting Colombians.”