How Do You Turn 57,000 Former Militants Into Model Citizens?

As seen in VICE News:

Hector the one-legged motorcycle mechanic hands me a cup of coffee and motions for me to follow him.

He leads me away from his busy garage, where about a dozen guys are working, and we climb a narrow set of stairs to a tiny apartment on the second floor where Hector — he asked me not to use his real name — lives with his wife and a rotating cast of extended family members. By the time I make it to the top of the stairs, he’s already sitting at a dining table that doubles as a desk and is two drags into a cigarette. It’s hard to believe he uses a battered prosthesis in place of his left leg.

The leg, Hector tells me, was blown off in a shootout with Colombian police a decade ago, when Hector was part of a death squad. In fact, up until a few years ago, Hector was a member of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), Colombia’s notorious right-wing paramilitary organization. The AUC’s first cell was formed in 1997 by Carlos, Vicente, and Fidel Castaño Gil, three brothers whose father, Jesus, had been kidnapped and murdered by Marxist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Jesus Castaño was a victim of the FARC’s 50-year fight  to remake Colombia as a Marxist-Leninist state. (Though peace talks continue in Havana, the conflict, which has claimed 220,000 lives, is ongoing.) A peasant army founded in 1964, the FARC has been responsible for thousands of killings, disappearances, and assorted atrocities. People who crossed the rebels had their mouths sewn shut with wire. Women who fraternized with anyone considered to be “the enemy” have been raped as punishment. Children have been forced to participate in the executions of other children.

The AUC also exhibited stunning brutality while carrying out its stated mission to protect Colombia’s landowners and businesspeople from FARC (and also from people who sympathized with the FARC, people who were suspected of sympathizing with the FARC, people who lived in towns that sympathized with the FARC, journalists, politicians, union members, and many others). AUC paramilitaries have quartered people alive. They’ve hacked fetuses to death with machetes. They’ve used human heads as soccer balls.

Hector said he joined the AUC because “That’s just what you did in my neighborhood.” The organization collectively demobilized in 2006 under an agreement with then-President Alvaro Uribe. So many people were involved in the demobilization that processing them all through the criminal justice system would have taken more than 100 years.


Hector in his shop. Photo by Ronald de Hommel.

Instead, Colombian authorities tried something radical. Top AUC commanders charged with human rights abuses and international drug trafficking — an important source of income for all combatants in this fight — were extradited to the United States for trial. Mid-level leaders were given lenient sentences not to exceed eight years, and ground-level troops like Hector received full amnesty from prosecution, provided they agreed to participate in a multi-year reintegration program that would allow them to adapt to civilian life.

The program is run by the Agencia Colombiana para la Reintegración (ACR), a government entity that answers to the president. Participants are required to attend psychosocial, vocational, and educational training sessions; they receive a monthly stipend of about $270 for doing so. (It is intentionally less than Colombia’s $333 monthly minimum wage to prevent anyone from viewing it as a salary.)

The government gave Hector about $4,000 in seed money to get his business started, and he now hopes to expand. Soon, he’ll have a hearing before a judge. If he agrees that Hector has kept up his end of the bargain, Hector will be declared “reintegrated,” and his supervision by the state will end.

* * *

Since 2002, the Colombian government has managed to disarm and demobilize roughly 57,000 of the combatants on both sides of the fighting. The ACR claims to have had an astonishing success rate over the past 12 years, managing to blend about 35,000 ex-combatants from the right-wing paramilitary organizations and 22,000 leftist guerrillas from the FARC and its various spinoffs into Colombian society. A fair number of those people were never even part of society to begin with, having grown up in jungle camps.

Before I’m cleared to enter the ACR’s bureau in downtown Medellin, I’m wanded with a metal detector by security, who then search my bag for weapons. The photographer accompanying me is told to disassemble his camera and lenses, so the guard can see if he’s hidden an explosive device inside.

