The dominant approach to peace in Colombia represents the consolidation of an economic model imposed through ongoing corporate and state-backed violence.

On 30 November 2016, the Colombian Congress ratified a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The process had required more than four years of negotiation, with the final accords signed only weeks after the rejection of a previous deal in a plebiscite dominated by a hawkish far-right.  With the ratification of the agreement, humanitarians across the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. 52 years of armed conflict was at an end. One of the last remnants of Cold War communist insurgency had been put to rest and the vicious counterinsurgency that had terrorised the country would surely have to cease.

On 6 March 2017, Colombia Reports, the main English language news source on Colombia, published an article with the ominous title, ‘Is Colombia going from war to peace to genocide?’. At least 23 social leaders had already been killed in the first three months of peace. Fears of a renewed and intensified wave of violence at the hands of rightwing paramilitaries appeared to be justified.

There has been so much opposition to the accords from bellicose beneficiaries of the war that ‘peace at any price’ is often portrayed as the only fitting response of those with progressive politics. After all, the argument goes, is anything not better than war?  Those in the most conflict-affected regions voted overwhelming for the peace deal, and surely we always knew there would have to be compromise? This is the blackmail of the either/or.  We are encouraged to think in binaries.  Either war or peace. Incivility versus civility. Evil versus justice. Either this peace or the continuation of an intolerable violence. Those who express caution about the peace deal’s prospects for paving the way to ‘post-conflict’ must be churlish or, at best, naively idealistic.

Extreme violence is often batted away as something belonging outside of modernity, the work of unintelligible Others that development and humanistic intervention is poised to overcome. Violence is framed as an absence: an absence of order, of the rule of law, of a suitably strong state. For peace to be possible, we must plug the gaps: reintegrate combatants, implement law and prosecute perpetrators, fill the stomachs of those whose poverty might otherwise constitute a grievance. The state, meanwhile, is a neutral third party, the overseer of prosperity, the source of security, the protector of lives that would otherwise (as Hobbes would have it) be ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

Yet the ongoing repression of human rights defenders and community leaders is not an aberration. The recent wave of killings is not a sign of the ineffective or incomplete implementation of the Colombian state’s post-conflict agenda. ‘Peace’ marks the consolidation of an order imposed through massacres and selective assassinations.  Violence permeates the fabric of peace. Only when we see this can we understand its distinctive colour.

A very short history of the last ninety years 

State-backed repression in Colombia has always been enmeshed within the global dynamics of colonial capitalism. The 1928 ‘Massacre of the Banana Workers’, memorialised and fictionalised in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, is a powerful case in point. Over several days, the Colombian armed forces killed more than one thousand striking United Fruit Company workers. The United States had threatened to invade with marine corps if the Colombian government did not take action to protect the company’s interests. By the mid-twentieth century, anti-communism had reached a genocidal pitch.  It was in this context that the leftwing insurgencies of recent decades were established.

The contemporary incarnation of the United Fruit Company, Chiquita Brands, has admitted to making payments of US$1.7 million to state-linked paramilitaries between 1997 and 2004, as well as to supplying the paramilitaries with weapons. These payments led to the murder of more than four thousand civilians in the banana region of Colombia and contributed to the expansion of paramilitarism throughout the country.  Many other transnational corporations have faced similar allegations.

Colombia’s ‘economic opening’ of the early 1990s provided the context for this more recent upsurge of corporate-backed violence. Successive governments adopted and entrenched neoliberal economic policies, geared toward the pursuit of foreign direct investment in natural resources, alongside ‘flexible’ and ‘competitive’ labour markets.  Massacres and selective killings at the hands of paramilitaries were central to this process.  The paramilitaries had been so closely integrated into official military strategy, with the support of ongoing US military aid, that Human Rights Watch referred to them as the ‘sixth division’ of the Colombian army.

As workers were stripped of hard-won rights, trade unionists were subject to repression so widespread and brutal that historian Renan Vega coined the term ‘sindicalicidio’ – or trade union genocide – to make sense of it. From the mid-1990s, state-backed paramilitaries began to take over entire regions, chainsaws in hand. Those deemed subversive or surplus to requirements were displaced or disappeared. Landholdings were concentrated and an authoritarian social order imposed. Afterwards, state institutions would add a veneer of legality to the process. In this way, vast swathes of Colombia’s national territory were handed over to the interests of transnational capital.

Colombia’s paramilitaries have never been mere armed mercenaries doing the bidding of whoever pays the bills. They have long been deeply ideological organisations, with a vision of development mirroring that of successive Colombian governments, international financial institutions, UN bodies, transnational corporations and many international NGOs.  Throughout the country, forced displacement and massacres have been accompanied by a humanistic, developmentalist and even conservationist discourse, in accordance with a logic that Humberto Cardenas and Álvaro Marín describe as ‘defending life by sowing death.

