- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

BOGOTA, Colombia — Thousands of fighters have deserted left- and right-wing illegal armies in recent years, providing a bright spot in President Alvaro Uribe’s struggle to stabilize his country but straining reintegration programs.

Almost 7,000 fighters have entered such programs since Mr. Uribe’s inauguration in August 2002 — 3,592 from the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); 967 from the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN); and 2,306 from various right-wing paramilitary groups.

An additional 4,820 right-wing fighters have collectively demobilized under the government’s peace process with the paramilitaries, but they have remained in their hometowns and receive different government benefits.

Mr. Uribe is counting on the desertions to turn the tide of the country’s 41-year-old conflict. But the sheer numbers are creating their own problems as the deserters overcrowd shelters and compete for scarce jobs.

“All of Colombia likes the concept of demobilization, but few people want the shelter for the demobilized in their neighborhood,” said Andres Penate, the deputy defense minister in charge of the program’s initial phase.

“Everybody says how great that they’re helping in the fight against terrorism, but nobody wants to give them jobs,” he said.

Under government rules, deserters spend an average of three months in group homes run by the Defense Ministry while waiting for their judicial situations to be clarified. If they aren’t wanted for serious crimes, they are allowed to enter the Interior Ministry’s reinsertion program.

For up to 21 months, the former combatants are provided free basic supplies. They can receive a high school degree or enroll in a vocational training program. If they complete certain requirements, they receive up to $3,500 to start a productive project or buy a home.

The reinsertion program now numbers 3,350 former fighters, who also are allowed to enroll their children, parents and spouses.

An additional 3,400 former fighters have graduated from the program since 2002. Of these, three-quarters have embarked on an educational or business enterprise, but the Interior Ministry has no idea what happens to them once they leave the government payroll.

Some Uribe foes blame the program for rise in crimes, although statistics fail to show such a connection.

In Bogota, where officials say 90 percent of former combatants have settled, Mayor Luis Eduardo “Lucho” Garzon has blamed the programs for rising homicide rates in the southern part of the city. However, with 1,000 former fighters living in 25 shelters in the neighborhood of Teusaquillo, residents have filed only 24 complaints.

On a recent afternoon in a Teusaquillo shelter where 13 adults and 19 children shared the six-bedroom home, recently arrived FARC and paramilitary fighters praised the program.

“It’s a blessing of God,” said Jose de los Angeles de Vizcano, a former paramilitary commander from Catatumbo who hopes to set up a dairy farm. “The only government that has opened doors to the right has been this one.”

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