Juan Pablo Estrada is waiting for me in his office. The straightforward Estrada is the head of psychosocial services for the ACR. In his jean jacket, he vaguely reminds me of a Breakfast Club-era Emilio Estevez.

“It costs $2,500 a year to reintegrate an ex-combatant, and $7,000 a year to keep an ex-combatant in prison,” Estrada tells me. “To kill one would cost $125,000. However, I don’t think anyone believes this is a viable option.”

At first, explains Estrada, ex-combatants were given some money and a few perfunctory social services, and then left to their own devices.

“We dealt with these people like criminals, but it was a mistake to think like that,” he says. “After a while, we started finding out that 70 percent of these people were recruited when they were under the age of 18, and we realized, ‘Okay, maybe we’re not dealing strictly with criminals, maybe these are actually vulnerable people who need help.'”


A school for ex-combatants in Medellin. Photo by Ronald de Hommel.

A caseworker tells me about helping one ex-combatant open his first-ever bank account. He was issued an ATM card and told to safeguard it, as it was “very important.” To him, that meant laminating it, which immediately rendered the card useless. Another ex-combatant in his 20s had never written his own name before. When it was suggested he copy it from the driver’s license the ACR had helped him get, he began writing down Republica de Col before his caseworker corrected him. Others have to be taught how to conduct simple transactions in stores, having grown accustomed to wielding weapons and simply being given whatever they wanted by terrified shopkeepers.

People with stable home lives are less likely to return to their old criminal ways, Estrada tells me. This is important enough to the reintegration process that caseworkers ensure it happens, whatever the circumstances.

“Some ex-combatants have more than one wife,” Estrada says. “In those cases, we work with both families.”

* * *

With a handful of exceptions, the reintegrated ex-combatants have been ground-level fighters. But recently, that’s begun to change. Under the terms of 2005’s Justice and Peace law, AUC commanders who admitted to their crimes, participated in truth-telling sessions, made restitution to victims, and vowed not to return to a life of crime were promised sentences no longer than eight years. Six have been released since the end of 2013. Nearly 200 more are eligible for release.

These people are responsible for some of Colombia’s most ferocious violence. Iván Laverde Zapata , a.k.a. “El Iguano,” is one of them. The former commander of the AUC’s Bloque Catatumbo, which operated near Colombia’s border with Venezuela, Zapata confessed to ordering or taking part in at least 3,000 killings of, as he said, “anyone who smelled like a guerrilla.” This included a gubernatorial candidate, a public defender, and a mayor. He was known for incinerating victims in an artisanal tobacco-drying oven on his Norte de Santander farm.

Edward Cobos Tellez, a.k.a. “Diego Vecino,” is another. He commanded the AUC’s Bloque Héroes de los Montes de María, in the states of Sucre and Bolivar, and ispersonally responsible for more than 2,000 crimes, including 135 homicides, 165 disappearances, 138 cases of sexual abuse, 141 instances of sexual slavery, 244 extortion attempts, 144 acts of terrorism, and 384 drug-related crimes.

Jesus Ignacio Roldan Perez, a.k.a. “El Mono Leche,” a former lieutenant to the AUC’s founding Castaño brothers, is also up for release. He was responsible for numerous killings, the most notorious being the 2004 assassination of his former boss, Carlos Castaño — a hit ordered by Carlos’s brother, Vicente.

Iván Roberto Duque Gaviria, a.k.a. “Ernesto Baez,” headed the AUC’s Bloque Central Bolívar, and was responsible for the AUC’s political activities. Duque was behind the murder of a union leader in 2001 and sentenced to 36 years in prison, but under the guidelines of the Justice and Peace law, he’s eligible for release as well. His former compatriot, Rodrigo Perez Alzate, a.k.a. “Julian Bolívar,” has confessed to being personally responsible for 45 murders. He is also eligible to be set free.

The list goes on. However, none of those released will be completely off the hook when they walk out of prison. All will be required to complete the entire course of ACR reintegration programs and check in with their caseworker every day (two of those check-ins per week have to be in person). Not unlike being on parole, any deviation from the straight-and-narrow means serving out the full terms of their sentences.

