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Rebels Get Rehab in Colombia’s Fashion Industry

With 7,000 former FARC rebels trying to find their way back into civil society, Colombia’s $8 billion fashion industry has a unique role to play in the reconciliation of the country after 50-years of conflict. BoF investigates.
A female FARC guerrilla fighter dressed and armed in full combat gear | Source: Getty
  • Graciela Martin

MEDELLIN, Colombia — While working as a seamstress for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia paramilitary group (AUC), Ederlidia Garizao gained a reputation for impeccable sewing skills, despite the clandestine nature of her work deep in the jungle.

Her sewing prowess became so valuable that soon after she demobilised in 2005, another armed group demanded her services for their uniforms. However, Garizao was done with war for good. "I refused, so they tried to kill me," she recalls, her voice breaking slightly. "That affected me a lot."

She then fled to the capital Bogotá in search of a new start. “I began with two machines and slowly contracts started coming in; today I generate around 30 to 40 direct and indirect jobs,” Garizao says proudly.

In the eight years since establishing her workshop, she has made clothes for small fashion brands and uniforms for big companies like Coca-Cola. What shocks outsiders the most is that she even hired women from illegal armed groups who were once her sworn enemies.

Among them are former fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s main Marxist guerrilla group, which surrendered its weapons as a result of a peace deal signed in 2016 during the government of former president Juan Manuel Santos.

After years of negotiations and an unsuccessful referendum, the accord ended a 50-year war that has taken a toll of almost 9 million victims, including one million direct and indirect deaths, 170,000 persons unaccounted for and over 7 million displaced, according to the country’s Victim Registry (RUV).

But peace in Colombia is still fragile. Other rebel groups, like the National Liberation Army (ELN), remain elusive and are fighting to fill the void left by the FARC, causing setbacks with new attacks. Meanwhile, over 7,000 ex-combatants are trying to find their way back into civilian life in a country that is not ready to forgive and forget so quickly.

Misaks are one of many groups that have endured violence by paramilitary groups | Source: Shutterstock

“I've made mistakes,” Garizao concedes, “but I try to put things right every day [now that I’m back in mainstream society]. I've had to fight very hard to come this far.”

Hiring victims and fighters

For the past 15 years, the government’s Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization (ARN) has been playing a crucial role in the reintegration process by rehabilitating rebels through a host of programmes. After psychosocial support, they receive education, professional training and protection to help them transition back into normal life.

This is how political scientist turned fashion designer Pablo Restrepo began working with Garizao. Restrepo remembers that when he started his brand Paloma y Angostura in 2014, a mentor told him not to be afraid [of either victims or former fighters].

He explains: “If you're afraid of someone, you're not being treated equally. For me, it's been a spiritual process, understanding the difference between being compassionate with them and being commensurate.”

“[On the other hand], we don't want people to feel sorry [for them]. That’s absolutely necessary in order to not fall back into that victimisation mentality,” Restrepo explains, adding that not every ex-combatant will be suitable for the workforce. He has had to dismiss former rebels more than once, he concedes.

“The textile sector is very committed,” says Maribel Reyes, leader of Public-Private Alliances of the Victim Unit for the Colombian government, adding that both leaders and individuals at the grassroots level have shown support and willingness to get involved. “Besides, it’s in their best interest in terms of competitiveness so some decided to involve victims of armed conflict in all of their business processes.”

But she goes on to say that public resources are insufficient to support over 9 million registered victims from the conflict and reminds us that, “the number is much greater if we take into account those who never registered or left the country.”

Filling a labour shortage

According to Reyes, in the past three years the sector has had a skilled labour deficit of around 200,000 to 300,000 people. Upskilling conflict victims and demobilised rebels is simply a pragmatic solution, say supporters of such initiatives.

If someone goes to the manager and says, 'I come from an armed group,' it's going to be tough.

Critics, however — and there are many in this polarised and passionate debate — are far less forgiving. Integrating ex-combatants into the labour market and reintroducing them into the formal economy can be even harder than it sounds.

Restrepo says that while there is a lot of focus on the victims, “the former rebels are the most vulnerable to being recruited again,” explaining that this could restart the cycle of violence. “There are always remnants of the war.”

There are challenges on a practical level too. Banks for example, are more reluctant to open an account if they are afraid employees will commit crimes again.

“On the corporate side, companies will say they want peace, but if someone goes to the manager and says, ‘I come from an armed group,’ it’s going to be tough [for some of the recruitment team to swallow],” he says.

It is almost impossible to find a Colombian who has not been personally affected by tragedies from the conflict in one way or another.

Reconciliation via reintegration

One of newly elected president Iván Duque’s main challenges is reconciling a nation divided by the peace agreement negotiated by his predecessor.

Considered too lenient by many (including Duque himself), the agreement allows most of the demobilised rebels to avoid prison and even permits them to occupy seats in Congress. Complicating matters is the fact that the president also faces resurgent cocaine cartels, long-running corruption and major spill-over from Venezuela’s migration crisis.

Laura Laurens working in Iconozo | Source: Courtesy

“I think that society here is still in the process of educating themselves to understand what we should do,” said fashion designer Maria Luisa Ortiz in July, fresh off her Colombiamoda runway presentation in Medellín.

Ortiz and another Colombian designer, Laura Laurens, first came into contact with former fighters and victims of the armed conflict thanks to an initiative launched by Revista Fucsia in 2016, which saw a dozen creative industry professionals assigned to mentor conflict survivors.

This motivated both designers to continue visiting the affected conflict territories where many displaced victims and ex-combatants are now manufacturing garments. In the transition zone of Icononzo, for example, the designers worked with former FARC rebels who are making uniforms.

