From gunbattles to tourism: Colombia's ex-rebels turn rafting guides

MIRAVALLE, Colombia, Nov 12 (Reuters) - The nine former rebel fighters, who traded their guns, battle fatigues and heavy rucksacks for paddles, helmets and life jackets, launch four rafts laden with visitors into the turbulent Pato River, deep in Colombia's dense Amazon jungle.

The former guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have chosen rafting as their path to reintegration, as the government pushes to make tourism a top engine of the Andean nation's economy.

"During the conflict, this region was rough, there were bullets and bombs all the time. Today, so much has changed - many people come to see the waterfalls, the mountain, the river," guide Duberney Moreno, 34, a 13-year veteran of the FARC, said on Friday.

Nearly 13,000 former combatants and their unarmed sympathizers are participating in a reintegration process agreed as part of a 2016 peace deal to end more than 52 years of war with the government.

18 PHOTOS
Colombia's ex-rebels turn rafting guides
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Colombia's ex-rebels turn rafting guides
Duberney Moreno, ex rebel of the FARC, rafting guide and instructor, speaks with members of the police and the army in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
A group of the press and government representatives practice rafting guided by ex-FARC rebels in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
A group of the press and government representatives board an inflatable raft before practicing rafting in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
Some helmets and paddles to practice rafting are seen in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
A group of the press and government representatives practice rafting guided by ex-FARC rebels in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
Ex-members of the FARC and now rafting instructors carry an inflatable raft in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
A group of the press and government representatives practice rafting guided by ex-FARC rebels in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
An ex-rebel of the FARC receives his official card as a rafting instructor in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
Duberney Moreno, ex-FARC rebel, rafting guide and instructor, poses for a photo on an inflatable raft in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
Duberney Moreno, former rebel of the FARC, rafting guide and instructor, speaks with a group of the press and government representatives before boarding an inflatable raft in Miravalle, Colombia, November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
A group of the press and government representatives practice rafting guided by ex-FARC rebels in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
A police woman escorts an inflatable raft in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
A group of the press and government representatives practice rafting guided by ex-FARC rebels in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
A group of the press and government representatives practice rafting guided by ex-FARC rebels in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
An ex-rebel of the FARC and now rafting instructor descends from an inflatable raft escorted by members of the police in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
FARC ex-members applaud after receiving their official licenses as rafting instructors in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
A group of the press and government representatives practice rafting guided by ex-FARC rebels in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
A group of the press and government representatives practice rafting guided by ex-FARC rebels in Miravalle, Colombia November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
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Reincorporation is considered fundamental to ensuring former FARC members do not return to the battlefield with smaller rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), numerous crime gangs and dissident groups that refused to demobilize.

The conflict in Colombia has killed more than 260,000 people and millions more have been displaced, suffered sexual violence or been maimed by land mines or bombs.

Implementation of the polarizing deal has advanced slowly, but the FARC is now a political party with 10 guaranteed seats in Congress through 2026.

Many former fighters have returned home to reunite with their families, but some 5,000 have remained in 24 demobilization zones like the one on the Pato, turning them into makeshift towns built on Marxist principles.

CERTIFIED RAFTERS

The government has budgeted some $1.6 million to help those in the zones, which are protected by government forces, start some 300 farming, ranching, shoemaking, fishery, woodworking and now tourism projects.

Many ex-combatants, most of whom come from poor, rural backgrounds, have also contributed the money they were given upon demobilization to the projects.

Moreno and eight other former fighters got 200 hours of guide training and are now certified by the International Rafting Federation.

The site in Caqueta province cost $20,000 to construct and features hiking trails and lodging. Former fighters cook meals and drive visitors two hours by rutted road from the nearest large town.

"We have to keep supporting these initiatives - they create confidence in the peace process," said Jessica Faieta, deputy chief of the United Nations' mission in Colombia, which helps manage reintegration.

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Colombia's FARC rebels give up weapons
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Colombia's FARC rebels give up weapons
FARC members stand during a formation in a camp before moving to the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo, at the Los Robles FARC camp, Colombia, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A FARC member phones his family from a hill where phone signal is better in Los Robles, Colombia, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Juancho smokes a cigarette outside his makeshift tent in Los Robles, Colombia, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A FARC member walks by a truck carrying their belongings to the transitional zone of La Elvira, Colombia, January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
FARC members carry mattresses to their tents in a camp near the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo, Colombia, February 4, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Indigenous farmers walk near a FARC camp near the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo, Colombia, February 4, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
FARC members stand in a camp near the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo, Colombia, February 4, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A FARC member participates in works to build facilities for a camp near the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo in the Cauca mountains, Colombia, February 4, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A FARC member gets ready for a morning formation in a camp near the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo, Colombia, February 4, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
FARC members prepare meat to be cooked for dinner in Los Robles, Colombia, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Evelio, a member of FARC, stands guard in a camp near the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo, Colombia, February 5, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
FARC members walk to get breakfast in a camp near the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo, Colombia, February 5, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of FARC makes coffee in the morning in a camp near the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo, Colombia, February 5, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
FARC members guard an entrance of a camp near the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo in the Cauca mountains, Colombia, February 4, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
FARC members prepare meat to be cooked for dinner in Los Robles, Colombia, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
FARC members play chess in a camp near the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo, Colombia, February 4, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
FARC commander Nelson walks with his pet in Los Robles, Colombia, January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Juancho cleans his bullets and weapons in a camp in Los Robles, Colombia, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Karina gets her hair done by a friend in a camp while waiting for a truck to move to the transition zone of Pueblo Nuevo, at the Los Robles FARC camp, Colombia, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Men work on a construction for FARC members at the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo, Colombia, January 22, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
FARC members eat their last dinner before moving troops to Pueblo Nuevo, in a camp in Los Robles, Colombia, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
FARC members spend their time while waiting for a truck to reach the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo, at the Los Robles FARC camp, Colombia, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A FARC member stands guard in a camp near the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo, Colombia, February 4, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
FARC member washes in a camp near the transitional zone of Pueblo Nuevo, Colombia, February 4, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios SEARCH "FARC FEDERICO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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President Ivan Duque, who took office in August, has said tourism could be the country's new economic driver.

Travel to Colombia has spiked in recent years, as stereotypes about violence are offset by positive media coverage of the country's diverse destinations.

"I want tourism to be Colombia's new oil and for it to be the great invigorator of economic activity," Duque said at a recent event.

More than 3.3 million tourists visited Colombia in 2017, a 23.9 percent jump from 2016. Figures from the past two years were more than double rates in 2010 and before, when just 1.4 million people visited.

The government estimates tourism has the potential to generate $6 billion annually and some 300,000 jobs.

Colombia has coastline on both the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, Amazonian jungle, Andean glaciers and cosmopolitan urban areas, as well as a plethora of adventure sports and wildlife.

Moreno and his colleagues are optimistic about their future on the river.

"We want peace," Moreno said, standing on a beach along the Pato in the suffocating heat. "We believe a different Colombia is possible."

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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