This is an important moment in Colombian history, says Louise Winstanley, Programme and Advocacy Manager at human rights group ABColombia. These are people who committed extremely serious human rights abuses, and there is a considerable amount of anxiety within the communities to which the men will be returning.

“Women testified against these people, priests testified against them, but there’s no real, clear plan on the part of the government as to how these witnesses will be protected when the commanders are released,” Winstanley tells me.


A garden center run by, and employing, ex-combatants in Medellin’s Comuna Ocho. Photo by Ronald de Hommel.

She says some of the commanders’ former underlings have joined reconstituted criminal syndicates, adding another potentially violent twist to the upcoming releases. Some of the commanders are actually concerned for their own safety once they’re out of prison.

“They really don’t seem to know how the people who took over the criminal enterprises they left behind — the former middle-ranking commanders who continued in their absences — will look upon their release,” Winstanley says.

Although former combatants are generally assumed to be perpetrators of violent crime, they are also among the victims. In 2010, Colombia’s National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (CNRR) described violence against the demobilized as a “humanitarian crisis.” Enzo Nussio, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Los Andes in Bogotá, found that 1,385 ex-paramilitary members were killed between 2003 and 2010. Last year, 228 ex-combatants going through the reintegration process were murdered.

According to the Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia of the Organisation of American States (MAPP-OEA), the demobilized also face “harassment, threats, [and] displacement” at the hands of newly formed gangs, as well as by old associates who might be looking to keep someone quiet or settle a score.

Hector, the motorcycle mechanic, knows all about it. The shop at which we meet is actually his second. A group of former rivals busted into his first garage and stole everything — his bikes, his tools, his money. He didn’t have insurance.

* * *

Score-settling between certain ex-combatants aside, ACR Director Alejandro Eder (he has left his position at ACR since our interview) insists that 8 out of 10 don’t re-offend. By comparison, he says the recidivism rate for ex-convicts getting out of Colombian prisons hovers near 70 percent.

Still, such “alternative sentencing” has been criticized by some as too lenient, and there are complaints that paramilitary commanders were able to hide and retain much of their wealth. To many Colombians, the deals offered are viewed as too soft for people they believe ripped Colombian society apart.

Eder does not see it that way. Over the years, the 38-year-old cabinet-level minister has been deeply affected by the ongoing battle in Colombia. His grandfather was kidnapped and killed by FARC rebels in 1965 — he is said to be the FARC’s first kidnapping victim — and more than a dozen other family members were kidnapped in the years following. Eder spent a few years working on Wall Street, but he couldn’t shake the sense that he needed to be a part of the peace process back home. After getting a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, he returned to Colombia. In 2010, he was appointed the ACR’s director by President Juan Manuel Santos.

Not everyone in Eder’s family was particularly happy about that.

“This is a very emotional subject — we have been at war for over 50 years,” Eder says. “But the reintegration process is something we have to do as Colombians; it’s the only way we can move forward as a country.”

Many of the demobilized are in business for themselves, and there’s a reason for that. Eder says ex-combatants have an extremely difficult time finding work since they are largely viewed as criminals. A tax credit of about $340 is available to businesses for each ex-combatant they hire, and surveys have found that 40 percent to 50 percent of Colombian businesses say they would be willing to hire ex-combatants. But Eder tells me no company has yet stepped up on a large scale.

Those lucky enough to find jobs sometimes lose them quickly. One ex-combatant tells me he owned up to his past life after he was hired, only to be let go the next day. I hear this same basic story from many people.

There are currently two ex-combatants working in each of the ACR’s 34 offices across Colombia, and Alvaro Gonzalez, the head of the ACR’s Cartagena field office, says they plan to increase this to eight by year’s end. But that still only provides jobs for 272 people. So the ACR partnered with a group of Colombian corporations and trade groups, USAID, and the International Organization for Migration — many ex-combatants are in fact “displaced people,” as they must be relocated for their own safety after demobilizing — to create a chain of convenience stores, called Minimarket 2×3. (In Colombian slang, “2×3” means something akin to “ASAP.”)