In 2005, in a cynical gesture of – at best – cognitive dissonance, the far-right government of Álvaro Uribe Vélez began a peace process with paramilitary groups.  Uribe had been the favored presidential candidate of paramilitary leaders, and it was during his time in office that close-knit ties between paramilitaries and numerous leading politicians were revealed. Drastically-reduced sentences were offered to perpetrators of crimes against humanity in exchange for confessions. Paramilitary groups were ‘recycled’ into the militias who continue to threaten and kill human rights defenders, trade unionists and community leaders. Meanwhile, a larger portion of the official burden of repression was handed back directly to the armed forces, who waged a policy of all-out war on left-wing insurgents. By 2012, the FARC had agreed to enter into peace talks with the government of Uribe’s former minister of defence, Juan Manuel Santos, who has since been honored as the sole recipient of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.

War by other means

The peace talks were, from the outset, negotiations between the government and defeated rebels. President Santos underlined repeatedly that the economic model was not open to discussion.  On the contrary, it was fundamental to paying for the peace. Thus, the very model of development forced upon people through massacres was recast as the key to a sustainable peace.

These policies offer little to arrest ongoing dispossession and forced displacement. Consider the mining boom of recent decades, which has been devastating for populations across Colombia. The Cerrejon open cast coal mine in north-eastern Colombia is just one example. Between 2008 and 2016, the ecological impacts of the mine, forced relocation of the population and the resultant scarcity of water and food caused the deaths of 4,770 Wayuú indigenous children from malnutrition, while the British, Australian and Swiss companies who own the mine made skyrocketing profits – almost US$2 billion in 2014 alone.

These dynamics are set to continue. When we take into account mining concessions already allocated by the government, alongside land designated ‘strategic areas’ for mining, we find that 60 to 70 per cent of the Colombian countryside is destined for mining over the next 30 years. And this is just one sector. Development policy does not just involve mining but also oil, fracking, big dams and largescale agro-industry. ‘Post-conflict development’ promises to bring further militarisation, further dispossession, further depredations against nature.

Yet it gets worse. The very mechanisms put forward to promote ‘peace’ and advance ‘justice’ serve to consolidate what was achieved through state-backed massacres and forced displacement. The 2011 Victims’ and Land Restitution Law is a transitional justice mechanism designed to deal with the return of land to people displaced by the conflict. However, although between six and eight million hectares of land has been seized from peasants and indigenous populations since the 1990s, only 1.8 million hectares is the focus of land-restitution policy. Of that 1.8 million hectares, half is already occupied by megaprojects – an oil well, a dam, a mine and so on. Under the terms of the Victims’ Law, most victims cannot return to their land when there is already someone occupying it ‘in good faith’.

When the majority of victims get their land back (or – more commonly – where they are relocated to ‘unproductive’ land of no use to capital), the Victims’ Law stipulates that they must make ‘productive’ use of it.  In practice, this means that peasants have to agree to farm monocultures of crops such as oil palm, sugar cane, rubber, cocoa and certain vegetables for overseas markets. In order to do so, they take out a loan. Land is not returned but handed over subject to a series of conditions, which include taking on debt in order to be integrated into the very economic model promoted by those who displaced them in the first place.

In this context, demands for another economic model have generated an increasingly repressive response.  Those who mobilise for alternatives are no longer merely enemies of ‘development’ and ‘progress’, as they were labelled by the state and paramilitaries in previous rounds of repression, they are now also enemies of ‘peace’.

The violence behind the violence

 Violence is not simply endemic to attempts at ‘peace’. It is not merely the unfortunate effect of badly-conceived or cynical policies. This ‘peace’ is itself the product of systemic violence, a violence we fail to perceive when we focus only upon militarisation and human rights abuses. In the wake of the horrors that have taken place in Colombia, our gaze is automatically directed to acts that are clearly recognizable as violence: those acts of (normally unlawful) violence perpetrated by easily-identifiable agents.

In his ‘sideways reflections’ on violence, Slavoj Žižek cautions us ‘to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure’ of this immediately visible sort of violence.  We must step back in order to perceive what lies behind it. The backdrop of systemic violence is not perceived, is not visible as violence, because we take it for granted as ‘normal’. It ‘sustains the very zero-level standard’ against which we are trained to identify acts of violence.

The violence of labour casualisation, privatisation, or ecological destruction that takes place in pursuit of development, progress, and growth is not identifiable and measurable in the same way as murders, threats and ‘disappearances’. It is a hidden violence, which leaves its traces in worn-out bodies, overcrowded hospitals, dried up riverbeds.

This hidden violence is engrained within the everyday processes of capital accumulation. Reading Marx through the lens of violence and visibility, Amedeo Policante has suggested that, from the preface to the first German edition of Capital, Marx framed his endeavour as an effort to uncover ‘that force, at once subterranean (unterirdischen) and violent (Gewalten), which he saw operating behind the “civil peace” of nineteenth-century liberal societies’. The vampire spawned by primitive accumulation remains alive within a system sustained through death, but it is ‘hidden, unexpressed and naturalised by the ideological structure that envelops the metabolism that feeds the beast of capital’.

