Jenny Pearce, ‘Give Peace a Chance’, Lessons for Colombia from the Central American Peace Processes

Give Peace A Chance: Towards Violence Reduction not Reproduction after War. Lessons for Colombia from the Central American Peace Processes

 PDF version available here.

Professor Jenny Pearce

The Colombian Peace Talks: Lessons from Other Negotiations

LSE 13 March 2013


I have been asked in this presentation to consider the lessons of other peace processes in Latin America, and in particular how Colombia might avoid the post war violences which have engulfed El Salvador and Guatemala in particular, following their peace accords of 1992 and 1996 respectively. There are many pitfalls in drawing lessons from other peace processes. There are many differences between the national and international contexts of civil war in Colombia and Central America and the timing and dynamics behind their peace processes.  On considering which components to highlight for a brief presentation, I decided to focus on the tension between ending war and building peace as a theme which runs through all peace processes. Despite their many differences, the three countries discussed here all have experiences of protracted violences in multiple dimensions of social life and also perpetrated by state actors as well as non-state armed actors. Ending the war between the latter is a critically important moment. However, it is only the first step towards peace.

The ending of war becomes something the parties can for various reasons contemplate: e.g. weakness/defeat in the case of the URNG in Guatemala; stalemate in the case of El Salvador; and something in between in the case of Colombia, where access to resources coupled with the complexity of geography, make it possible for the FARC to continue fighting even while they are militarily a much weakened force. Peace is given a chance. Or rather, the ending of war is given a chance, thus paving the way for a peace as a possibility to be realized. While peace negotiations are undoubtedly occupying the minds of everyone in Colombia, the main argument of my presentation is that they only open the chance for peace. By peace, I mean something quite specific but enormously complex: the conditions for people to live without violence.

Table 1 below shows the levels of violence in Latin America measured in homicides per 100,000 (an inadequate but comparable measure) according to countries which have experienced armed conflicts and those which haven’t. It is based on 2011 figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and compiled by Dinorah Azpuru[1], in a chapter which attempts to quantify the impacts on democracy and the state in seven countries which have experienced conflicts in the region[2]. Azpuru’s overall conclusion is that the group of conflict/post war countries suffer from the same problems of social and political exclusion as other post authoritarian countries in the region. The main difference is in levels of crime and violence and lack of state capacity to contain them. Unpacking the figures, there are other stories.  For instance, if they were disaggregated according to age, 90 per 100,000 of the deaths are in the 15 to 34 age group; and according to gender, they are mostly young men. At the same time, the figures do not make visible the phenomenon of feminicide; i.e. violence against women as women, and a concept which Guatemala and Mexico (but the north rather than the South where the Zapatista uprising took place) have virtually contributed to the lexicon of violence. At the same time, Honduras was a base for US military operations during the Central American civil wars rather than a site of war itself, and yet has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America. Peru, on the other hand, which experienced a very violent insurgency and counterinsurgency, has not experience the wave of violences of El Salvador and Guatemala.

Table 1. Violence in post conflict and post authoritarian contexts.

(from Azpuru, D. (2012) Democracy and Governance in Conflict and Postwar Latin America in Arnson, C. (ed)  In the Wake of War Stanford: Stanford University Press pg 53)


HOMICIDES per 100,000
















HOMICIDES per 100,000





















Latin America as a region remains alongside Southern Africa, the most violent in the world.   What was it about the Salvadorean and Guatemalan peace accords which meant that war ended but violence didn’t? Can anything be learnt for Colombia?

I have selected four themes which emerge from the Salvadorean and Guatemalan peace processes and which could be relevant to the Colombian case. They are not exhaustive but they make us think about how a less violent and more equitable peace might be achieved.

