With trepidation, Colombia enters the implementation stage of the peace accords between the government and the FARC-EP, accords that ended the last major guerrilla conflict in Latin America. The agreement stipulates that the government will construct transitory areas for demobilization, Zonas Veredales Transitorias de Normalización (ZVTNs), and will “put in place preparatory measures and activities for the reincorporation and other activities necessary to facilitate the transit to the legality of the FARC-EP and to guarantee the welfare in the ZVTN.” In accordance with the agreement, the FARC has been moving its 6,900 members to ZVTNs. Yet, so far the government has failed to honor its commitments: many of the demilitarization zones are unprepared for the incoming the FARC members, lacking basic supplies, transitory housing, sufficient water, or sanitation infrastructure.
The unpreparedness of the zones remains somewhat unsurprising in a country in which law and implementation often diverge. While health care and education are recognized rights in Colombia, for example, many Colombians still live without these basic services, particularly in remote areas. The peace deal includes a focus on rural populations, who, the argument goes, will benefit both directly and indirectly from the agreement. But for the deal to remain intact, the services must also reach the former guerrillas. Broken promises regarding support and protection risk bringing the country back into civil conflict, with a constant threat of violence from right-wing paramilitaries (particularly in light of a recent increase in murders of left-wing leaders) further raising the stakes. Without successfully reintegrating FARC members, Colombia also risks joining El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in gang violence crises partially caused by failure to fully reintegrate former combatants into civilian life; a small number of guerrilla fighters have already defected, and may join the other armed groups filling the power vacuum left in formerly-FARC-controlled regions.
Particularly worrisome from a humanitarian perspective is the lack of services for babies or pregnant women. In the past couple of years, during peace talks and the ceasefire, the FARC discontinued its mandatory birth control policy. Many FARC members began imagining and planning for life after war, including starting families: this resulted in a baby boom. The number of pregnant women and babies remains a question, but what is clear is that insufficient supplies and services in the ZVTNs are targeted to those two groups: former guerrillas starting families in reliance on peace-deal promises, and babies whose very existence represents a commitment to eschew further warfare and embrace a peaceful future.
According to sources in the Colinas ZVTN, where there are approximately 17 pregnant women and approximately 10 babies, few services targeted to those two groups have been provided. Two barren shacks were installed for pregnant women, but those shacks were so hot that no one was able to stay in them. Pregnant women (including women only days away from delivery) reported that while they had cursory conversations with a doctor, they have not received prenatal vitamins, medications, or sonograms; currently, FARC commanders are negotiating access to sonograms with the Guaviare Secretary of Health, but no access has been granted so far. Nor have protocols been established for transportation and security when the time to deliver does come, leaving women wondering whether they will be allowed to leave the zones, how long getting through emergency-exit bureaucracy may take, and whether they will be protected from paramilitaries during those trips. It must also be legally clarified that hospital visits are not violations of amnesty agreements, which require FARC members to remain inside the zones. For babies already born, women have reported that there have been no visits from pediatricians, nor has the government provided clothing, baby food, or basic health services like vaccinations.
The lack of habitability of the ZVTNs has also made FARC members nervous that the promised government programs to assist with social and economic reintegration will never materialize. In the FARC, combatants received education in everything from technology to surgery, yet many had not completed elementary school or high school. For the over two thousand women leaving the FARC, already facing disproportionate economic and social challenges, resources such as educational and job training programs will prove crucial to successful reintegration, as will a genuine welcome by the Colombian civilian population.
Citizen participation, specifically promoted in the accords, is being seen in the organization of donations to and programs in the zones; such initiatives have the potential to fill some of the service gaps. Yet the lack of clarity regarding the legal demarcations of the zones, including whether civil society is even allowed to enter, discourages further civilian involvement and prevents such services from reaching their intended recipients. Actions that the government could take relatively quickly and without depleting overextended resources include better clarifying the roles of the institutional actors, empowering existing implementation bodies, and explicitly stating that members of civil society may, and indeed should, visit the the zones’ reception areas to contribute what they can do.
To many leaving the FARC, the barren disarmament zones themselves are proof of the government’s disinterest in compliance, casting doubt on future facilitated reintegration and leaving them worried that they are disarming under false pretenses. The success of a peace deal for which the world rooted, and from which the whole of Colombia stands to benefit, depends on the successful reintegration of these former combatants; the government support that was promised in the accords must be delivered, rather than remain dangerously empty words.