Neither ‘Power Vacuum’ nor ‘Criminal Anarchy’: Colombia’s Peace Meltdown

By Jorge Mantilla*

September 27, 2020

In the last month, a spike in massacres has shocked Colombians. Despite Colombia recently registering its lowest homicide rate in the last 46 years, massacres – defined by the UN as the killing of three or more people in a single incident – have increased by  roughly 30% since President Ivan Duque took office in 2018. According to data collected by the Office of the United Nations for Human Rights (OHCHR), in 2019, 36 massacres were registered in Colombia, the highest number since 2014. To date, more than 50 massacres have been perpetrated in 2020, even under mandatory lockdowns due to COVID-19.  Other forms of violence associated with civil wars, such as forced recruitment by criminal groups and landmine fatalities, have also increased. The latter reflects the high number of former combatants (221) and social leaders (971) killed since the peace agreement with the former FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) in 2016, leading the country to a new cycle of protracted violence.  While the government tries to prevent violence through military operations carried out in areas with coca crops, violence continues to sweep through both urban and rural communities.

To understand this phenomenon and the underlying dynamics of predominantly localised violence, we need to step back from mainstream narratives that have described Latin America’s violence over the last few decades as part of a ‘war on drugs’ linked to the ‘absence of the state’ and ‘criminal anarchy.’

Going beyond the ‘Strategic Accounts’ 

Traditional accounts of persisting criminal violence in Colombia, and the policies to curb it are dominated by two main narratives that are insufficient to explain enduring, contemporary violence in Colombia specifically, and Latin America more broadly. Indeed, the ‘war on drugs’ and ‘armed conflict’ narratives dominate international perceptions of Colombia and have also determined the theoretical frameworks shaping security interventions in the country. Both of these narratives are conflated in the ‘narco-terrorist’ buzz word that fascinates politicians and journalists. Although both factors – the war on drugs and armed conflict – are part of Colombia’s history of violence, these narratives confuse the public, including decision-makers. Therefore, it is urgent to challenge the common misunderstandings of violence that are impeding the consolidation of stability and peace in Colombia.

Police stand on guard after burning a coca laboratory near Tumaco, Colombia, June 2008. Credit: AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez.

Power vacuum

One of the common misconceptions about the recent armed confrontation in Colombia is the idea that the demobilisation of FARC created a power vacuum in peripheries that is being filled by other armed groups. The truth is that when it comes to the politics of crime, ‘vacuum’ is an inoperable concept. With very few exceptions after 2002, FARC was unable to exercise exclusive territorial control. That was the very success of the counterinsurgency strategy of ex-president Uribe Velez between 2002 and 2010. Although there is an ongoing reorganization of who controls and profits from illegal rents from drugs, mining, and other activities, given the window of opportunity generated by FARC’s demobilization, the reality is that different forms of diversely structured authority – including the state – have long coexisted in territories traditionally affected by violence.

From community councils to civic organizations, to coca growers’ cooperatives and various extralegal actors – all have defined social norms and rules in addition to those of the state, even after FARC’s demobilization. What seems to have changed are the predictable rules and mechanisms through which FARC used to interact with these forms of local authorities. These forms of interactions were invariably marked by conflict, cooperation, competence, or co-optation. Under the contested military control of ELN, Clan del Golfo, Farc dissidents, and emerging local militias, these rules are now highly unstable and impossible to read with a ‘national security’ lens in the context of criminal degradation.

Another characteristic that was essential to FARC was that it was the only armed group capable of operating as a single unit across Colombia. What we have now is a myriad of local militias fighting different types of highly localised regional conflicts. Not even the remaining leftist guerrilla Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), or the cartel type formation of ‘Clan del Golfo’, or the FARC dissidents that are now dedicated full-time to illegal profit accumulation, can be read as monolithic actors. For instance, while ELN conducts intense wars with Clan del Golfo in the pacific region, they hold non-aggression pacts with this same group in the Colombian Caribbean towns.

Inevitably, the new cycle of protracted violence taking place in Colombia is more about the fact that the actors now in control have highly localised and varied agendas, making them more difficult to approach and challenge with one overall strategy. Rather than a ‘power vacuum’, the underlying mechanisms behind massacres are ones of contested power fragmentation among these groups, including FARC dissidents. Policymakers and other official and unofficial stakeholders need to recognise this evolution in the landscape of criminal violence in Colombia.