1.   Elites, Violence and Peace

Both the Salvadorean and Guatemalan peace processes reflected elite divisions at the time. The emergence of significant sectors of the elite in each country, who had the vision to acknowledge that economic circumstances required accommodations that could pave the way for economic modernisation, played an important role in the peace talks. Indeed, in both countries, President Cristiani (El Salvador) and President Arzu (Guatemala) represented the rise of those sectors. In Guatemala, the war had ended already when the peace talks began, but the country could be brought back into the international community through the talks, and overcome the stigma of its shocking human rights record.

The international community underestimated, I would argue, that the opportunity for economic modernisation is what drove these processes, not a sincere commitment to peace amongst elites. In both cases, the old agro-export model had collapsed, indeed, it had begun to do so in the 1970s, the decade in which guerilla insurgencies gained momentum. I think this point is important for Colombia, as it is also true for the cattle ranching sector, in that country. The question is will that sector, with links to the far right and headed by former president Uribe, be able to scupper the peace if not the negotiation? They were too weak to stop the peace in Guatemala and El Salvador. However, the links between important sectors of the elite in both countries and drug trafficking remain a major obstacle to peace and to state building. The ongoing role of right wing, anti-democratic thinking and practice in both El Salvador and Guatemala has enabled the state to use the ‘new’ violences of youth gangs to justify repressive and authoritarian state responses. Such responses have, I would suggest, allowed the state to reproduce violence through the ‘security’ measures which people are desperate for. The most positive, but extremely difficult peace initiative at the moment, is the truce between the two most important Salvadorean gangs. In Colombia, peace with the FARC takes away from former President Uribe all the justification for militarism/paramilitarism. This would also economically weaken the traditional landowning sector and the new elites which have entered it through drug trafficking and corruption. President Santos is arguably as driven as Cristiani and Arzu, by the desire for Colombia to join the rising economies of Latin America and play its role on the global stage. However, he deals with a far right which still enjoys considerable economic power and has leverage through Uribe’s influence on the electorate and the electorate’s mistrust of the FARC. Uribe can effectively play the card of ‘security’ over ‘peace’ should the fighting intensify and other armed groups (including the criminal armed groups who emerged from the ‘demobilised’ paramilitary) continue to prey on communities. Thus violence becomes a tool for some elites, which perpetuates the zozobra, the everyday fears and anxieties, of Colombians and strengthens authoritarian instincts of a hard pressed population desperate to live secure lives.

2.   The Political Economy of Peace

Three key points:

  1. The Land Question

Neither the Salvadorean nor the Guatemalan peace processes posed the question of land reform. In the Salvadorean case this was simply not on the agenda, and if it had been, the peace accord would probably not have been signed.  Of the 118 provisions, 81 or 68.6% focussed on demilitarisation of state, state institutions to oversee accord implementation and FMLN political participation 18.6%, and only 12.7% economic and social issues[3]  In Guatemala, the URNG had no leverage to promote land reform, although it was a key issue for the civil society groups who debated in parallel to the armed actors in the Civil Society Assembly. The collapse of peasant agriculture and food insecurity has been the outcome, particularly in El Salvador but also Guatemala. Biofuels, African palm and mining are the legal axes of these economies. In Guatemala, mining projects clash head on with indigenous communities and their rights to land and the meaning of land in their culture. This generates new sources of conflict and violence.

In the case of El Salvador, remittances from migrants to the US have mitigated the impact of the absence of attention to peasant livelihoods. It also led to rapid urbanisation and accompanying problems and rise of urban poverty. Refugee families during the war ended up in Los Angeles, which became the second city of that country. However, sons came in contact with urban gangs. Imprisonment led to deportation and gangs were reformed in El Salvador, leading to escalating violence. Meanwhile, rural development in former war zones remains very weak. In Guatemala, migration has also had some mitigating impact, but the ongoing gaps in income and opportunity, particularly as these coincided with its indigenous majority, remain shocking. The Human Development Index (HDI) for the high income strata of Guatemala was 0.90 in 2011, well above the average for Latin America and close to that of developed countries, whereas that for the lower income stratum it was 0.52, comparable to that of Sub-Saharan Africa[4] .

