The limits of Colombia’s demobilization programs

The security situation in Colombia has improved greatly over the last decade as the state has gained more control over the use of violence within its territory; both through combating illegal armed groups and by gaining wider legitimacy with the population. However, there has been a resurgence of violence in recent months, for example in the city of Medellin. Some Colombians blame, at least in part, the failure of the country’s disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs (DDR) for this new deterioration in security.

But as a wise man once told me in Sincelejo; “when you hit yourself on the fingers with a hammer it doesn’t make sense to blame the hammer.”  Following this principle, perhaps we should blame the application of DDR programs, rather than the programs themselves, for DDR’s failure to have a more permanent impact on security in Colombia.

Colombia’s DDR processes have been widely criticized, but obviously they are not the only factor in today’s problems. How far are the DDR processes really unique to Colombia, and is this uniqueness to blame for ongoing violence in the country?

It is often remarked in Colombia that the country is unique in carrying out DDR processes while conflict is still ongoing. But cases where a conflict has actually ended, as opposed to merely where a peace agreement has been signed, are rare anywhere in the world. The unfinished and partial nature of Colombia’s disarmament and demobilization processes does make reintegration difficult, but the sad truth is that this phenomenon can be seen in conflict zones worldwide. A perceived lack of time to consult recipient communities, the state’s lack of a legitimate monopoly on violence, and a government that doesn’t control all of its territory are commonplace as a context in which DDR has to take place. It should not therefore come as a surprise that DDR in Colombia seems to be primarily used to consolidate state power rather than to ensure security for civilians.

Colombia suffers from a disconnect between DDR and local circumstances, which is also common, as states that have only a fragile hold over their territory will, perhaps logically, initially choose to centralize power and gain a legitimate monopoly on violence. Although Colombia now has a firmer grasp on more of its land than a decade ago, pockets remain where the state is not in control. Colombia’s conflict is complex and any analysis of it must go beyond an exclusive focus on the state’s fight against terrorists. Discourse that frames the violent situation in Colombia in these simple terms does little if any justice to the many fragmented and localized conflicts that are ongoing in the country.

Another problematic aspect of Colombia’s DDR processes that should not be considered as unique is their overstretching, as large numbers of former combatants seem to come out of nowhere to participate in DDR programs. The same can be said about the overly high expectations placed on DDR programs, both by the participants and by society at large. The lack of public information on the negotiations to begin DDR, and a lack of transparency in the program during its implementation are also far from unique, as decisions regarding DDR are often thought of as the business of a small number of experts.

Are there, then, factors that make Colombia’s DDR programs unique, or would it suffice to state that accompanying a peace process with DDR is just difficult and bound to end in disappointment?

Colombia’s attempt to connect DDR with a restorative justice process through the Justice and Peace law is unique indeed. However, the current situation indicates that putting this policy into practice is difficult, as Justice and Peace is understaffed and underfunded. The presence of psychological assistance for demobilized combatants in Colombia’s DDR is also a factor that sets it apart from the “average” DDR program. Then there is the community reintegration component. This is rather unique, although in practice these programs are very short-term, which undermines the effect of including recipient communities. The reach of these programs also seems underdeveloped due to financial and capacity constraints. Of course the growth of and trade in narcotics fuels the conflict dynamics in Colombia and thereby creates a rather unique context , though it is less so when viewed in relation to other Latin American countries. The extradition of paramilitary commanders to the U.S. is one of its related peculiarities. To have both a collective and an individual demobilization process is also unusual. What furthermore might be unique is that Colombia’s individual DDR program, which applies to rebel fighters, is considered by some to be a strategy of war rather than a peace process.

There are several arguments that seem to support this claim. The CODA certificate, which indicates that there are no outstanding cases against the to-be-demobilized individual, is issued out by the Defense Ministry, in consultation with the Justice Ministry. This leaves ample room for the Defense Ministry to intimidate demobilized individuals in order to obtain intelligence. The existence of a publicly-circulated list of financial rewards for information on guerrilla groups also supports this claim. Moreover, soldiers that extract useful information from guerrillas will climb the military ladder. Anecdotal evidence furthermore indicates that some guerrillas turning themselves in are threatened with not receiving any benefits from the DDR program if they fail to provide information about their former groups. For these reasons it can be argued that the individual program is a strategy of war that prioritizes defeating the insurgents over creating an inclusive peace process.

It is important to assess where this leaves the Colombian security situation with regard to DDR. Socio-economic development has proved inadequate to remove demobilized fighters’ incentives to take up arms again. Perhaps more importantly in the short term there is no coherent policy for tackling recruitment to armed groups, which raises the question of what the effect of DDR will be in the long term. In other words, the sustainability of the DDR program in relation to local security is at risk, which will have serious effects on Colombia’s future.

Of course, criticizing DDR in hindsight is not a difficult exercise, as the pressing circumstances in which design and implementation had to take place are often not properly taken into account by critics. Assessing various DDR processes around the world makes clear the difficulty of formulating a baseline for success. DDR is necessarily a trade-off between security and justice and therefore is fraught with complications both during and after the processes. DDR cannot be a silver bullet solution to violence, but it can and should connect to wider reconstruction processes and focus on human security.

Making human security the focal point for DDR might provide a more sustainable impact for citizens throughout Colombia. In practical terms this would mean constructively engaging with involved communities in order to take local contexts into account. This is of great importance as conflict dynamics play out differently throughout the country, and not acknowledging this diversity undermines the effects of DDR. Focusing on human security would thus require a more decentralized approach. Reconciliation can and should be a focal point of DDR processes, and there is room for improvement in setting up dialogues with non-governmental organizations that work with both communities and participants in DDR. Current practice relies too heavily on centralized ideas rather than acknowledging the fact that in the end communities, rather than policy makers, must live together with demobilized fighters.

It is only through critical reflection and constructive dialogue that policies can be geared towards more sustainable results. This short article in itself can never do justice to the complexity in which DDR has to function, and can only aim to provide a small part of the dialogue that is needed.

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