The Post-Conflict in Barranquilla: Progress and Challenges

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shakes hands with Rodrigo Londoño Timoshenko of FARC in Havana, Cuba.

With the extension of peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, the government’s recent announcement to begin official negotiations with the ELN and subsequent demonstrations by supporters of Senator Álvaro Uribe against both peace processes, Barranquilla has been bustling with chatter about the transition to an eventual post-conflict scenario. The government has singled out the Department of Atlántico as a “priority” for peacebuilding; last November, Mayor Alex Char famously affirmed that Barranquilla is “prepared” for the post-conflict.

But what is actually being done in the city to move from conflict to post-conflict? And what are some of the obstacles that stand in the way?

Central to the project of breaking the cycle of violence is helping combatants transition from the enterprise of war to productive activities in civil society. Through its regional office in Atlántico, the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR) is trying to do precisely that by reintegrating ex-combatants into the fabric civilian life in Barranquilla.

According to statistics released by the ACR, there are currently 366 people undergoing the reintegration process in Atlántico. Of these, 283 used to fight for the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC); 48 for the FARC; 28 for the ELN; and 7 in “other” groups. An additional 459 ex-combatants have successfully completed the program and currently reside in the department, with more than half reportedly living in Barranquilla.

The majority of people in the process of reintegration in Atlántico are men between the ages of 26 and 40; ensuring that these individuals find meaningful employment is critical in preventing them from relapsing into violence or transitioning into criminal activities. However, ex-combatants are often ostracized and excluded from equal competition in the workplace. A recent poll conducted by the commercial union UNDECO reveals that 98% of merchants in Barranquilla are unwilling to hire former combatants. Andrés Eduardo Echeverría, coordinator for the ACR in Atlántico, expressed in an interview with El Tiempo that the “great challenge” is “overcoming the stigmatization associated with people in the process of reinsertion.”

With this problem in mind, The ACR has partnered with USAID, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the National Federation of Merchants (Fenalco) to promote employment of ex-combatants. These efforts have had some success in Barranquilla, such as the establishment of a chain of supermarkets operated by former combatants and the participation of 35 companies in a project to include demobilized persons in the workforce.

Another issue at stake in the city is that of reconciliation between former combatants and victims of the armed conflict. According to Paula Gaviria, director of the Victims Unit, there are approximately 80,000 registered victims currently living in Barranquilla. The ACR has collaborated with this body to create cultural and social spaces for reconciliation, including a comparsa (carnival group) in which ex-combatants and victims of the armed conflict dance together as an expression of peace and reconciliation.

The focus on reintegrating former combatants is an important step in closing the wounds of an armed conflict infamously recognized as Latin America’s longest-running civil war. However, little is being done to rein in an ongoing phenomenon that is certainly undermining peace efforts in Colombia: political violence not directly linked to the FARC, ELN or AUC. In fact, despite the media’s recent focus on the ‘end of the conflict,’ the incidence of politically motivated killings—primarily targeting unionists, social leaders, human rights activists and victims of the armed conflict—actually increased across the country by 35% in the last year, according to a report published by the Conflict Analysis Resource Center. And Barranquilla has been far from immune to such events.

On March 1st, the Barranquilla office of the national labor union Anthoc received a package containing the severed head of a dog accompanied by a threatening letter singling out eight union members as targets. Exactly one month later, a letter addressed to members of the Communist Party in Barranquilla and signed by the neo-paramilitary formation Águilas Negras (Black Eagles) warned party members to vacate the city within two weeks. Further threats have been directed at students, unionists and human rights organizations at the Universidad del Atlántico, according to a statement released by the university on the evening of April 2nd. The public ombudsman has repeatedly warned of the threat posed to social leaders and activists in Barranquilla by neo-paramilitary groups, which are not included in the government’s peace talks or reintegration agenda. The persistence of these incidents is a reminder that it will take more than a focus on the combatants traditionally associated with Colombia’s civil war to promote enduring peace.

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Mathilda is a graduate student in Spanish at the University of Virginia. She is currently living in Barranquilla, where she works as a Fulbright English teaching assistant at the Universidad del Atlántico. Having studied Spanish and Persian, Mathilda’s research interests are focused on comparing conflict and development dynamics in Colombia and Afghanistan.