Colombia: A democratic solution for economic violence

In Eastern Colombia, in the Municipality of Saravena, Colombia, three community leaders were killed by the Colombian military on August 5, 2004.  Jorge Prieto was the president of the Arauca Brand of the health workers union ANTHOC; Hector Alirio Martinez was the leader of the Arauca Department Association of Peasant Farmers; and the third was Leonel Goyeneche, who was a member of the largest trade union in Colombia, the CUT.   According to Amnesty International, those responsible for the crime were soldiers who were part of the Battalion of the XVIII Brigade of the army.[1]

The assassinations sparked international outrage, and in a rare conviction four people including army Lieutenant Juan Pablo Ordóñez and three soldiers were charged and sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2007.[2] An investigation showed that the three activists had not been killed in combat, but rather in the back of the head.  Violence is not new to Colombia, and a civil war has claimed thousands of lives and displaced more than 3 million internally.[3] Depending on which model of conflict is used to analyze the situation, peace building would require different actions.  This paper examines the international forces that are mediated through national policy to explain state violence against non violent activists.

Edward Azar:  Protracted Social Conflict

The effects of trade, foreign aid, and multinational companies have a large role in the violence. Colombia is the only South American country to remain mired in conflict, despite many shared commonalities that exist in the region.  Edwards Azar’s theory of Protracted Social Conflict (PSC) provides a useful framework for understanding the violence in Arauca.  PSC theory uses the social group as the unit of analysis and understands conflict by a social group’s relation with the state.  Social policies and democratic procedures can exclude a segment of the population based upon their social identity.  Describing the kind of governance in which a PSC is most likely is one that “tends to be monopolized by the dominant identity group or a coalition of hegemonic groups’ which use the state to maximize their interests at the expense of others”[4] This theory helps us understand ‘violence from above’ that targets nonviolent civil resistance to state policies.  Oil development in Arauca is seen as a benefit to the governing institution that is centralized in the metropolitan capital Bogota`, and resistance to the policies is seen as illegitimate.  This creates a clash of interests between the citizens of Arauca and their government.

Cecilia Lopez, a presidential candidate in the 2009 election contributed an essay to the book Colombia: Essays on Conflict, Peace and Development, says that poverty is an effect of limited democracy and is not the driving force of the conflict.  Poverty alone does not cause violence, “the cause… and the resulting escalation in violence, is the insufficiently acknowledged political, economic, and social exclusion which has characterized its [Colombia’s] society.”[5] The solution is to fundamentally change the power structures and opportunities for citizen participation. Unless citizens have a greater say in determining their own fate, the cycle of poverty and violence will continue.

Democracy is also hindered because of the high levels of violence.   Armed groups on the left and the right have created a climate of fear and persecution during election time that impacts voting procedures.   Politicians and judges have been targeted for their political beliefs which inhibit specific ideas and political platforms from ever being voted for or against. The structures of violence are so ingrained that even after the political will has been established to change things; it will take many years to implement democratic forms.  Only until violence subsides and people can be involved in politics without fear, can there truly be democratic participation.

. As illustrated by the deaths of the three community leaders, the military was directly responsible for the deaths of peaceful activists, which can only be interpreted that their work was interpreted as a threat by the ruling powers. Human rights group US Labor and Education Project (USLEAP) has documented the impunity of trade unionist is at 95%. [6] The fact that some people were held responsible for this crime was due only to international outrage rather than recognition that the actions were wrong.  By initially accusing the men as guerrilla fighters to justify their deaths also shows that most likely this type of crime is not even seen as legitimate by the other social groups that the government does represent.


The exclusion of large segments of Colombian society from political participation is a consistent grievance, and some have argued that this is the true root cause of the violent conflict.  However, the narrative of human rights groups in Arauca faults the government in their complicity, but is not trying to call into question the legitimacy of the state as is the case in other conflicts.

As the example in Arauca showed, the community still appealed to the judicial system despite a narrative of complicity in the violence by other Colombian institutions.  Two prominent and separate issues are pointed out in the narrative.  One, that laws exist that are not being applied to perpetrators; secondly, that unjust laws exist that are being used to jail activists.  In the same town that the three community leaders were killed, in 2002 hundreds of people were rounded up and closed off in the stadium on charges of ‘rebellion’.  Tens of people were subsequently arrested.[7] While many were released not long after, the arbitrary nature of arrests as well as the application and definition of ‘rebellion’ allow existing community tensions to be exacerbated by armed groups on a relational level.  Activists claim that this charge is used to jail social activists and to criminalize legitimate protest.

By appealing to the existing system rather than rejecting it outright, shows that there is some degree of legitimacy despite the problems. As more and more favorable cases work themselves through the judiciary, perhaps more judges will be emboldened to apply the law, and controversial laws can be changed.  Reinforcement can help strengthen and empower these institutions.

Azar’s theory does not account for the commitment to non-violence by the community in Saravena, and a rejection of all armed groups, yet the protracted conflict continues.  Violence comes not only from above, but from guerrilla groups as well that operate in the area.  Collier’s theory of a war economy can help explain the high levels and brutality of the violence, as well as the incentives for why the government is not responsive to the needs of such a large portion of its citizens.

[1] date accessed 11/18/09

[2] date accessed 11/9/09


[4] Oliver Ramsbotham, Tom Woodhouse, and Hugh Miall, Contemporary Conflict Resolution:  the prevention, management sand Transformation of Deadly Conflicts, Oxford:  Polity Press, 2005 (Second Edition): 0-7456-3213-0 (paperback),  pg. 87.

[5] Cecilia Lopez Montano, Arturo Garcia Duran. “The hidden costs of War.”  Colombia- Essays on Conflict, Peace and Development. The World Bank, The International Bank of Development, 2000. pg. 81

[6] date accessed 11/12/09



About Musings over Coffee

Fitness enthusiast. Love to travel, mess up recipes, ponder random things, get riled up about the news, all of which nearly always coinciding with one of my favorite things in the world: Coffee.
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