Colombia has rightly put the land question as the first question for the peace dialogue. But clearly there is a tension over land access, the future of the peasant economy and the export sector, which currently rests principally on oil and mining. Balancing the process of economic modernisation and restructuring with building peace and livelihoods for all, is critical. Peasant agriculture as a source of food security, livelihoods and anti-poverty policies, is a vital foundation for avoiding the negative social and economic effects of modernisation which fails to take people into account. The strengthening of the legal economy is essential if the route to quick wealth offered by drugs is not to undermine communities and turn demobilised combatants into sources of criminalised violence, as happened in Colombia with the former paramilitary.

2. Economic Modernisation and Restructuring

In the 1990s, peace processes corresponded with structural adjustment and the rise of neoliberal economic policies. Economic processes in both El Salvador and Guatemala paid no attention to the impact of structural adjustment, reduction of state spending and loss of jobs on peace. The international community paid for peace programmes and the fiscal weakness of both the Guatemalan and Salvadorean states, due to the very low taxation rate, meant that elites (who had played a major role in siding with abusive armed forces and even set up death squads) paid no costs of the peace. Guatemala still has the lowest taxation of almost any country in the world, one of the weakest states and one of the most corrupt and venal ruling elites.

3. Who finances the peace?

Which brings me to a key point for Colombia from both El Salvador and Guatemala. How to finance the peace? In Colombia, with the thousands of armed actors to be demobilised from guerillas, and the armed forces and the urgent need to generate alternative legal job opportunities for young men and women, the cost of building the peace is very high. The Colombian elite were at one point prepared to pay a war tax, I would propose they are asked now to pay a ‘Peace Tax’. Without a proper funding of the peace, and until a better approach is found to drugs trafficking, criminal organisations will exploit the sense of no future and short termism that many young men caught up in violence have and which is a source of violence reproduction. An effective state is also vital to peace building, and without a tax base, such a state has remained elusive in both El Salvador and Guatemala. A particular weakness impacting on the spread of violence, is the ongoing absence of an effective rule of law.

3. Building and Sustaining Peoples Support for Peace

Financing the peace is vital to sustaining support for peace. Given the strength of opposition to peace in Colombia and the evidence of ebb and flow of popular backing for it, the question of how to mobilise and sustain support for peace will overshadow the process. In Guatemala, structural adjustment and privatisation of utilities led to provision of electricity, for example, but at a price poor communities could not afford. When the Peace Accords were put to the population in a referendum in 1999 to then incorporate them into the constitution, only 19% of the population voted and they voted no.

Here I would emphasise the importance of seeing social movements and other organisations (e.g. NGOs) in what is known as ‘civil society’ as vital to both building the peace and deepening democracy. The problem in El Salvador was that civil society was highly controlled by political parties. El Salvador is interesting because the FMLN remained intact and made the transition to politics reasonably well, although it took it 17 years to win a national election, its victory in 2009 was highly significant. However, many social organisations remained in its shadow, while others, as in Guatemala became heavily dependent on donor funding. In Guatemala, there was a very important process of civil society accompaniment of the peace accords, the Civil Society Assembly. This did mobilise support during the negotiations and fed in important demands. But it did not survive the peace. Donor funding focussed mostly on urban NGOs, many of whom lost links to the people in the rural hinterlands where the war had impacted most[5]. I remember being in Huehuetenango, talking to an indigenous leader, who told me he wanted nothing more to do with civil society or peace. Neither he felt had brought a better life for the people of Guatemala, and donor money had divided his organisation of indigenous activists for rights long denied this population.

Sustaining support for the peace and peacebuilding becomes more complex as violence grows, as it did in El Salvador and Guatemala. Ongoing impunity, the weakness of the rule of law and repressive, violence reproducing security policies contributed in both countries to eroding belief in peace. Security was not seen as a peace and democracy issue. The rise of privatised security rather than thinking of security as a public good, equitably distributed, means that the poor are likely to be left at the mercy of abusive, ill-trained state security agents or de facto security by armed gangs and criminal organisations.

