Students learn about Colombian conflict and peacebuilding efforts at the source
Students descend a steep hill in the rain after a visit with demobilized FARC–EP combatants at their camp deep in the hills of the Icononzo Municipality. Photos courtesy of Allen Ortega.

Students learn about Colombian conflict and peacebuilding efforts at the source

A Problems Without Passports course in Colombia explores the country’s history of armed conflict and the continuing efforts aimed at establishing an enduring peace.
ByLaura Paisley

Trying to understand — let alone defuse — a civil conflict that has lasted more than half a century is no easy task. But often the first step is talking and listening to those who have been directly involved. That’s what USC Dornsife junior Allen Ortega did this summer in Bogotá, Colombia.

Ortega participated in the Problems Without Passports class “HIST 499: Peacebuilding in Colombia,” living and studying in the country for nearly three weeks in June. Prior to enrolling, he had been loosely following the Colombian peace process via American news, which is part of what drew him to the course.

“I knew it would be a really interesting class because the peace process is ongoing, and a lot of what we were learning about was actually happening live as we were in Colombia,” said Ortega, an international relations major from Fullerton, Calif. “That’s a really valuable academic experience.”

Peace negotiations in the country began in 2012, bringing together the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC–EP). Their shared goal has been bringing an end to the Colombian conflict, a complex civil war that broke out in the 1960s. Though the groups signed an official peace treaty on Nov. 24, 2016, the efforts to enact the peace agreement continue.

Plumbing the paradox

Ortega and his classmates visited a camp of demobilized FARC combatants, who candidly shared their experiences. Many of them had been recruited as child soldiers or had spent decades fighting for various insurgent groups.

“They were surprisingly open with us, and very willing to delve into the nitty-gritty and the questions that people are sometimes scared to ask,” Ortega said. “The fact that somebody had seen so much and is willing to talk to you as a student is pretty amazing.”

The FARC-EP, Latin America’s oldest and largest insurgency movement, has been a formidable force in the conflict. Its guerilla fighters employed military-style tactics and often resorted to terrorism. They were funded in large part by criminal activity like kidnapping, extortion, and the production and smuggling of illicit drugs. The FARC’s status as an armed group ended on June 27, 2017, when its fighters turned their weapons over to the United Nations.

However, as Ortega learned, statistics show that more than half of Colombians are unhappy with the peace agreement signed between the rebels and Santos’ government. Many feel that the FARC should receive harsher punishments for their crimes and not be permitted to incorporate themselves into the political system.

But in many regions, the FARC were the only source of law and order. They subdued local gangs and in some cases built infrastructure for people, Ortega said. Paradoxically, their disarmament means violence in the country may actually escalate, and there is fear of potential violence against emerging FARC politicians.

In addition, Colombian men and women face many challenges as ex-combatants, including social stigma and, especially for child soldiers, a lack of social and technical skills. Their focus now is on securing employment or pursuing education.

Peacebuilding in Colombia

SLIDESHOW: In addition to classroom instruction and visits to government agencies and cultural institutions,
students were able to see Colombia in all its lively colors. Photos courtesy of Allen Ortega.

Talking to the experts

In addition to daily classes at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá, students visited NGOs and think tanks and met with members of cultural, governmental and educational organizations. These included the Congress of the Republic of Colombia, International Center for Transitional Justice and the Unit for Comprehensive Victim Support and Reparation.

The class had the opportunity to meet with United Nations officials to learn about the role the organization is playing in the peace negotiations. They even got to meet the President of Colombia’s communication team.

“These were people who were literally involved in negotiating the peace process with groups in the jungle,” Ortega said. “And people who had actually been on the ground and had actual clout with the government and the groups that were negotiating.”

Edgardo Pérez Morales, assistant professor of history at USC Dornsife, met with the USC students before they left the United States, giving them an academic introduction to Colombia’s history and an overview of the conflict and efforts at peacebuilding. Once in Colombia, he served as their faculty liaison and adviser for their final papers.

For Pérez Morales, the subject matter had personal resonance because he has family and friends who were directly affected by the conflict. Like many other Colombians, he knew people on all sides of the conflict.

“I wanted our students to achieve a complex understanding of war and peace in Colombia, going beyond black-and-white perceptions,” Pérez Morales said. “Colombia’s conflict is extremely variegated and it is not hard to find people who are victims and perpetrators at the same time. Our students clearly came out with a more sophisticated understating of these complexities.”

Defying expectations, a new understanding

Landscape Right

Allen Ortega receives the course certificate at the end of the trip from the Universidad de Los Andes.

Ortega said he gained an appreciation for the difficulty of building lasting peace in a country where class inequality is so stark. This challenge eventually became the topic of his final paper.

“It’s really hard … when the political class is detached from the average person because it’s difficult for those people to legislate when they don’t understand the people that they are legislating for. And at the same time, it’s hard for people to understand legislation when it’s created by people that don’t understand them.”

Talking to so many Colombians helped Ortega understand the complex set of motivations on each side — all valid from their own perspectives — and the disconnect that occurs between these groups.

“I think you see the same thing globally. Even in the U.S. you see a difference between the people in charge and the people who are just getting by. In that sense, it was enlightening with regard to my own country.”

Ortega’s perspective going in to the experience was quite different than the one he left with.

“I expected to go in to the course and then come out with, ‘Well, of course Colombia has to do X or Y to find peace,’” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s really messy and complicated. It comes down to the values and personal experiences that make people see things a certain way.”

Having learned how hard it is to orchestrate change, Ortega said he now has a better understanding of why people devote their lives to international relations and to studying history.

“These problems take a lot of careful thought and examination of different perspectives.”