Five 2x3s have been opened so far; 15 are planned. The newest opened in Cartagena last December. It’s a tidy neighborhood shop, seemingly no different from any other Latin American tienda. But rather than a mom and pop, this one is operated by a trio of demobilized fighters. They don’t advertise the fact that they are ex-combatants —neighbors can be touchy about such things — although the three of them say they haven’t encountered any overt hostility.


A demobilized paramilitary fighter at the 2×3 he co-owns in Cartagena. Photo by Justin Rohrlich

An experienced manager is on-site while they get up and running. Meanwhile, the ACR and various corporate and NGO partners provide a financial safety net and ongoing training. After negotiating a deal with the local gas company, the three expanded the shop to include a coin Laundromat, something Alvaro tells me is a new market segment in Colombia, where people rent washing machines by the day. In June, the partners invested in a flatscreen TV, which they hung on the wall so people from the neighborhood could watch the World Cup.

The store is technically owned by a group of Colombian businesses called Fenalco right now, though after two years, the three ex-combatants will own the store outright, paying royalties to their corporate backers, much like if they were franchisees of, say, a 7-11.

Carlos hasn’t heard from his former commander, who has spent the past eight years locked up in Barranquilla, about an hour away. He doesn’t expect trouble upon his release, insisting, “War is over in Colombia.” Whether or not that turns out to be so, he says returning to a life of crime, at least for his commander, is kind of pointless.

“He’ll be enjoying his freedom with all the money he has hidden away,” Carlos says. “He has a lot of it, and he won’t want to ruin the rest of his life.”

* * *

Unlike the AUC, whose members all collectively demobilized in one fell swoop, FARC leaders have resisted a similar deal. Thus, any guerrilla demobilizations, including those from the FARC’s much smaller and less-famous cousin, the National Liberation Army (ELN), have been the result of individual desertions. Eder says about five people voluntarily demobilize each day, which last yearresulted in more than 1,000 people leaving the FARC and about 300 deserting the ELN. Seventy-five percent of those deserters were completely or functionally illiterate, and 90 percent were suffering from some sort of psychological trauma.

After 20 years of increased efforts by the Colombian government to shut down rebel forces — with a major assist from the Clinton Administration’s “Plan Colombia” and the $8 billion in American military aid that came with it — their numbers have dwindled from 18,000 in 2010 to fewer than 8,000 today. The leaders of the FARC still consider themselves to be in an active fight, which is why they consider the ACR’s reintegration efforts to be a weapon of war. If they voluntarily surrender to Colombian officials, recruits are told, they and their families will be hunted down and killed by the FARC. To protect those who manage to escape, the Colombian government puts them into a witness protection-style program for an initial three-month period.

During this time, they live in a hogar de paz, or, “peace home.” When I ask to see one, I find that the request causes a bit of consternation among my minders, since each of the country’s five hogares de paz are technically military installations run by the Ministry of Defense. They are filled with men and women who have bounties on their heads, and Colombian authorities are extremely serious about the need for secrecy.

I am told that photographs are out of the question, and the names and identifying details of anyone to whom I speak must be changed. Specifics about the location are strictly prohibited, and I agree to reveal only that it is “somewhere a few hours outside Medellin.” We arrive in a government vehicle, and a soldier checks IDs against a list of scheduled visitors at the front gate. My passport details are recorded by an official, after which a guard goes through the rules and restrictions once more for good measure. We are escorted onto the grounds by two Colombian Army officers in civilian clothes, which they wear to ease the nerves of the 65 or so current residents.

This particular hogar de paz was once a resort owned by a local narcotics trafficker, and it reminds me of Mount Airy Lodge in the Poconos — circa 1977. The resort was confiscated by the Colombian government during a drug bust a while back, and the Ministry of Defense re-purposed the place for its current use. A swimming pool sits unused near the outdoor dining patio (recreational use is permitted on weekends), a faded sound system is stashed behind an abandoned bar, an old disco ball hangs glumly from the ceiling over a long-retired dance floor that now serves as a meeting area.