Lack of faith in the justice system led to a wave of lynchings in Guatemala. In El Salvador, hard line, mano dura, policies, reactivated the repressive aspects of the state security agents, despite an effort to create a new police force. Society panicked as the murder rate climbed and laid the foundations for ongoing support for authoritarian and violence reproducing state actions in the name of ‘security’. Underpinning this failure of the rule of law to emerge was the failure of transitional justice, amnesties for past crimes, and truth commissions which required no recognition by perpetrators of atrocities committed in the war. The issue of transitional justice hangs over the Colombian peace process, and the complexities of how to bring armed actors to the table if amnesties are not on offer, or of the Colombian army’s ambivalence toward a process in which their crimes may be taken into account as well as those of the FARC, remain amongst the most difficult the peace will have to confront. Is ‘pardon the price of peace’, as some peacemakers in Colombia are arguing? And if so, what impact does this have on the prospects for addressing violences within societies traumatised by many personal tragedies, primarily of the victims, but also of the individuals who have committed unbelievable acts of cruelty without penalty.

4.   Gendered Peace and the Reproduction of Violence

Colombia has a huge ongoing problem of diffuse violences of all kinds. Recognising that the violences of the war are not the only violences that matter, is an essential underpinning of how peace is understood.  This did not happen in El Salvador and Guatemala. Nor was there any real understanding of the traumatic legacy of the violence of the pre-war situation, the violences of the war and what was likely to continue after the war. Nor of the mechanisms of violence diffusion through the socialisation spaces, from the intimate spaces, to the street, to the prison, to the schools and to the very formation of the state and its institutions[6].

The peace negotiations represented a ‘gendered peace’[7]. A 2010 report from UNIFEM, points to the decline since the Salvadorean and Guatemalan peace accords of women’s presence round the mesas de dialogo or dialogue tables. Exploring 24 peace accords between 1992 and 2009, they found that women’s presence adds up to merely 1 to 14 men. In El Salvador and Guatemala, there was a 12% and 11% representation of women, and though very small (over 40% of Salvadorean combatants were women), considerable compared to recent peace processes, a number of which have had no women’s presence at all[8].

Does this matter? I would argue strongly that it does, and not just for reasons of equity and ensuring that the ‘other half’ of the population are represented in the historic turning point for the societies in question. Women’s experience of violence is different. While most violence is committed by young men on young men, a gender approach makes visible the violences against women and its impacts on future generations growing up in households of fear. Contemporary feminism has begun to take on board constructions of masculinity and how that reproduces violences through the generations. Amongst the violences which have emerged post war in Guatemala and El Salvador, is Feminicide, as mentioned earlier, violence against women because they are women. This makes visible a phenomenon hidden under the word ‘homicide’ and which has played a role in Colombia also. Violence mutates, when it is not addressed. All three countries demonstrate this phenomenon, from lynchings to extortion of all kinds in communities, underpinned by the threat of violence. Failure to recognise the significance of multiple violences impacts on the next generation. But women have also played a vital role in desanctioning and questioning violences. The women of Oriente Antioqueno, Amor, and the Ruta Pacifica, are examples of courageous women’s voices being mobilised against violence of all kinds in Colombia. These are vital to the peace and should be given every support society can muster.

These voices need to be heard in the table of dialogue, so that violence and not just war is considered as part of the peace process. Women need to talk about these non-war violences and to explain their significance to peace. Nothing in my view is more important to the peace. And giving priority to violence, understanding it better, requires building spaces for human interactions and state development which do not reproduce violence.  Peace needs a public security provision which is not abusive of citizens and reduces rather than reproduces violence. Women and particularly feminists, who have given attention to the power relations between the genders, must be part of the thinking and practice about peace. This would, I argue, create the best chance for peace in Colombia and comes out as a clear message from the Guatemalan and Salvadorean peace processes.

