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Colombia Faces A Challenge: Turn FARC Guerrillas Into Civilians


We're learning how hard it is to end a culture of war. In Colombia, a new peace treaty means Marxist rebels are preparing to disarm by the end of May. The group known as the FARC has been at war with the government for more than 50 years. And now 7,000 battle-hardened rebels are supposed to transform into civilians. John Otis reports.


JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Near the village of Conejo in northern Colombia, bulldozers flatten an area the size of three football fields. Government contractors are building a so-called demobilization zone. In the coming weeks, about 250 FARC guerrillas will gather here as they prepare to hand in their weapons to U.N. inspectors.

NIXON LEGUIZAMON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Project foreman Nixon Leguizamon says his crew will install bunkhouses, kitchens, bathrooms and a health clinic. They're also building wells.

But this site and about two dozen other demobilization zones were supposed to have been finished weeks ago. There had been delays securing rights to the land. The logistics are also tricky. Many of the zones are being built near traditional guerrilla strongholds in remote mountains and jungles. The integrity of the peace process took another hit on New Year's Eve.

At a party near Conejo, several U.N. inspectors were caught on video dancing cheek to cheek with FARC guerrillas. Critics charged that, instead of serving as neutral monitors, U.N. personnel had grown too close to the rebels. It's not the carousing that concerns Conejo cattle rancher Jose Molina. He's concerned about what lies ahead.

JOSE MOLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "During the war," Molina says, "the guerillas stole my cattle. They kidnapped my father and my father-in-law."

MOLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: While pleased that the fighting has ended and that he can now return to his ranch, Molina predicts that newly demobilized guerrillas who lack education and job skills could end up forming criminal gangs. Should that happen, the Colombian armed forces are prepared, says Sergio Jaramillo, the government's peace commissioner.


SERGIO JARAMILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At a news conference, Jaramillo said FARC members will receive benefits like job training and health care. But he added, rebels who do not take part in the peace process will face the full force of the law. But, at least for now in Conejo, peace seems to be taking hold.


OTIS: At this FARC camp in the nearby foothills, rebels kill time playing volleyball. They wear civilian clothes. Hardly anyone carries a gun.

ALIRIO CORDOBA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Despite all of the delays and problems, camp commander Alirio Cordoba insists that the FARC will honor its pledge to hand over all of its weapons by June 1.


OTIS: To help move things forward, some of the rebels are working alongside civilians, building the demobilization zone. Just down the road at a military checkpoint, Colombian army troops have also assumed a new role.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Soldiers are now under orders to protect the guerrillas as they prepare to disarm. So says Cpl. Luis Alberto Wilches, who has fought against the FARC for 15 years.

LUIS ALBERTO WILCHES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "It's been a tremendous change for us," he says. "But we soldiers have the most at stake in bringing the war to an end. This is something that's very good."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Conejo, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.