The ex-guerrillas get hot meals, warm beds, and — since 90 percent of ex-combatants have mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or both — rigorous psychological support. They are debriefed and questioned about the FARC’s inner workings during intense interviews; the authorities need to make sure they aren’t unknowingly admitting infiltrators planning sabotage. They also take care to screen out those who have committed crimes against humanity. If a deserter has too much blood on his hands, he must be tried in a court of law.

There is a nursery for children, and a full slate of health services are provided. Accommodations are even made for spouses. I meet a man who came to join his wife, a stout peroxide blonde with tattooed knuckles who abandoned her FARC post weeks earlier.

“These people have been told for years that if they turn themselves in to us, that we will torture them,” Eder tells me. “A popular myth is that we will fly them a mile up in a helicopter and drop them to the ground. So when we take them in, we really try to embrace them as much as we can.”

Ex-combatants live two to a room, and the experience can be discombobulating. A lot of the people here were children when they were recruited. I meet people in their 20s and 30s who are just now entering first grade. One 25 year old I mean was recruited at the age of 11, spent more than a dozen years in the bush, and has never before slept in anything but a hammock. One caseworker tells me it’s not unusual for staff members to find themselves teaching adults how to make a bed, or explaining the concept of hot water flowing from a tap. Many still ask for permission to go to the bathroom, since that’s what you do in the FARC.

I sit down for a more intimate chat with a few freshly demobilized guerrillas on what used to be the resort’s indoor/outdoor dance floor. I’m curious if joining the FARC was an ideological decision. There is no pay for rebels. Some are there for “the cause,” many are forcibly enlisted against their will. Most Western countries recognize them not as members of a legitimate fighting force, but rather as membersof a terrorist organization.

A man in his mid-twenties named Nelson tells me he did, in fact, join because he believed in the FARC’s socialist message. But he quickly became disenchanted. The discipline was brutal, tropical diseases were commonplace, and Nelson began to feel that his sacrifice would never make a difference.

“The FARC said they are fighting inequality,” he says. “But there was so much inequality even within the organization. I thought, If they can’t even achieve their goal in their own group, then how will they ever do it nationwide?”

Most ex-combatants didn’t even have Nelson’s level of belief in the cause. Everyone cited some combination of unemployment, boredom, and coercion when telling me what brought them to the FARC. One of them joined after watching four members of his family get executed by the AUC. Another joined at the age of 14 after she was promised a salary and gold jewelry for her family, which never materialized. Her mother showed up at the camp two hours from her village and begged the commander to let her daughter leave. The daughter was told that if she left, her entire family would be killed. She stayed for five years.

“I decided to try and get used to it,” she says.

No one I meet had ever attended school. So as not to hold up their new lives any longer than necessary, the ACR has devised a system that allows participants to complete the equivalent of two (and in certain cases, three) academic years in 12 months. Although they still have a long way to go before they’re fully integrated into mainstream society, they seem excited about the future. A reedy man in his early twenties spent seven years in the FARC and has never before used a computer — but he has his heart set on a career in IT. The young man sitting next to him says he’s good with his hands, and wants to work with heavy machinery. Another dreams of becoming a secretary.

The number of ex-FARC guerrillas passing through these doors may soon grow substantially. Peace talks between FARC leadership and the Colombian government are entering their third year, and they’ve tried and failed at this three times already. However, if an agreement materializes, as many as 8,000 FARC combatants will in theory need to be reintegrated into society. In reality, that number may be closer to 30,000 when factoring in family members and support networks.

Eder says the ACR is ready. The organization gets some help from international NGOs, but not a whole lot. The upside is that methods and approaches can be tweaked on the fly. Eder tells me the ratio of ACR caseworkers to ex-combatants has gone from 1 for every 200 in 2006, to 1 for every 40 today.

