Interview | 5/7/2009 12:00:00 AM
“Colombia’s conflict is reaching a tilting point”
Semana International interviewed Nat J. Colletta, international expert on conflict resolution, about the violence in Colombia and what can be learned from the experiences of other countries with similar armed conflicts.
Mr. Colletta spoke to Semana International about the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration International Congress, which was held in Cartagena, Colombia, between the 4th and 6th May. (Part I)
What did you find after presenting an exploratory study on Colombia?
We were looking at the reintegration program and looking at it in Bogotá, in Medellín, and some of the rural areas. We found that is was a very interesting program, we very much liked the emphasis on counseling information. We assume that all we need to do is give these former combatants productive skills or technical skills so they can make a way of life, but in fact there’re a lot of basic life skills, how to use a bank, how to conduct an interview for a job. Plenty of these combatants don’t have those skills. So the life skills program is very attractive and I think that it is something special that Colombia is doing.
Was this the first time you worked in Colombia?
This was the first time we did any research in Colombia. I’ve been to Colombia in a couple of occasions. I worked for the World Bank as you have probably noticed, I did a couple of bank issues there trying to see how we could help with the transition to development in the conflict zones, we did some work on these development projects. But this is the first time I really did some concentrated work in Colombia.
Compared to what you found when you went with the World Bank a few years back and now, what do you think the Colombian government has learned?
I think it’s much better than it was several years ago. Taking just the basic sense of security and if you will, even in Bogotá, it feels safer. In terms of the program, what I really find interesting is the approach the government is taking when they go into these areas. They’re not only providing security in the conflict area but moving very quickly into reestablishing the State, particularly the justice system and the administrative structure. In fact, let me give you a little comparison, that’s the very thing the Taleban do when taking an area, they not only establish security, but they institute law, a predictable justice and legal system, some people may not like it, but its kind of an interesting counter observation. Its important to have this combination, that’s my point, not just security but also the justice and then the administration of basic services.
How would you describe Colombia’s conflict giving your experience in Cambodia, Rwanda, Somalia?
I think they are reaching a tilting point. I don’t want to predict a quick ending, but certainly they move a lot faster to the resolution. I think of that if you look at what I understand is their territorial repossession and the extension of the State.
What lessons from your different studies in different countries, Rwanda, Guatemala, do you think apply to Colombia?
Some of the economic reintegration programs that I’ve seen in other countries could apply to Colombia. A large scale agro-industry to employ former combatants by making them stake holders. This seems to be working in Malaysia, they introduced it when they had a racial conflict between Chinese and Malaysian, they introduced a type of share holder agro-industry and I think this is something that Colombia could think about, particularly in the south where there is large agricultural industrial potential.
You mentioned that the Colombian government is doing right, what is it doing wrong or what are the things it could do better?
Let me put it like that from an economic point of view, they have a tremendous competitor, and that’s the narco industry. People can make a lot more money in the drug industry than being a small regular business man or farmer. So when you are trying to attract combatants that were being rewarded really well, through their relationship to the drug industry, its hard to give an incentive that can compete with that kind of money. Having said that, thought, at the end of the day many of these people, even thought they had been receiving some high remuneration through the narco industry and such, they’re tired of living on the run, they want legitimacy, they want to come back in. So they’re willing to say ‘ok, I’ll forego some earnings here to have a normal job in a normal society’. This is one of the challenges that’s special to Colombia, it is also special to Afghanistan which has huge drug industry.
We Colombians like to see ourselves as exceptional, we think that Colombia’s problems are different, how exceptional is Colombia? Is it an exaggeration?
If you compare it to Afghanistan, it’s not exceptional, because their conflict is being financed by a very lucrative drug trade and that becomes a real issue. Compared to Afghanistan it’s not exceptional, compared to other places, let’s say Sri Lanka, its different because Sri Lanka doesn’t have that problem, and you see what’s happening, they’re running out of resources, out of territory, out of everything. They have no means for financing.