Civil War Justice Policy War

Learning to Invest: The Postconflict Lives of Victims and Ex-Combatants in Colombia

Guest post by Catalina Vallejo and Emma Shaw Crane.

A photo of the Colombian countryside. Photo by Pedro Szekely.

It is widely accepted that poverty and inequality are fundamental causes of armed conflict in Colombia. The laws intended to end war in Colombia include not only political measures to negotiate peace but also economic interventions to alleviate poverty. Yet state programs intended to lift victims and ex-combatants out of poverty fail to challenge the very systems that generate inequality and violence. This is, in part, because both reparations and reintegration programs seek to remake individual victims and ex-combatants into entrepreneurs, placing the burden of postconflict recovery on the individual.

The Peace and Justice Law (2005) and the Victims’ Law (2011) borrow from best practices in economic development, providing services ranging from cash reparation and monthly income subsidies to microcredit loans and seminars in small business entrepreneurship. The Victims’ Unit (VU) facilitates reparations to victims of the armed conflict, and the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization (ARN) is responsible for the reintegration of individually demobilized former combatants from both guerrilla and paramilitary groups. Workshops run by the VU and the ARN teach victims and ex-combatants how to budget and run a small business, with an emphasis on what they term “productive projects” (see Figures 1 and 2 for examples of government brochures advertising economic projects). For example, last November women victims of sexual violence were welcomed to a reparations workshop in Bogotá by a video depicting a victim achieving financial stability by investing her economic reparations in a beauty salon. Ex-combatants are also expected to learn economic good sense: as one report put it, “From Demobilized Combatants to Business Owners with Future.

Figure 1: Official campaign from the Victims’ Unit highlighting the town of Mapiripán, where a massacre perpetrated by paramilitaries in 1997 left at least 30 civilians dead. The armed conflict impoverished victims, who were displaced, lost their jobs, dropped out of the educational system, and experience both physical and emotional trauma. The piece reads, “Today Mapiripán rises and shows the entire world that with peace, progress is possible.” [Photo via Unidad de Victimas Instagram Account]

Figure 2: Official advertisement portraying a former FARC member. Ex-combatants who demobilize from armed groups often reintegrate into urban poverty and must seek employment with limited job skills and the stigma of being a perpetrator. The piece reads, “We managed to silence the rifles: this is the first step of peace building.” [Photo via Unidad de Victimas Instagram Account]

Some studies show that poverty alleviation programs for victims and ex-combatants are moderately successful in providing short-term income to their beneficiaries; however, such benefits are often unequal and, in many cases, temporary. Ongoing research suggests that ex-combatants have lower rates of poverty compared to victims. This could be due to the fact that the seven-year reintegration route for the 60,000 individually demobilized former combatants includes more extensive benefits than the reparations route for victims, which is less comprehensive and serves a population of 6.5 million people. However, echoing feminist and postcolonial research on development, our research finds that in many cases, victims and former combatants cannot fulfill the goals of the workshops and end up using these economic resources to cover basic needs or previous debts.

The current focus of the Colombian state on small entrepreneurship is not enough—and it endorses the idea that the success of post-conflict recovery is the responsibility of those who suffered violence directly. Though economic support for individuals is a necessary component of post-conflict recovery, the narrow emphasis on “productive projects” suggests that the correct way to inhabit the postconflict is as a savvy entrepreneur. Furthermore, a focus on individual behavior and choices ignores research suggesting that the reintegration of ex-combatants relies not just on employment, but on welcoming and socially integrated receiving communities.

The case of Colombia indicates how the post-conflict—usually understood as a question of transitional justice—is also an economic project. But the post-conflict in Colombia must be more than an economic intervention that seeks to open the country for business, or remake victims and ex-combatants into entrepreneurs who know how to “properly” invest state assistance. True postconflict reconstruction must address underlying inequalities that perpetuate conflict.

A true end to conflict requires peace with social justice, as outlined in the ambitious peace accords between the government and the FARC in 2016. The accords call for the collective political and economic reincorporation of the FARC and the “structural transformation of rural areas” through comprehensive rural reform and participatory regional planning. They offer a vision of collective economic and structural change that addresses the roots of the armed conflict in Colombia: poverty and inequality. The accords have been ratified. Now they must be fulfilled.

Catalina Vallejo is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation research investigates how the Colombian and Peruvian states value suffering and develop institutional channels to offer reparations to victims of human rights violations related to armed conflict. Emma Shaw Crane is a PhD candidate in American Studies in the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis at New York University. Her dissertation investigates programs of postconflict social repair in Bogotá and Miami, with a focus on the reintegration of combatants.

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