[1] Azpuru (2012) Democracy and Governance in Conflict and Postwar Latin America in Arnson, C. (ed)  In the Wake of War Stanford: Stanford University Press pgs 35-67

[2] The selection of countries is not entirely satisfactory, as the author and editor of the volume of which the chapter forms part acknowledge. ie the Chiapas conflict in Mexico and the violence in Haiti are not of the same order as the civil wars of Central America, Peru and Colombia.

[3] Cordova Macias, R. and Ramos, C. (2012) The Peace Process and the Construction of Democracy in El Salvador: Progress, Deficiencies and Challenges, in Arnson, C. (ed). op cit:85

[4] Torres Rivas, E. (2012) The Limits of Peace and Democracy in Guatemala, in Arnson, c. (ed) op.cit:125)

[5] Howell, J. and Pearce J. (2001) Civil Society and Development  Chapter 7, Civil Society Discourses and The Guatemalan Peace Process, pp 147-228

[6] Pearce J. (2006) ‘Bringing Violence “Back Home”: Gender Socialisation and the Transmission of Violence through Time and Space ‘ global Civil Society 2006/2007 London: Sage 42:61

[7] Pankhurst, D. (ed) Gendered Peace Womens’ Strugges for Post-War Justice and Reconciliation, London:Routledge

[8]  UNIFEM (2010) Women’s Participation in Peace Negotiations downloaded 21 March 2013

12 April (Sussex): In Search of Peace in Colombia – Unwrapping the Santos-FARC Peace Talks

Friday 12 April
13:00 until 18:00
University of Sussex

This half-day event aims to consolidate a group of UK-based Latin America scholars concerned with Colombia and, specifically, with the present peace process between the Colombian Government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP).

As the result of collaboration between several scholars, an academic working group (British Academics for a Colombia Under Peace – BACUP) has been established, which will consistently follow the developments of the Santos-FARC peace talks with the aim to formulate academically robust and policy relevant research projects, as well as to offer suggestions for  civil society’s constructive role in the process. Until now the talks have been a very dynamic process. While FARC spokespersons regularly eschew the identification of a date for the signing of a final peace agreement, which could bring about a formal end the armed conflict, President Santos continuously reinforces the need for a quick fix solution. President Santos has stated that the talks should come to an end before November 2013. Moreover, after visiting Havana in March, the Head of Colombian Senate stated that Congress is asking the negotiation teams to reach an agreement by August 2013.

This time pressure, linked to the Colombian electoral cycle, reinforces the importance of the working group. With timely academic interventions the group could offer a non-partisan view to shed light on some of the obstacles that the peace talks face. In particular, Colombian experts in the group are able to offer profound knowledge and experience of the country, whilst other members of the group offer comparative experience of peace processes in other Latin American contexts.

This event is scheduled to take place on 12 April 2013. By then, according to the peace agenda, the talks should already have reached an agreement on one of the thorniest issues for Colombian society: access to land and rural development. Consequently, the group should be able to offer an interesting perspective on the process thus far, whilst at the same time being able to analyse the prospective trajectory of the talks.

 The event will be structured around the three following panels: (1) Land, Crime, and Elites (2) Regions, Media, and Geopolitics (3) Civil Society Initiatives: integrating collective efforts to support peace

These broad panels will allow participants from a variety of academic and policy backgrounds, including International Relations, Latin American Studies, Peace and Conflict Resolution, Political Science, Human Rights, International Development, and Critical Security Studies, to elaborate on a series of key challenges the peace talks face. The formulation of an inter-disciplinary approach is key to understand (a) how the peace process is represented; (b) its impacts upon political discourses; (c) what roles different state and non-state, legal and illegal-criminal and domestic and international actors play (i.e., political, military, spoilers, business elites, criminal organizations, civil society); and (d) what the peace talks’ potential long-term impact could be in Colombia. Of particular significance to both the policy and academic communities is the fact that the working group will indirectly engage with a set of fundamental questions of growing relevance to the scholarship and practitioner field of peace and conflict studies: To what extent is the Colombian peace process sustainable? In what ways, if any, does it address the root causes of conflict? Are the peace talks a Colombian way of at Liberal Peace?

