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Originally published January 14, 2012 at 8:52 PM | Page modified January 14, 2012 at 8:52 PM

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Former Colombia rebels lured into crime rings

Thousands of former combatants in Colombia's long-running conflict who surrendered their weapons to the government have since discovered unemployment, and some have found work as kidnappers, drug runners and hit men.

The Associated Press

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Thousands of former combatants in Colombia's long-running conflict who surrendered their weapons to the government have since discovered the downside to civilian life: unemployment.

From both sides of the old battle lines, former right-wing militiamen and leftist rebels are being lured into jobs as kidnappers, drug runners and hit men for emerging crime rings — a new security threat that ranks among the biggest challenges confronting President Juan Manuel Santos' government.

Former rebel Sabas Duque, who uses a wheelchair because he was partially paralyzed in a shooting, now helps run a Bogotá workshop that teaches craft-making with papier-mâché and fabric. But he knows plenty of other ex-fighters who have left their jobs and drifted back to gunslinging.

"It's easy and that's what you know how to do," said Duque, 43.

Since 2003, about 54,000 fighters have agreed to give up their weapons, many receiving cash benefits and other aid in exchange. Most belonged to far-right militias that disbanded under a peace pact with the government in which their leaders were offered reduced prison sentences.

The government is still providing assistance to about 32,000 of them, including at least 6,000 who found jobs. But the rest of the former fighters either died or have been expelled from the program for criminal behavior, according to the Colombian Reintegration Agency.

The monthly government check is about $170, often less than a quarter of what crime rings pay a hired gun, analysts say.

The new groups thrive on cocaine trafficking and other crimes, and go by names such as Los Rastrojos (The Remains) and Las Aguilas Negras (The Black Eagles). They include some ex-rebels but far more former members of the right-wing forces known as paramilitaries.

Sometimes, former ideological rivals are teaming up for mutual criminal benefit, authorities say.

"What we've noticed is that guerrillas, former paramilitaries and common criminals are getting together" to commit ransom kidnappings or extortion, said Gen. Humberto Guatibonza, who heads the police anti-kidnapping unit.

The paramilitaries were first formed in the 1980s to defend ranchers and drug traffickers against rebel extortion, and later evolved into armed bands that often operated in concert with the military. At least 55 percent of the fighters who have disarmed came from paramilitary groups, officials said.

But human-rights groups say many paramilitaries never disarmed, ignoring the peace pact their leaders made with the government of former President Álvaro Uribe.

"The groups that have emerged after the demobilization of paramilitary organizations constitute the greatest threat to the rule of law and the protection of human rights in Colombia," said Christian Salazar, representative for the Colombia office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"These groups maintain a strong presence in much of the country, and they're a principal source of violence," Salazar told reporters in early December.

Colombia now has at least seven organized criminal bands with a total of 8,000-10,000 members, of which 20-25 percent are estimated to be ex-combatants, according to the think tank Nuevo Arco Iris. The police, on the other hand, recognize six groups and say they have about 5,000 members.

Former paramilitary Duvan Barato, 38, has gone back to college to study psychology and is optimistic he has made a clean break from the days when he made a living demanding extortion money from ranchers. But some of his former comrades-in-arms who earned college degrees are struggling to land jobs.

The government provides job training for participants in fields such as cooking and carpentry, and also offers counseling and remedial education programs.

Barato and others have their tuition paid by the government, and job-placement assistance is also provided.

But the men often face other challenges. Many are ostracized by co-workers and others who learn about their previous lives.

"They don't see us as people who can contribute," Barato said. "I've been fortunate. I haven't felt that rejection and that stigma."

Duque, the former rebel, said many ex-militants aren't responsible enough to hold down jobs. Seven of them, including both former rebels and paramilitary fighters, left their jobs at the workshop where Duque teaches craft-making. He is the only one left.

The country's main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, continues to fight the government with an estimated 9,000 fighters, down from about twice that number in 2000.

Despite the problems, the governments of both Uribe and Santos have called the demobilization program a success. It met its goal of getting tens of thousands to disarm. Government officials deny any increases in crime rates in recent years.

In fact, Colombia's murder rate has declined by more than half, from more than 70 homicides per 100,000 people at the beginning of the last decade to 33 in 2010, according to a recent report on homicide by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

The organization Pais Libre, however, says crimes including kidnapping are on the rise. The group said there were at least 177 kidnappings reported in the first half of 2011, up from 131 during the same period in 2010.

Some experts say the flaws in the Uribe government's peace pact with the paramilitaries included a failure to identify and target midlevel commanders, not just their bosses.

"The midlevel commanders continue to be in the same business," said Carlos Espitia, an analyst with the Bogotá-based Institute of Studies for Development and Peace. In a study earlier this year, the organization found that when paramilitary groups partially broke up, some of the midlevel commanders went on to lead new criminal gangs and recruited former comrades.

They cite Pedro Guerrero, alias "Cuchillo" or "Knife," a former paramilitary commander who demobilized in 2006 but then went on to form a powerful crime ring. He was killed by security forces a year ago.

When more than 280 members of his gang surrendered to authorities in late December, prosecutors said at least 15 of them were not just criminals, but former members of paramilitary groups.

Some of the experts warn that the weaknesses in the government effort could prove costly. In Central America, countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador are now terrorized by powerful drug organizations that absorbed fighters after the countries' civil wars of the 1980s ended.

For his part, Barato said that if other educated ex-fighters don't find jobs soon, they may end up training recruits for the new crime gangs.

"We're going to have demobilized troops being armed once again," he said.

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