From insurgent to student: How education can build peace

The agreement that ended the five-decades-long insurgency by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP or FARC) in 2016 mentions higher education 14 times.

The FARC’s faith in higher education is evident from the clause that entrusts to Universidad Nacional de Colombia the responsibility of carrying out the socio-economic census that has been used to guide the reincorporation of former combatants into civil society.

The government in Bogotá further committed itself to the FARC’s call to democratise education by deepening the links between technical institutes and universities, and the nation’s citizens.

Yet, it is 80 words in section of the agreement (Acuerdo Final Para La Terminación Del Conflicto y La Construcción De Una Paz Estalbe y Duradera) that have changed the lives of more than 300 former guerrilla fighters like Victor Alfonso Osorio Cadena and Faber Yeins Echeverry Delgado.

Here, the Colombian government pledged to make available grants and stipends to the men and women from the nation’s poorest areas to go to a technical institute or a university, and to promote education in these regions.

Though he now lives in Bogotá, 45-year-old Cadena comes from Tolima, a poor, mainly agricultural department west of the capital. Like his father, Cadena expected to be a farmer and never thought he’d go to university. “Most farmers don’t even finish grade school in that area,” he said. Cadena was one of them. Long before finishing grade school, he joined the FARC.

Delgado, who is 44 years old and a proud grandfather twice over, was a child soldier.

A representative of the Colombian government wrote in an email to University World News: “During the implementation years of the peace agreement, the national government, through the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization, has prioritised education as a fundamental factor to facilitate the transition into civilian life of people undergoing the reincorporation process and the construction of a life project with greater opportunities.

“As a result, peace signatories have the opportunity to complete their primary, secondary and high school studies and access higher education through different flexible education models and inter-institutional agreements that benefit them.”


The reincorporation process that began in 2017 is a uniquely Colombian construct. The oversight body, the four-person National Council for Reincorporation (CNR), has two representatives appointed by the Colombian government and two from FARC.

Importantly, the FARC members are themselves going through the process of reincorporation, which means the CNR has a window on how the process of reconstructing and rejuvenating civil society is unrolling in real time.

“The CNR works as an instance or mechanism in charge of planning and defining activities, timing and monitoring the process of reincorporation of the former members of FARC-EP in the economic, social and political aspects, according to their interests,” said a representative of the Colombian government.

Central to the decision-making process are ‘territorial consultations’. These ensure that the interests, requirements and expectations of the people undergoing reincorporation in the territory in question and its unique aspects are considered.

At the end of May, the CNR reported that the nine areas former FARC members were interested in studying were: agronomy, medicine, automotive mechanics, engineering, systems, law, veterinary medicine, business administration and accounting.

Educational upgrading

Like Cadena and Delgado, thousands of FARC members received little or no formal education. For the education plans envisioned by the peace treaty to go forward, a massive educational upgrading programme was required that would take into account the decades of civil war.

According to the Colombian government, difficulties regarding reading and writing skills could be attributed to the former combatants not having participated in the traditional education offered at school age (ie, childhood and adolescence) or having dropped out of the educational process prematurely. For some former FARC members, their poor reading and writing skills were attributed to the fact that they had not attended school for a long period of time.

Teachers and other education partners reported that former FARC members needed to strengthen their study habits, logical-mathematical thinking, reading comprehension and second language (English) skills.

In addition to classroom-based academic upgrading programmes, Colombia developed what is called a Weaving Knowledge-Flexible Education Model. Since 2019, the Weaving Knowledge- Flexible Education Model has educated 1,274 former FARC members.

The six integrated education cycles are responses to the array of situations faced by populations that come from environments or contexts of illegality and violence. Further, they respond to the cultural and regional diversity of conditions, such as urban and rural characteristics.

The Itinerant Teacher Strategy (ITS) is another flexible education model developed by the Universidad Nacional Abierta y a Distancia (National Open and Distance University) in Bogotá.

Using distance learning modalities, the ITS breaks down formal education stereotypes by having the school come to the students. It creates new learning opportunities, providing different means and tools for mainly rural students to access education. Since 2020, more than 6,600 people undergoing reincorporation have enrolled in the ITS.

The process of ‘unlearning’

For his part, Cadena, who admits to not having known how to read and write, found that he also had to unlearn some of the ways of speaking he had learned growing up in the FARC. “It’s hard to unlearn something learned the wrong way,” Cadena told University World News through a translator. “This is especially true when it comes to things like grammar.”

By last June, more than 4,100 former FARC members whose education had been interrupted had graduated from high school. Delgado, who has a learning disability, was among those graduates, having completed high school at the Instituto Integrado Enrique Low Murtra located in the town of Girón in the north-east of the country.

