7,000 FARC rebels are demobilizing in Colombia. But where do they go next?

FARC guerrillas and civilians build barracks in the Transitional Standardization Zone in Pondores, La Guajira department, Colombia, on March 31. (Joaquin Sarmiento/ Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

It took four years of negotiations, a “no” vote on a referendum for peace and a final framework that ultimately passed Colombia’s Congress. In January, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels began to disarm and demobilize.

After 52 years of guerrilla fighting, the FARC concentrated its estimated 7,000 troops in 26 designated localities. The peace plan calls for this disarmament process to run for 180 days. Former FARC members then begin their reintegration into civilian life.

But where will the former FARC guerrillas go? This matters.

My research on post-conflict environments reveals that most ex-combatants around the world go home. They generally return to their families to facilitate their reintegration and can then re-create civilian bonds that will rival their combatant ones.

Recruitment determines where “home” is

The geography of recruitment determines where former troops end up. Because some armed units operate close to home while others have been dispatched farther away from their recruits’ home areas, this policy of relocating home ends up keeping local units intact. Non-local fighting units end up weaker, though, as their members disperse away from the war zone.

This is an important distinction. Regions comprising locally based groups thus maintain a stable and peaceful balance of power. In contrast, regions where local groups neighbor nonlocal groups can more easily become unstable and see a return to organized violence and remilitarization. This is what happened with the demobilization of Colombia’s paramilitary groups in 2003-2006: Half of the units remilitarized.

The FARC may demobilize differently

The FARC may defy the trend of homeward-bound combatants, as many may stay in or near the disarmament areas. An estimated 20 percent of the guerrillas have no families to return to, having broken their ties to the outside and spent much of their lives within the FARC.

The vast majority of ex-combatants, however, will stay near the disarmament zones because this is the FARC’s plan. The FARC fears disappearing. It has ambitious political goals, which become impossible to achieve without its organization remaining intact. If its combatants disperse to their home towns, the FARC’s chances of competing politically at the national level would be jeopardized.

Accordingly, the FARC leadership was clever in negotiating the terms of reintegration of its combatants. Whereas some members of the government’s negotiating team sought individualized reintegration in localities of the ex-combatants’ choosing, the FARC managed also to negotiate the creation of ECOMUN, a FARC-run organization that will administer material assistance and economic projects for the ex-rebels collectively in their former strongholds….