Absence of the State

The idea of a ‘power vacuum’ can be seen as promoting a counterproductive security policy, according to which violence is viewed as the result of state absence. In this view, state presence is the solution to criminal violence. In contexts like Latin America, where the norm is that states exert their functions in limited or intermittent ways, the most crucial question is why the state voluntarily decides not to hold the monopoly of violence in certain regions, even if it is capable of doing so. As Guillermo Trejos and Sandra Ley show for the Mexican case, in Colombia, organised crime’s political economy revolves around competitive state-making, where organised crime groups compete with the state over taxation, coercion, and representation. Hence, the problem of violence in Colombia and other countries in Latin America is not that the state is absent, but that there are other forms of statehood, including criminal governance, informal governance, and delegation of state authority into the hands of illicit actors. 

Of course, the Colombian state’s limited provision of security, justice, and public services is pronounced in places where FARC used to operate. However, these limitations are not related to the amount of state presence in certain municipalities but more to do with the quality of state presence and the relationship the state has with illegal economies. In many municipalities, including large urban areas, state presence is not a synonym for legality or safety. This ‘shady’ relationship between the state and organised criminal groups is even more palpable in borderland cities where statehood is permanently contested, and governance obeys a daily-based bargain between the state, communities, and local militias.

As a result, the ‘absence of the state’ perspective fails to acknowledge everyday state-criminal interactions and the fact that the state is just one form of political authority in places where marginalized communities make a living out of informal or illegal economies. Moreover, this narrative has important policy implications, encouraging militarized responses to insecurity that in the long term stigmatise and victimise innocent populations. 

Criminal Anarchy

In the Colombian case, the power vacuum thesis is the corollary to the idea of ‘criminal anarchy’. According to pundits that uphold this idea, as long as there is no hegemonic criminal actor – in this case, FARC, despite the fact that it was not always hegemonic – what we have is a large constellation of criminal groups indiscriminately at war with each other. While it is a convenient idea to describe, what existing analysis and research fails to understand is that there is no criminal anarchy in Colombia. During recent years, the country has witnessed the emergence of regional militias that are highly localized and community-rooted, going through a process of escalating violence and political degradation with repertories including massacres, dismemberments, forced disappearance and mass displacement.

Conversely, despite this degradation in which cruel forms of violence are inflicted against civilians, the most profitable illegal economies, including drug trafficking, remain highly organised in Colombia. In fact, the ongoing spike in violence is not necessarily explained by drug trafficking but by the efforts of fragmented factions and local militias to control a diversified portfolio of illicit economies (i.e. illegal mining, illegal timbering, contraband), informal economies (i.e. prostitution, off the books usury, informal transportation), and the extortion of legal economies (i.e. oil industry, agroindustry, and big cattle hubs).

In the short term, Colombia’s situation is not promising, given how trapped decision-makers and researchers seem to be in the misconceptions unpacked here. Rather than seeing it as a power vacuum or a criminal anarchy, the post-conflict violent turn in Colombia should be understood as the result of regional armed conflicts, in which local armed regimes impose intermittent and often contradictory forms of governance amid thriving informal and illegal economies, all within the context of the state’s rebooted ‘war on drugs’. 

At a time when operational flexibility, local perspectives, and constant dialogue with communities affected by crime and violence are highly needed, the state has decided to push forward a ‘war on drugs’ agenda with an ineffective and harmful toolkit. This approach is incapable of differentiating  between combat economies, shadow economies, and coping economies. In the meantime, explanations of why forms of violence that were considered outgrown have increased, how they are related to illegal economies, and which paths may stop this new bleed out, can be found at the local level. The solutions can be found in areas where new regimes of criminal governance are trying to settle and gather support, far from the grandiloquent narratives of the war on drugs. 

Jorge Mantilla is a PhD candidate in Criminology, Law and Justice at UIC-Chicago. His research covers organized crime, urban violence, illegal markets, and borders.
Follow him on Twitter @jmantillaba

*A shorter version of this post was previously published in Spanish for Nexos Mexico.
Header image credit: Leon Hernandez.

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