“The key is to learn how to reincorporate the ex-combatants into civilian life and make them productive through the fashion business,” says Laurens. She explains that once “validated within the fashion system” they will help them connect with [Colombiamoda parent company] Inexmoda and other key players to explore commercial opportunities.

“As designers we assess their conditions, the context and serve as their connectors so they can move forward and don’t [re-arm] or turn back to [violence],” adds Laurens.

“It’s a difficult process, but some are very talented,” says designer Juan Pablo Socarrás, who has been working with vulnerable populations for approximately four years and now is also mentoring former paramilitaries that have started new business ventures.

Investment in conflict zones

One of his recent endeavours includes helping former FARC combatants, located in the Pondores transition zone in La Guajira, to improve their line of polo shirts and shorts.

“They haven’t forgiven a lot yet, they’re still working through it,” says Socarrás, explaining that he still senses a bit of aggression when working with some ex-combatants. But he is quick to remind you that many have been living in guerrilla communities for 30 years — meaning some have known no other way of life.

The key is to learn how to reincorporate the ex-combatants into civilian life and make them productive through the fashion business.

Maria Luisa Ortiz also sympathises. “As Colombians we have a stigma that guerrillas are the worst thing, without reflecting on why so many people got there in the first place,” she says.

In a country that comes right after Syria in terms of the number of internally displaced people, unleashing the full business capabilities of a fashion brand aimed at helping victims rebuild their lives could prove invaluable. This is the aim of Inexmoda’s newly announced alliance with the government’s clothing label “Vivimos Pacíficamente” (We Live Peacefully).

According to Carlos Botero, president of Inexmoda, the programme will improve the "social fabric of Colombia." "We're going to have a qualified workforce with additional expertise that wasn't there before, and there will be new job opportunities which are so important for the fashion industry."

However, Luz Adriana Naranjo, transformation director of Inexmoda, warns that “it is essential to go beyond a social perspective and to teach people how to build sustainable business models that don’t rely on government subsidies and assistance.”

“[For example] we’re trying to link the project to silkworm cultivation in the areas affected by the conflict,” says Naranjo, adding that silk has a great potential for export.

On a larger scale, key stakeholders like Antioquia Textiles are helping and Cencosud — one of Latin America’s most powerful retail empires — got involved by selling clothing made by conflict victims at its Jumbo and Metro stores.

“[Fortunately] there are many incentives for investment in the areas that have been most affected by the conflict,” says Juliana Villegas, vice president of export for Procolombia.

Supporting an $8 billion industry

There is even more at stake than first meets the eye. According to a report by Oxford Business Group, the country’s apparel and textile manufacturing industry achieved a value of $8.7 billion in 2014, making it the third most prominent country in the region, after Argentina and Brazil.

What’s more, according to Colombia’s Department of National Statistics, the sector makes up around 20 percent of the Colombia’s total industrial employment with 615,600 people working in the fashion, accessories and the broader textile industry across the country.

Backstage at Laura Aparicio at Colombiamoda | Photo: Aldo Decaniz

At the heart of it is Colombiamoda, one of Latin America’s biggest fashion industry showcases. In its 29th edition, one cannot underestimate the transformative power that an event like this can have for a country on the road to recovery. This July the trade expo welcomed more than 45,000 visitors, including 1500 buyers from 40 different countries and generated $169 million worth of deals.

But the local industry has taken a hit in recent years due to currency fluctuations, an uncertain political climate and unfavourable trade conditions.

“Imports from Asia have increased to almost 50 percent without considering the damage caused by an influx of under-invoicing practices,” says Guillermo Criado president of the Colombian Chamber of Clothing and general manager of Pat Primo, one of Colombia’s biggest textile and clothing players.

However, Criado believes the industry can thrive given the right conditions — and thereby serve as a stable employer for ex-fighters and victims. He is hopeful that the new government will help the sector regain its strength, as President Duque announced it would be among his priorities.

“We’re very optimistic about foreign trade,” says Villegas. Based on figures collected at the latest edition of Colombiamoda in July, the future of the sector is indeed looking up. Exports of fashion goods between January and May 2018 grew 2.6 percent, with $370 million exported in that period, and 2017 closed with a total of $921 million.

Part of this can be attributed to the halo effect that Colombian brands are enjoying thanks to the global success of Colombian fashion designers. Johanna Ortiz, who showed at the event a couple of years ago, has since enjoyed great international success at retailers like Bergdorf Goodman and Harvey Nichols. Meanwhile Cartagena native Edgardo Osorio of Aquazzurra has amassed 350 stockists across the globe including Barneys New York and Net-a-Porter.

“I am well aware of what the fashion and textile industries can generate for a country,” said mayor of Medellín Federico Gutiérrez at the event, explaining that job opportunities generated by the fashion sector are essential to cement the peace process.

For many, the idea of a fashion fair was unthinkable when just walking the streets was an act of bravery.

It is important to remember that Medellín wasn’t always known as Colombia’s fashion capital. When Colombiamoda first came about in 1988 the city had one of the highest homicide rates in the world and was home to the notorious drug cartel of Pablo Escobar. For many, the idea of a fashion fair was unthinkable when just walking the streets was an act of bravery.

But the city has worked hard to come out of the shadows of its violent past. And in its 30-year history, Inexmoda has come a long way too — “it’s had good moments, but also very hard ones,” recalled Gutierrez. He believes it was the resilience of both entrepreneurs and ordinary people that was vital to pull through the difficulties back then.

Today, passionate members of Colombia’s fashion industry like Maria Luisa Ortiz are hoping for the same sort of transformation: “Reconciliation is a process that has only just begun, and it's going to be a long one, but we need to start reconnecting and overcome our fear.”

Disclosure: Graciela Martin travelled to Colombiamoda as a guest of Inexmoda.

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