NARIÑO, Colombia – Jairo Cuervo decided to take his life in another direction after spending 38 years as a member of a paramilitary group and is now contributing to peace by helping clear landmines in northwestern Colombia.
Cuervo, like many poor peasants, was plunged into Colombia’s long internal conflict without having a commitment to an ideology, and he ended up joining the Heroes de Granada Bloc, a paramilitary group that ravaged San Carlos and other towns in eastern Antioquia, a province in the northwestern part of this South American country.
“I was in the army and left to go work in the countryside, but when I got there I was surprised when they (guerrillas) forced me to leave the ranch really fast, so I made the decision to join the others (paramilitaries) to save my life,” Cuervo told EFE in the town of Nariño.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrilla group, which had a strong presence in eastern Antioquia, said that “if I didn’t work with them, I had to leave,” Cuervo told EFE, describing how he ended up joining a paramilitary group.
More than 31,000 paramilitary fighters demobilized between the end of 2003 and mid-2006 as part of the peace process with former President Alvaro Uribe’s administration.
Cuervo returned to civilian life and joined the program created by the Colombian Agency for Reintegration, or ACR, to help former members of illegal armed groups become productive members of society.
The former militiaman began turning his life around at that point and is now proud of his accomplishments.
“I feel happy, at least it’s a worthy job in which what we do is beautiful,” Cuervo said, referring to his work clearing landmines in a rural area outside Nariño as part of a project organized by the ACR and Britain’s The Halo Trust.
Cuervo attended the ceremony Saturday at which President Juan Manuel Santos declared the cities of Nariño, La Union and Guatape “free of suspected anti-personnel landmines.”
Officials estimate that more than half of Colombia’s municipalities have mine fields.
Landmines have killed and wounded more than 11,000 people in Colombia, which ranks No. 3 on the list of countries with the most landmines, trailing only Afghanistan and Cambodia.
The weapons have been planted in 31 of Colombia’s 32 provinces, the United Nations says.