While in Paris, Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos said Monday that he hopes for French support for plans to introduce a rural military police force and improve education in the countryside in the event a peace deal is signed with rebel group FARC.
Santos visited France between Sunday and Tuesday with a delegation of top officials that included the country’s foreign minister, the finance minister and the agriculture minister.
Before meeting with French President Francois Hollande on Monday, Santos had already indicated he is interested in creating a Colombian version of the French Gendarmerie, a military force charged with police duties among civilian communities.
This military police force would be made in charge of public security in rural regions where currently the military is deployed to fight the FARC and ELN, leftist rebel groups who recruit most fighters in rural regions that historically have been neglected by the state.
In an attempt to also curb this state neglect, Santos is seeking French support for plans that go beyond public security.
Agriculture Minister Aurelio Iragorri said on Tuesday that the French government agreed to help his department is setting up a rural education system that seeks to drastically improve opportunities for young rural Colombians.
This lack of opportunity is one of the reasons that illegal armed groups like the FARC and Urabeños can count on thousands of new recruits per year.
Additionally, said the minister, rural Colombians who move to the city to study find it difficult to return to the countryside where jobs are scarce.
Santos’ public security plans
In the event the government signs peace with the FARC, the Colombian state has to assume control of large areas that have long been neglected by the state. It’s in these rural areas that leftist guerrilla forces like the FARC and ELN have been able to take control.
Additionally, drug trafficking organizations have been able to take advantage of the state’s abandonment of the countryside to secure relatively safe routes for illicit drugs.
The military, currently negotiating a bilateral ceasefire with the FARC, would need different tasks in the event that Colombia’s 50-year armed conflict comes to an end while some 20,000 FARC members — the majority unarmed — would need to reintegrate.
Additionally, the control over public security, now carried out legally by the military and illegally by the guerrillas, would have to be assumed.
“The French Gendarmerie es a very interesting model for us and we want them to help us with that,” said Santos after arrival.
A Colombian gendarmerie would take over tasks from the National Police in the countryside, could assume responsibility over rural public security immediately after a possible demobilization of FARC rebels and could additionally be employed in more military-like actions against for example drug trafficking groups or remaining guerrilla factions.
“In the conflict areas we want a special presence where for many years war has been endured,” Santos told Caracol Radio. “We have been thinking that the concept of the gendarmierie comes in handy in these zones.”
Guerrillas in new security force?
Santos’ plans for a rural police force became suddenly highly controversial after the president refused to reject the possibility that demobilized FARC guerrillas make up part of this force.
The controversy began when former President Alvaro Uribe, a critic of the peace talks, tweeted that Colombians should reject the possibility of demobilized FARC guerrillas taking part in the rural military police force.
Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez, a political ally of Uribe, pointed out that in partial deals with the FARC, there is a reference to “a security model” for conflict zones. According to Ordoñez, “this would incorporate the Police and integrated by demobilized members of the FARC.”
The president responded that he “hadn’t thought of that yet,” but wouldn’t rule out the possibility. “We would have to negotiate this,” said Santos.
The conservative opposition to the talks immediately slammed the proposal, accusing Santos of using “that so-called gendarmerie” as a pretext “so the FARC can continue in arms.”
According to Senator Alfredo Rangel of Uribe’s Democratic Center party, this would be “unacceptable.”
Santos, clearly annoyed, said it “really is perverse” and “vicious” to conclude “that we are negotiating the Security Forces in Havana,” Cuba where the talks with the FARC have been taking place since November 2012.
Education for the rural population
While Santos’ gendarmerie plans were discredited by the opposition and Inspector General, proposals to similar help in new rural education policies were received without too much opposition.
The Colombian agriculture minister signed an agreement with the French government in which the French commit to cooperate in the development of rural education in the South American country.
According to Iragorri, France’s experience in specialized education for rural communities is “invaluable for the goal to succeed in making the countryside more attractive for the youth.”
The French government agreed to help create “a formation and education pilot specialized for peasants, based on the interests and conditions they live in.”
This education project should motivate rural Colombians to develop their rural regions “without them having to leave and seek opportunities in the cities” or in illegal armed groups.
Education Minister Gina Parody will travel to France to meet with her counterpart to discuss the specific of such pilot for specialized rural education which will partly be financed by the government through scholarships.
The French government became closely involved with Colombia’s armed conflict in 2002 when presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a French Colombian, was kidnapped by the FARC.
Until her release in 2008, Paris was helped with effort to seek the release of the high-profile hostage.