Colonial violence has long been obscured by the coercive imperialism of words, which direct us to think within certain fixed categories, to recognise the world only in certain terms. The very concept of humanity that came to underpin modern doctrines of development and human rights was the product of European scepticism about the humanity of colonised people. In seeking to ascertain whether the indigenous peoples of the newly-conquered Americas should be counted as human or considered ‘slaves by nature’, Spanish Jesuits developed elaborate theological accounts of what it meant to be human. In the early days of modern colonialism, Francisco de Vitoria recognised the property rights of indigenous peoples on the basis that they had the capacity for ‘dominion’ over themselves and therefore possessed human dignity. For indigenous peoples of the Americas, however, to be human is not to be a sovereign individual, separate from nature. Land itself is part of life, to be respected and protected as a living being, not a thing to be defended as mere property or a commodity to be put to ‘productive’ use.

It is important not to romanticise indigeneity, or to suggest that we must defend ‘other cultures’, within the depoliticising strictures of neoliberal multiculturalism. It is, however, imperative to recognise the artifice of words, to be attentive to how ways of seeing that have come to seem ‘common sense’ are in fact historically contingent and parochial frameworks that have thrived upon centuries of plunder. Dominant narratives of humanitarian benevolence do not just cover over systemic violence. They are themselves a form of violence: violence at the level of thought. Stories of lives and struggles are written out – never completely absent but recounted in ways that negate them in the very telling.

In 2015, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights established that the Colombian state must put in place strategies to ensure access to adequate food and drinking water in areas affected by the Cerrejon coal mine (Resolution 60/16). Since then, however, the deaths of Wayuú children and adults have continued unabated. In part, this reflects systematic difficulties with the enforcement of progressive judicial decisions. However, as Colombian lawyer Gustavo Rojas-Páez has underscored, these problems are inseparable from the incapacity of dominant human rights narratives to adequately recognise underlying causes of the harm they purpose to address.

The Commission’s ruling on the Cerrejon mine did not engage with the critique of the capitalist model implied by the plaintiffs’ claim: that the Ranchería river had effectively been privatised when it was diverted and dammed to provide water for use by the mine and agribusiness. Nor could the ruling entertain any challenge to the idea of ‘natural resources’ as commodities available for extraction and large-scale commercialisation.  As such, it failed to contest the dynamics that have led to death and devastation. The underlying assumption is that humans are simply to be supplied with basic needs, in the form of adequate food and water. The corollary is that land is to be known only scientifically, through maps, through categorisations of geological features, soil type, rock type, what can be grown, what can be extracted – not as part of life.

None of this is to say that human rights are not vital tools of resistance. Likewise, modern science is indispensable to movements seeking to measure environmental harm.  It is, rather, to emphasise the forms of injury and struggle that remain invisible when we reduce our understandings of violence so that they fit within the parameters of dominant humanitarian, developmentalist and legal narratives. Tales are unwoven, threaded into new frames, fixed in place with familiar names that give the impression of solidity and manageability.

Globally, the post-Cold War myth of ‘liberal peacebuilding’ is a pronounced example of a narrative that draws a veil over violence. Stories of struggles against capitalist/colonial appropriation and dispossession are barely intelligible within the dominant narrative of peace and conflict transformation. Policy documents and textbooks conjure up a virtual reality that then becomes the obvious terrain for intervention. What happened could only have occurred on a stage populated by the same actors that dramatise every other civil war. Violent Others (‘non-state’ armed actors, cast in the guises of insurgents, terrorists, criminal gangs, reintegrated combatants or the petulant ‘spoilers’ of peace negotiations) are tackled by states hampered by weakness or corruption; and these almost-fatal flaws are to be remedied by the benevolent interventions of the international community. Violence can be located, contained, managed and prevented by a multi-level coalition of expertise in civil society, state-building, peace-building, piecemeal poverty reduction and market-led development. This is a peace that goes hand in hand with neoliberal globalisation, the ‘peace’ said, not long ago, to mark the end of history.

Beyond the liberal peace

It is vital to resist being spellbound by peace-speak, to refuse the blackmail of the either/or, the binary rendering of ‘war’ versus ‘peace’. For many peasant, indigenous, trade union and human rights organisations, this dominant definition of peace is inadmissible. Real peace does not entertain business as usual but demands an end to both armed conflict and social conflict. It necessitates a radically different economic model, a complex reweaving of the social fabric destroyed by years of violence, gentler ways of relating to the land.

In the wake of the FARC peace deal, Colombia’s remaining guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), entered into talks with the government in February 2017. The ELN, who have always placed emphasis on political education and tended to accept the autonomy of social organisations to a far greater extent than the FARC, are working to overcome some of the shortcomings of the FARC peace deal by facilitating the extensive participation of social organisations within their own peace accords.

It would be naïve to suggest that the peace accords between the government and ELN have the capacity to bring about fundamental change. However, the process of engagement with social organisations opens the way to a more open-ended view of peace, a peace that can never be finished while systemic violence remains, but whose very definition remains the focus of conflict and struggle.