Colombia's Frank Pearl Oversees Bold New Peace

Colombia is finally winning the Western Hemisphere's longest war. Despite setbacks like the murder of a state governor last month, the Marxist insurgency and drug-fueled mayhem is winding down. Tens of thousands of rebels, right-wing paramilitaries, and common criminals have laid down their arms, while their victims are coming forward in what observers call the boldest reconciliation initiative in recent times. Overseeing the process is Frank Pearl, Colombia's high commissioner for social and economic reintegration, who recently spoke to NEWSWEEK's Mac Margolis in Bogotá.

Colombia claims to be running the world's most ambitious peace process. How so?
Colombia is the only country that has obliged combatants to surrender their assets for reparation of victims. We also are working to reintroduce them to society once their debt to justice is paid.

In exchange for what?
If they confess their crimes and provide information about illegal groups and activities, they are eligible for a reduced penalty. A sentence of 40 to 60 years for crimes against humanity can be commuted to five to eight years. Today there are 3,950 people awaiting trial. That's far more people brought to justice than in all the Latin American countries that have gone through this process, and better than South Africa and Northern Ireland.

How hard was it to convince Colombians to allow criminals back into society?
We're trying balance peace and justice. It's imperfect. But the greater good is peace. If we wanted to achieve complete justice, there would be no incentive for those in illegal groups to come back to society. On the other hand, if we try to conduct a peace process with total impunity, it would be seen as illegitimate. In a survey a year ago, 79 percent of Colombians said reintegration [of criminals] was necessary.

What about the victims?
Six, seven, eight years ago, victims were invisible and didn't know they had rights. Today, 260,000 victims have come forward to claim their rights and 32,545 victims have already sat in court against their perpetrators. To date, 72,000 victims have received reparations and 33,935 crimes we didn't know of are being investigated.

So far, you have no sentences. Is reach-ing a sentence the measure of success?
The first goal is that the truth be known. The second is to provide reparations for victims. Colombia will invest $3.5 billion in reparations over the next 10 years. It's the least a society can do for those who have suffered.

How do you reintegrate violent criminals and guerrillas into society?
On average it takes five years. Perpetrators must stand trial. Then they undergo psychological counseling. People leaving guerrilla or paramilitary groups are quite young. Forty percent have to learn to read or write. They must complete high school and take vocational training. We're working with the private sector to create jobs.

What's the most horrific case you've dealt with?
We started our program in the 100 most-violent municipalities in our country. One of them was a village in [northwest Colombia], where we called a town meeting. There was this guy who said, "Look Frank, when I was a kid, the FARC killed my father in front of me. Fifteen years after that, paramilitaries raped my daughter in front of me. I have a farm. I am willing to share my farm with ex-combatants if they respect us and they tell the truth." I asked him why he was willing to do this, and he said: "I have lived my life in the middle of forces that I do not control. I live in fear. I have two kids and I want them to have a different future." This is just one of the examples we find every day, every week, across the country. That's what keeps us going and gives us hope.