According to the government in Bogotá, while there have been some instances of stigmatisation, fear of and prejudicial actions against ex-combatants, such events are uncommon.

Concerned about their schools’ standings in the nation’s league tables has, however, led some secondary school principals to complain that the presence of former FARC members enrolled in their schools lowers the schools’ results on the Saber 11 national academic proficiency test. The Saber 11 tests evaluate students’ ability in critical reading, mathematics, social studies, science and English.

Universities have been more welcoming. In the spirit of national reconciliation, five universities have signed agreements giving former combatants and their families preferential access to higher education. Included in this group is Escuela Superior de Administración Pública in Bogotá.

Both Cadena and Delgado told University World News that financial support from the Colombian government was automatic upon their enrolment – in university for Cadena, and in Técnico Laboral en Barbería (Technical Barber Studies) for Delgado.

“All I had to do was sign the peace accord and enrol,” said Cadena – in his case, in Universidad Nacional Abierta y a Distancia (National Open and Distance University) in Bogotá.

From insurgent to student

For some, the transition from their roles as FARC insurgents to higher education students was easier than for others. This is especially true of 159 former revolutionaries who served as medics. Under a ‘previous knowledge/skills’ programme financed by the Norwegian Red Cross, these men and women received formal medical training and accreditation.

The Strengthening Communities for Peace Project that ran in the towns of La Macarena, Mesetas, San Vicente del Caguán and La Montañita (all in the southern part of Colombia) saw 23 former FARC members certified in oral health, including dentistry, while another programme in four other towns certified 67 ex-combatants in a variety of health programmes.

When Cadena first entered university, he studied validation modality. After graduating with this degree, he turned to studying psychology, a subject that had he became interested in when he was with the FARC.

My translator, Benjamin A Mittag, summarised Cadena’s comments as follows: “He has some advantages in this, in having insights when it comes to psychology, because he’s always lived with a large number of people. He realised [psychological] things with these people. But he didn’t know what these behaviours were or what they could be called until he started studying psychology at university.”

By way of example, Cadena pointed to the fact that when he was with FARC, there were no psychological counsellors. Psychological issues were dealt with either by a combatant’s buddies or through the chain of command.

“You rely on your colleagues, your friends, your comrades or your commanders to get you through tough times, whether it is losing a friend or other loss,” he said. The reference to “losing a friend”, presumably in battle, incidentally, was the only time either Cadena or Delgado alluded to their military experiences.

Mittag summarised Cadena’s next point: “He understands now that people have psychological problems but that they are not sick or crazy ‘in the head’ if they see a psychologist.”

In addition to studying psychology, Cadena, who is part of the Autonomous Reintegration Board, has continued his social justice work.

For two years he was president of the Living Memory Union (LMU), an organisation that brings together male and female workers linked to the Unidad Nacional de Protección (National Protection Unit, UNP) housed within the Ministry of the Interior. As president of the LMU, Cadena promoted and defended the labour rights of bodyguards and security agents of former FARC leaders.

For economic reasons related to his family, Delgado, who has completed the National Training Service programme in administration and finance, was unable to continue his planned studies at university. At present, he is enrolled in a technical programme to be a barber, a role he filled while he was with the FARC.

How much of the past can I reveal?

While they are significantly older than their classmates, neither Cadena nor Delgado report that they are treated differently because of their age. The two men, however, have different views on how much they should reveal about their past to their classmates and teachers.

While he has told some of his classmates and teachers about aspects of his past, Delgado is reticent about drawing attention to his having been a member of the FARC. He fears that some people may think differently of him or disagree with his past, Mittag summarised.

By contrast, Cadena is open about his time as a combatant. His professors accept the fact that his life experiences do not include the usual 12 years of schooling and the discipline that comes with it – and are understanding of the fact that, sometimes, his assignments are late.

Cadena regularly refers to his time with FARC in class and in his essays. He does this so that everyone will know where he stands. He plans on writing his thesis on the transition that territorial communities previously controlled by FARC went through after the FARC disbanded following the peace treaty.

“Education is the fundamental component for the signatories of the peace agreement to consolidate their life projects and to find tools and opportunities in their transition to civilian life, which allows us to move towards total peace,” a Colombian government spokesperson told University World News.

* I would like to thank the Colombian Embassy in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and the Colombian government for facilitating my research and interviews with Victor Cadena and Faber Delgado.

Additionally, I would like to thank Benjamin A Mittag (MA, Spanish Language and Literature, North Carolina State University, United States) for translating for me.