* * *

Ana Maria and Luis met while they were active in the FARC, but didn’t become a couple until after they deserted their unit in 2008. Since that time, they have completed their reintegration processes, gotten married, and started a business.

I’m headed to the small grocery store they run together in the Montes de Maria region. The area has a bloody past, and Alvaro Gonzalez, the head of the ACR’s Cartagena field office and my guide for the day, tells me that outsiders are still viewed with suspicion here. Gonzalez says that some of the area is still seeded with FARC land mines, then points out a monument commemorating the infamous El Salado massacre of February 2000, during which as many as 100 unarmed townspeople, accused by the AUC’s Northern Bloc of being guerrilla collaborators, were publicly tortured, raped, and killed over the course of four days.

We arrive at a tin-roofed shack, which sits on a dirt road on the outskirts of a town that is on the outskirts of the outskirts to begin with. The tienda is up front, and was financed with seed money from the ACR. Ana Maria and Luis live in a room behind the store with their two children, sharing two twin beds between the four of them. It’s a tight fit, but the stereo in the corner is top-of-the-line, there’s a washing machine out back, and as Luis proudly points out, they used to rent across the street, but they now own the place we’re standing in. (The ACR has found that those who own a home are 90 percent less likely to return to violence.)


A demobilized FARC guerrilla standing in front of a bench he made, for a park he helped renovate, in Montes de Maria. Photo by Justin Rohrlich

Luis relaxes in a hammock while Ana Maria sets out folding chairs. She breastfeeds their newborn baby while two rickety dogs and a kitten compete for what’s left of her attention.

Luis says he was motivated to join the FARC because he agreed with their politics, but he doesn’t sound particularly passionate now. Ana Maria’s story is more complicated. To say that she joined the FARC would be misleading. Her older brother was a sub-commander with the FARC’s Frente 37, or 37th Front, and when Ana Maria was 11, he invited her to come visit him at his base in the northern Montes de Maria region. She hadn’t seen him in a long time and was excited for the visit. The plan was for her to go home at the end of the day, but when the end of the day came, he told her if she tried to leave, he’d kill her. She stayed for 12 years — though she never spoke to her brother again.

I quickly do the math. If Ana Maria deserted in 2008, she is now 29. When I met and saw her, I assumed she was at least 40.

From their description, life in the FARC sounds like it was, above all else, exceedingly boring. Luis spent most of his time on guard duty and patrol; Ana Maria guarded the camp and received some training as a nurse. Tens of thousands of hostages have been taken by the FARC over the years to raise money through ransoms, as well as to use as bargaining chips. I know that Montes de Maria was one of the FARC’s main stash spots for hostages. I ask them about it.

“Do you know the businessman from Cartagena?” Ana Maria asks casually.

She’s referring to a prominent Cartagena executive named Fernando Araujo, who served as President Andres Pastrana’s Minister of Development from 1998 to 2002. He was kidnapped off a Cartagena street in December 2000 by members of Frente 37 and held hostage for more than six years.

He was finally able to escape during an operation by the Colombian military, though he wasn’t rescued immediately. In the ensuing chaos after the army’s initial attack, Araujo fled with a machete into the surrounding bush. For five days, he bushwhacked through the jungle trying to make his way to civilization. He had no food, and drank water from the leaves of plants. Finally, a sympathetic farmer helped Araujo reach a nearby military post, which brought an end to his ordeal.

The world passed Araujo by while he was in captivity. When he gave a press conference a few days after his release, he couldn’t figure out why everyone was trying to hand him their cell phones. They were, of course, only taking his picture, but when he was abducted in 2000, phones didn’t have cameras in them. He also didn’t know where his wife was. She was pregnant when he was kidnapped, but when he returned to Cartagena six years later, he learned that she had divorced him during his captivity and remarried.

Ana Maria tells me that she kept constant watch over Araujo in the jungle with aNorinco 5.56, a Chinese cousin to the AK-47.

