By Manuela Badawy
NEW YORK (Reuters) - As the decades-long guerrilla war in Colombia winds down, the biggest task facing the government is to reintegrate the fighters to society, Alejandro Eder, director of the Colombian Agency for Reintegration, said on Monday.
The main obstacle facing Colombia's former guerrillas and paramilitaries in becoming productive members of civil society is stigmatization by the public and a lack of job opportunities, he said.
"It's a national priority to give these people who want to change their lives a chance, most of them displaced by warfare and kidnapped, many as children, by the guerrillas themselves," Eder, told Reuters in New York before meetings with USAID.
Talks to try to end Latin America's longest-running insurgency began in Cuba in November, when the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, sat down for the first round of a five-point peace agenda.
Of the 55,000 combatants that have left the guerillas in the Andean country over the past decade, about 10,000 have yet to surrender their arms after about 50 years of armed conflict with government forces, Eder said.
The Colombian government spends $90 million a year to transition the combatants, who have an average age of 26 to civil society. The government has a seven-year program that entails transporting the guerillas from their jungle camps, reuniting them with their families, and training them for a career.
Colombia's government spends around $3,500 per person per year to reinstate the fighters in society, which is less costly than fighting the insurgents or incarcerating them and has a lower rate of recidivism, according to Eder.
"The biggest challenge is for society to give a chance to those who gave up their arms," Eder said, adding that there is a high degree of mistrust of the guerrillas among most Colombians.
Companies that hire former combatants can claim a tax credit of around $340 per person, but the suspicion and the stigma attached to employing them can outweigh the financial incentives.
"Forgiveness is essential," said Eder, who added that about three or four guerrillas give up their arms every day and it was essential that Colombian society allow them the opportunity for a different life.
(Reporting by Manuela Badawy; editing by Christopher Wilson)