There are a limited number of places available: register here

Is BACRIM just a new name for paramilitaries?

Is BACRIM just a new name for paramilitaries?

By Grace Livingstone

Should academics accept the Colombian government’s term ‘BACRIM’ (bandas criminales/criminal groups), when the evidence shows that these armed groups are largely made up of former paramilitaries, that they target the same people and that they frequently collude with the state?

There is a danger in using the term BACRIM that we let the Colombian authorities – local and national – off the hook and give the impression that tackling them will be a simple matter of arresting a few crooks. In fact it will be far more complex because these armed groups control territory, are economically powerful and have strong ties to local political elites.

The most recent report by the  United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia (Jan 2012), pointed out that 53% of BACRIM are former paramilitaries, that they target social leaders and they have colluded with local authorities and state security forces.

I have pasted the relevant section below and highlighted some of the key points. The full report can be seen here.

Illegal armed groups that emerged after demobilization of paramilitary organizations

37. In 2011, OHCHR-Colombia noted with concern the continuous expansion of illegal armed groups that emerged after the demobilization of paramilitary organizations. These groups, which are deeply involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activities, generally avoid confrontation with security forces and have a devastating impact on the population.

38. The High Commissioner expresses her great concern about the increasing violence caused by these groups, including against social leaders and public officials. The number of massacres and victims attributed to such groups continues to rise, especially in Antioquia and Córdoba. This violence occurs during confrontations between groups or within the same group, occasionally against guerrilla groups, and in several instances during direct attacks against the population. The Police reported that 53 per cent of the members of these groups who have been captured or killed to date were demobilized paramilitaries.

39. These illegal armed groups are present in most departments and have significant capacity to recruit, including children and adolescents, and use criminal structures and
sicarios to support their activities. To carry out their criminal activities, these groups control territory, restrict the freedom of movement of the population, and perform a “social control”, imposing their code of conduct and public sanctions, and “resolving” social conflicts, often brutally. In the case of ERPAC, due to the absence of “opposing” groups and the limited State presence in the area, there is little, if any, outside public awareness of the group’s impact on the population.

40. In February, the Government convened its first National Security Council to address threats posed by these groups. It prioritized inter-institutional coordination in order to advance in the investigation, prosecution and dismantling of their support structures.

41. Combating these groups should be part of an integrated strategy, and not be limited to the use of armed force by the Police and the Military, which must strictly adhere to human rights law in performing their task. The strategy to dismantle these groups should include policies to overcome poverty and marginalization, in particular for children and adolescents, as well as protection measures for local authorities and judicial officials.

42. OHCHR-Colombia continues to be concerned about indications that these groups benefit from the collusion of some local authorities and members of security forces, due primarily to corruption, intimidation and threats. In May, agents of the Technical Investigation Unit and the Attorney General’s Office arrested 37 officials in Nuquí and Bahía Solano, Chocó, including members of the Police, the judicial system and local administrations, for collaborating with these groups.

43. To support their criminal activities, groups have forcibly appropriated or retained properties previously stolen by paramilitary groups and their networks, which may be included in the Government’s land restitution policies. Thus, the increased violence by these groups represents an undeniable risk for people seeking to recover their land and for the sustainability of the overall restitution process. An illustration of this is the killing and threats against leaders and other people involved in land restitution processes in the region of Urabá.


An in-depth of analysis of  ‘Colombia’s New Armed Groups written by Markus Schultze Kraft for the International Crisis Group in May 2007 can be found here.

The recently published OHCHR-Colombia report 2012 is available here. The discussion of post-demobilisation groups can be found in paragraphs 86-89.