“We guarded him at all times, but he wasn’t tied up or anything like that,” she says, refilling my glass with strawberry Postobon, the cloyingly sweet national soft drink of Colombia. “We talked. He told me about his wife, his sons.”

One of the things former hostages often discuss is the sheer boredom of captivity. Araujo has, however, said that he was treated well, since FARC hostages are “merchandise that they don’t want damaged.” None of what occurred seemed strange at the time, Ana Maria tells me.

“He knew we were just following orders,” she says of Araujo, when I ask what she imagines would happen if she ever saw him again. “I don’t think he would be angry with me personally.”

According to Ana Maria, one of the other people in her unit — there were 12 of them — managed to meet with Araujo some years later in Bogota, where Araujo was serving as President Alvaro Uribe’s Foreign Minister after receiving the appointment a few weeks after his escape.

“But,” Ana Maria says, “I don’t know what happened after that.”

Few people do. For privacy and security reasons, the details of that meeting are kept vague. But as Eder tells me, after Araujo’s former captor contacted him, the two developed a strong bond. Araujo has become a father figure of sorts to the man, who was just a boy when their lives intersected in the jungle.

“They developed a real bond during those six-and-a-half years,” Eder says. “I mean, he watched this kid grow up.” According to Eder, the wealthy Araujo continues to help the young man financially.

Which, in a way, is what the FARC has been fighting for all along.

* * *

Something about Colombia’s reintegration plan must be working, because foreign governments dealing with their own integration issues routinely visit the country for training sessions with ACR personnel. In recent years, delegates from Burundi, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Korea, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka have made trips, and ACR staff have traveled to Turkey to consult.

If you aren’t actively looking for ex-combatants, you probably won’t ever encounter one. Or, more accurately, you won’t know you have. The demobilized are in no hurry to reveal themselves, and crime is no longer as acute a problem in Colombia as it was in years past. In 1993, the yearly murder rate in Bogota was 81 per 100,000 residents. Today, it’s 16.7. (Chicago’s is 18.5.) In 1991, Medellin’s murder rate was 381 per 100,000 people. Today, it’s 34. Cali still sees 90 homicides per 100,000, but it’s an improvement over the 1993 rate of 104 per 100,000.

There have been hiccups. Colombia’s nearly 6 million recognized victims are still waiting for full reparations. The cost of making them whole has been estimated at $27 billion, of which a meager $100 million has been received over the past decade. English-language news site Colombia Reports says 462 ex-paramilitary members and 353 ex-FARC guerrillas “have not paid a single peso to the victim’s fund.” People who were forced off their land by rebel groups have tried to reclaim it under a 2011 Victims Law, but according to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of them have been threatened with violence — 363 of whom were found to be at “extraordinary risk” by the Colombian government’s National Protection Unit (UNP) last year.

The FARC has launched hundreds of attacks on Colombia’s energy infrastructure over the past several years; in July, the group bombed electric pylons and tankers full of crude oil in the southwest of the country. President Juan Manuel Santos threatened to cut off all talks, warning the FARC leadership that they were “playing with fire.” FARC leaders have also voiced some reluctance to turn in their weapons after signing a peace accord. The bulk of the FARC’s leadership is wanted in the US on drug trafficking charges, and FARC leaders have said they will not demobilize without a non-extradition guarantee. The ex-FARC rebels I spoke to at the hogar de paz all agreed that the drug trade is too lucrative for the FARC to give up. And 12 victims recently testified at peace talks in Havana, saying they were against an “impunity exchange” in which rebels would be granted immunity for their crimes, like the deal the paramilitaries got.

Still, Colombian government peace negotiators and FARC representatives have already agreed on three points of a six-point agenda: land restitution, political participation for the FARC in the Colombian government, and reining in the drug trafficking. In September, the FARC announced that it would create a reparations fund for victims of the conflict, which would take care of the fourth point, leaving onlydisarmament and the way in which an actual peace deal would be implemented as the fifth and sixth.

As both sides have said, “Nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon.”