Turning guerrilla fighters into entrepreneurs

By Anna-Catherine Brigida
Business reporter, Medellin, Colombia

image captionGladis Giraldo says she regrets her time as a Farc guerrilla

Former guerrilla fighter Gladis Giraldo says she ultimately realised that violence was not the answer.

Now 38-years-old, she spent 12 years serving with left-wing Colombian rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

Ms Giraldo, who left Farc a decade ago, remembers with sorrow the horror of the battlefield.

She says she joined Farc - which is on US and European lists of terrorist organisations - as a teenager because of a lack of other opportunities, and after guerrillas one day stopped at her house to eat.

But eventually she decided that what she was doing was wrong.

"Your conscience grows and you realise it's not the best way," says Ms Giraldo. "[And] when you leave you regret everything."

The problem for Ms Giraldo was that after leaving Farc, who would employ her?

"Most people don't want us [former Farc members] to work for them, because of what we were," she says.

Thankfully for Ms Giraldo a government agency called the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR) helped her pay for sewing and tailoring classes, so she could set up her own business.

image copyrightAFP
image captionFarc was formed back in 1964

Sewing shirts and trousers for fashion shops in Medellin, Colombia's third-largest city won't make her rich, but she is her own boss, and she doesn't have to hide her past from her employees - seven female relatives.

Set up in 2003, ACR has now helped some 60,000 demobilised Farc fighters, and former members of right-wing paramilitary groups, find employment or set up their own companies.

The continuing work of ACR comes as representatives of Farc (which continues to have a membership of about 10,000 men and women) and the Colombian government are meeting in Cuba to try to agree a peace deal to end more than 50 years of fighting.

If and when a deal is finally agreed, the ACR will have the central role in reintegrating the currently remaining Farc members back into mainstream society.

'Terrible things'

Ever Osorio joined right-wing paramilitary group United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) after Farc fighters killed two of his relatives.

AUC was formed in 1997 as a civilian-led army to fight Farc and other left-wing armed groups, but it soon expanded its operations to include drug trafficking and extortion.

image captionEver Osorio has rebuilt his life as a coffee grower

While AUC demobilised nationally in 2008, it gave birth to more recent criminal groups.

Mr Osorio, 51, spent two years with AUC, and says he dealt with "logistics", such as proving information about Farc members and sympathisers, and dealing with mundane tasks such as food preparation.

"I made the mistake of seeking revenge," he says. "The guerrillas killed my uncle and cousin, that's why I joined.

"[But] I didn't see anything good. You see terrible things [in an armed conflict]."

image captionMr Osorio's farm produces 7,000 kg of coffee beans each year

After 24 months with the paramilitary group Mr Osorio pledged to support himself through hard work rather than extortion and violence.

So he fled to where no-one would find him - an abandoned farm high in the Colombian mountains, three hours from the nearest city, and accessible only by a narrow, unpaved road.

As an escape from his past sins, Mr Osorio worked hard to turn the land into a productive coffee plantation.

To help him acquire the necessary skills, the reintegration agency sponsored Mr Osorio to attend classes at the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation.

Mr Osorio has gone on to buy the plantation from its original owner, thanks to a $19,000 (£13,000) bank loan. He now grows and sells 7,000 kg of coffee beans per year.

'Lived in fear'

Joaquin Calle, 44, is another former paramilitary fighter who has benefited from the help of the reintegration agency.

He was third in command of an AUC battalion which terrorised the Comuna 8 district of Medellin until it demobilised in 2003.

image captionJoaquin Calle has swapped guns for gardening

For 15 years all he knew was crime, but after the AUC stood down, he set up a street cleaning and gardening co-operative called The Hill of Values.

Mr Calle says: "When we demobilised we said 'hey, what are we going to do to win back the trust of our communities?'. We decided to clean the streets."

Together with 11 other former AUC fighters, Mr Calle recycles the areas's rubbish, and looks after its green spaces.

"Before I lived in fear, fleeing the authorities, trapped by imaginary borders," he says. "With this project I changed completely.

"It has been 12 years since I demobilised, and I have never picked up another weapon."

image captionThe Hill of Values cooperative has created new green areas in Medellin

Prof William Duncan, of Baker University in Kansas, an expert on entrepreneurship and peacemaking, says that the funding provided by organisations such as ACR is vital, as it "gives people alternatives to violence".

However, Zachary Kaufman, international security fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government says Colombia will still have to "address the underlying problems that caused the conflict in the first place".

Back on his coffee plantation, Mr Osorio says that in order for Colombia to find peace "there has to be forgiveness". He adds: "If not, we aren't going to move forward."