Family theme park helps ex-guerrillas put down their guns and take a shot at civilian life

QUINDIO, Colombia —Three years ago, Nelly was learning how to make landmines in a guerrilla camp hidden in the upper reaches of Colombia’s mountains. Born into the Marxist FARC family, Nelly spent her early teenage years helping to recruit children into her guerrilla unit and conducted undercover missions into nearby towns to gather intelligence on the Colombian military.

Now the former child soldier welcomes tourists to a canine show at Panaca, a Colombian theme park dedicated to farm life. On a small playground that doubles as a petting zoo, Nelly introduces children to Athena, a hyperactive bloodhound, and Cristal, a Siberian husky that manages to be playful despite the 90 degree heat.

Nelly plays with her dogs. Her face can't be shown to protect her identity.Victor Galeano

Nelly plays with her dogs. Her face is deliberately not shown to protect her identity.

None of the kids who play with Nelly and her two dogs know about her past in the FARC, a guerrilla organization that waged a brutal, four-decade war against the Colombian army, often targeting civilians for kidnap and extortion.

But Nelly –whose real name has been changed for her protection— finds comfort in anonymity. She risked her life to leave the guerrilla group. And her quiet job as a dog-handler at Panaca has given her a fresh start at a civilian life—one that now includes a boyfriend and an opportunity to finally get her high school diploma by taking classes at night school.

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“I never thought I’d be in a place like this,” she tells me. “When I was in the FARC, all I could think about was how I was going to die.”

Now she can focus on living instead.

“Fortunately, we’ve been given an opportunity to grow as people here, and to learn by doing,” she says.

Nelly is not the only former guerrilla who greets Colombian families and the occasional gringo tourist at this rural theme park. Over the past two years, Panaca has provided technical training and basic job skills to more than 90 demobilized rebels, helping them reintegrate into society with salaried positions at the theme park and dozens of other local agricultural companies.

It’s an impressive achievement that will have to be replicated around the country as the long war between the Colombian government and the Marxist rebels comes to an end with a peace deal that’s expected to be signed at the end of the year.

Once that becomes a reality, approximately 9,000 guerrillas will be turning in their guns and asking “Now what?” While some of the FARC’s top commanders will likely go into politics, the bulk of the fighting force will have to look elsewhere for work. Some will likely start their own businesses, but many will have to find gainful employment in a peacetime economy for which they have few job skills.

A worker learns how to make horse saddles in Panaca. The park has trained more than 90 former guerrillasVictor Galeano

A worker learns how to make horse saddles in Panaca. The park has trained more than 90 former guerrillas

The transition from war to civilian life hasn’t been easy for any country that’s gone through it so far, and Colombia will be no exception. According to government statistics, around 25% of Colombia’s former combatants who have already demobilized have ended up committing crimes — everything from neglecting to make child support payments to more serious offenses like joining drug gangs that extort business owners across the countryside.

With resumes that include only “guerrilla warfare” and “paramilitary activity” as previous work experiences, most demobilized combatants have never had an opportunity to develop the skills or technical training needed for life outside war camps. But the government and private sector are increasingly working with these former fighters to develop civilian job skills in preparation for a massive demobilization once the ink dries on the peace accords.

"Nelly" takes care of an Afghan Hound at PanacaVictor Galeano

"Nelly" takes care of an Afghan Hound at Panaca

Over the past two years, Panaca and Colombia’s National Agency for the Reintegration of Former Fighters (ACR) have pioneered one of the country’s most ambitious job-training programs for FARC fighters who voluntarily left the war. For many of the ex-guerrillas, the program had to start with the basics.

“Many of the people who came to us had very basic literacy skills,” says Lorena Cuellar, the coordinator of Panaca’s educational initiatives. “So we focused on teaching them skills that are needed in rural areas and are easy for them to learn.”

But before classes start, some ex-fighters have to deal with an even more basic question: Who am I?

“Some participants even continued to use their old FARC alias,” Cuellar says. “So we had to work on reconstructing their identities, starting with their names.”

The Panaca park designed a three-month internship program, where former fighters lived in houses built inside the theme park and spent the day learning farming skills, like how to raise cattle or tend to a pig pen. Though many had lived in the jungle or the countryside their entire lives, most of the former combatants were too busy preparing for war or getting indoctrinated in revolutionary theory to learn how to run a farm.

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A worker cleans up at Panaca´s pig pen

At night participants joined group exercises aimed at building trust and learning how to set new goals for their lives.

“I’m very grateful for this program,” Nelly says, adding that the experience has helped give her a new view on life.

