The UN praises the initiative in “a national context that often challenges the implementation of the peace agreement”
Colombia, like many countries, has faced the challenge of finding the necessary medical supplies to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Former FARC guerrillas have wanted to help by converting their workshops into mask factories, as part of their transition to civilian life after more than half a century of armed conflict.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed peace in 2016, with which their more than 13,000 fighters abandoned their hiding places in the jungle, handed over their weapons and concentrated in special camps enabled by the Government to start their new life.
In these four years, the FARC have become the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, a political party with representation in Congress that is led by the former guerrilla leader, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias ‘Timochenko’.
However, the vast majority of former guerrillas have devoted this time to training and starting small businesses. Until last April, the National Council for Reintegration had approved 52 productive projects to receive initial financing and technical assistance with the support of international partners.
Thus, the now entrepreneurs are engaged in activities ranging from craft beer brewing to eco-tourism projects or clothing manufacturing – with parades included – in areas where fighting previously prevailed.
The arrival of the coronavirus in Colombia has meant a new transformation for them. Due to the lack of protection elements, among other medical equipment, seven workshops created by former insurgents to make clothes have decided to start producing masks.
This is the case of the Icononzo workshop, a remote town in central Colombia. Where ponchos were woven before, masks are now sewn. Another workshop in the municipality of Anorí, in Antioquia (northwest), has already donated its first batch to the local authorities, about a thousand masks.
It is “an act of peace,” says Angela Herrera, a local businesswoman who works in the Icononzo workshop, led by former FARC guerrillas. The UN Department of Political Affairs (DPPA), which has echoed the initiative, agrees that it is proof of “its willingness to continue contributing to peace.”
According to the DPPA, in the coming months these workshops aim to expand the production of masks, with the equipment and materials provided by the United Nations Mission in Colombia, to give to the health authorities and the most vulnerable communities.
The UN agency highlights that “the rapid transformation of their production lines to manufacture protective equipment has given them the opportunity to contribute not only to address the immediate public health crisis (…), but also to work to achieve a sustainable economy by creating partnerships with local governments. “
Alessandro Preti, in charge of verifying the reintegration into civilian life of ex-FARC guerrillas in the UN Mission, underlines the “symbolic importance” of this step, since it ratifies the commitment of the former rebels to “peace in the territories, the reconstruction of the social fabric and the promotion of coexistence “.
The United Nations wanted to highlight the fact that “the emergence of COVID-19 and confinement at the national level have made it even more difficult to gain access to markets and guarantee the sustainability of small businesses led by ex-combatants.”
To this must be added “a national context that often challenges the implementation of the peace agreement” due to the “high levels of violence” faced by former guerrillas and communities in the former conflict zones.
Armed groups that survived the peace agreement, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) or the Gulf Clan, as well as FARC dissidents, have unleashed a fight to control the FARC’s territories and their lucrative businesses, including the drug trafficking.
The renewed violence has escalated with social leaders and activists, especially with those who defend the rights of the local population over land and its resources, and with former FARC guerrillas.
At the end of 2019, the UN put 303 social leaders and activists and 173 former rebels killed since the signing of the peace agreement. The Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Indepaz) calculates that so far in 2020 at least 107 and 24 have joined this tragic list, respectively.
The DPPA values that, despite “concerns about the safety of former combatants and their families,” “the achievements of peace have been