“The dogs taught me that you can forgive,” Nelly said. “Because you see them fight and then after a while they are friends again.”

Caring for a newborn piglet at the farm has also helped to change her views on motherhood. Nelly’s own mother, a guerrilla fighter, abandoned her shortly after she was born, and pregnancy in the FARC was frowned upon—often leading to forced abortions.

“Caring for that little pig and seeing its mother made me think that it wasn’t so bad to be a woman,” Nelly told me. “I think that when I’m 29 I would like to have kids of my own.”

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Nelly prepares an afghan hound for the park´s famous canine show

Overcoming psychological trauma is not the only thing that former fighters need to deal with.

Social workers in Colombia’s reintegration agency say that even after people like Nelly acquire basic skills, it’s still tough for them to get jobs due to discrimination against former fighters.

Colombian media have long depicted the guerrillas as terrorists and focused much of their war coverage on the rebels’ human rights abuses, including kidnappings and attacks on civilians.

While some companies have been quietly working with the government to give jobs and internships to former guerrillas, the employment rate for former fighters is 20% lower than the national average.

“Discrimination is tough to overcome,” says Angela Medina, a reintegration specialist in the nearby city of Cali, who works for the ACR. “Even when they go to school [the former fighters] are afraid to tell colleagues about their previous lives.”

Former FARC fighter wilber runs a barber shop he says he tries to avoid talking about his previous lifeVictor Galeano

Former FARC fighter Wilber runs a barber shop. He says he tries to avoid talking about his previous life

Panaca tried to break down some of those obstacles by inviting business owners to observe the internship program and spend a day with the former guerrillas, hearing about their life stories. Cuellar said the initial meeting was very emotional, with former guerrillas asking for forgiveness for what they had done to society, and some business owners also asking forgiveness for not providing Colombian youth with better opportunities.

“We had several people hired that day” says Jorge Ballen, Panaca’s owner. “I think that if more people knew their stories, and how many of them were forced into the war, they would be willing to give them a chance too.”

Jorge Ballen is Panaca´s ownerVictor Galeano

Jorge Ballen is Panaca´s owner

Ballen is himself a victim of Colombia’s war. A brother of his was kidnapped for ransom by the FARC, and Ballen, who also runs cattle ranches, was extorted by rebel groups. But Ballen says he’s focused on training former combatants to show current guerrillas that it is possible to lead a successful life in Colombia without breaking the law. He also wants to show companies that the private sector has an important role to play in helping to build peace in Colombia by integrating its former foes into the workforce.

“We have to break down psychological barriers,” Ballen told me over dinner at his ranch, located just outside the theme park.

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Yet despite the early success of Panaca’s reintegration program, Ballen says it’s been hard for him to get funding to train more classes of demobilized guerrillas. The last class of former rebels graduated from Panaca in November 2015, and Ballen hasn’t been able to secure more funding for a new class this year.

Ballen says the government hasn’t responded to his requests for support.

“This country is not really prepared for the post-conflict,” the businessman charged.

The government’s reintegration agency, however, insists it does support efforts to incorporate former combatants into society. Some 17,000 former fighters who have already deserted the FARC and other rebel groups are currently enrolled in a national reintegration program, where they are assigned a social worker, psychological counseling, and offered help with job-placement.

The government agency says it’s learning from experience and adapting to demands that arise from the peace talks with the FARC. It is now testing a new program where former rebels are taught to build their own rural enterprises.

“The FARC have (recently) said they are not interested in being employees,” the ACR’s national director Joshua Mitrotti told me. “So we have to try out other alternatives.”

But being a small business owner is not for everyone. There will be lots of demobilized guerrillas who are looking for salaried jobs. And that means the ACR will have to continue working with Colombia’s private sector to find ways to deal with the suddenly swelling workforce.

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Tourists check out a prize bull at Panaca

“I don’t go to businesses asking them to set aside jobs for demobilized people, because that would be unfair,” Mitrotti said. “What I ask them is to not reject the possibility that someone who is a former fighter could earn a position at their company.”

Back at Panaca, Nelly says she’s happy to have found a job after graduating from the theme park’s three-month internship program. She says that after growing up in a war camp, even little things like being able to buy herself a real mattress to sleep on have become important milestones in her new civilian life.

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Nelly (behind dog) is also learning to train dogs for the park´s show

“The owner has given us a second chance here,” Nelly said. “I suffered a lot in life, but God has rewarded me with this blessing.”

All photos by Victor Galeano.


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