Replacing Armed Governance: the Challenge of ‘Total Peace’ in Colombia

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Contrary to common thought, warzones are not always disorderly scenarios without rules. In most cases, the ways in which citizens must behave in a warzone to avoid being punished is very clear. However, in these afflicted territories it is often the armed groups, and not the states, who largely determine these norms. These social orders constructed through violence have previously been considered ‘criminal’ or ‘rebel’ governance. In this article, we will theorise a new term: armed governance (AG).

President Gustavo Petro’s government in Colombia has set out to deactivate a large part of the armed groups active in the country. To this end, it has adopted a policy called Total Peace, which consists of both negotiation and compelling surrender to demobilise armed groups. However, the plan has been plagued by coordination and execution issues.

In this article, we introduce a new critique. We argue that if Total Peace does not effectively address how to replace armed governance, the policy is doomed to failure and puts the civilian population at risk. Robert Blair and colleagues recently demonstrated that the demobilisation of armed groups creates unique opportunities for the state, in partnership with communal institutions, to regain the trust of citizens and replace armed governance. Conversely, as Ana Arjona has shown that if local institutions are weak, still-active armed groups have strong incentives to fill these vacuums.

In this article, we seek to briefly show the centrality of AG to two sub-regions in northern Colombia. The control over community life held by armed groups in these territories makes it impossible to demobilise them without disrupting the social order. Therefore, the government should expand its thinking from simple demobilisation of armed groups to include how it plans to replace AG with democratic governance.

Armed Governance: What is it?

In Colombia, as in few other countries, the two worlds of rebel and criminal governance exist simultaneously. By rebel governance we refer to the set of actions undertaken by insurgents to regulate the social, political and economic life of civilians during the war (see: Ana Arjona). What differentiates criminal governance from rebel governance is not only its actors (gangs, drug traffickers and criminal organisations), but also its level of embeddedness with the state. Criminal governance implies that armed groups use their connections with state officials to exercise their criminal activities freely. So, when we speak of AG, we mean either of the two above-described types.

In Colombia, there are still very few authors who use armed governance as a framework for reading violence. Among those who do, there are many cases that show that in several territories, armed groups determine the rules of the game. In our experience, three elements are characteristic of AG in Colombia:

  1. It occurs in contexts of criminal hegemony when an illegal armed actor continuously exercises monopolies of violence, tax collection and the administration of justice over prolonged periods of time.
  2. It enables control of legal and illegal economic processes beyond drug trafficking. These groups extort public officials, businessmen, launder their money through businesses, and a long etcetera. AG gives them access to full criminal portfolio.
  3. Armed groups have some degree of legitimacy: AG is not only sustained by violence, but through a multiplicity of licit and illicit processes. These include the creation of social or political organisations, the provision of public goods and so on.


Armed Governance in Northern Colombia

Let us concentrate on two sub-regions in northern Colombia to exemplify AG: the Sierra Nevada and the south of Cesar, as this allows us to contrast criminal and rebel governance, respectively.

Two armed groups currently have presence in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta: the Conquerors of the Sierra Nevada Self-Defense Groups (ACSN) and the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC). The ACSN, although, they recently changed their name as of Los Pachencas, they are made up of families that have been involved in the war for years.

In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, businesses open and close at the hours that the armed groups decide. After the death of commanders of these criminal groups, they have decreed “mourning“, which involves raising flags, closing businesses and turning off music. Armed groups also constantly monitor civilians’ conversations on their mobile phones and social networks to see if they have “spoken ill of the organisation” and administer punishment if they are judged to have betrayed the armed group. Even during the 2022 elections, the ACSN prevented the local population from going to the polls by closing roads and ordering people not to vote. What’s more, The Colombian police have also seized government navigation charts from Colombia and other Central American countries that the ACSN had obtained through bribes. Therefore, not only do they give orders to the community, but their relationship with the state allows them to achieve their illegal aims.

On the other hand, south of the department of Cesar, the National Liberation Army (ELN) has established its own rebel governance regime. This guerrilla group was the first illegal armed group to establish a presence in this territory at the end of the 1960s. Unlike in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, here, the ELN has acts as a dynamic agent for community participation in local affairs. This work is carried out by the Political Organisational Work (TPO) commissions, whose essential function is the creation, promotion and orientation of legal and social organisations (Community Action Boards, Road Committees, Sports Clubs, etc.) and clandestine ones, such as the collectives or study and work groups of militia members.

These attempts to dynamize community participation come with great risks: several community leaders have been assassinated in the department, landowners must pay quotas to the guerrillas and on several occasions the ELN has ordered the confinement of people during their “armed strikes”. Several roads in the south of the department can even remain closed if the guerrillas decide to do so. Additionally, there are often clashes between the ELN and members of the security forces, and attacks on police stations.

Total Peace: How to Replace AG

The above is a brief summary of what the communities living in these territories face. Even so, it is enough to understand that there are areas in Colombia where citizens live under orders of armed groups. That is to say: armed conflicts in this country are not only confrontations between the state and the violent, but predominantly AG regimes. Therefore, if we want to understand the wars in the country, we must understand AG.

Regardless of whether those armed groups are an overtly politically motivated group or not, they have developed behavioural norms in the territories in which they operate. Perhaps it is time, in addition to thinking about the ideologies of armed groups, to start investigating about the local orders they construct. How the state can supply the goods they offer there such as conflict resolution, livelihoods, ‘order’, and so on?

The implication is thus if the state manages to demobilise armed groups, but is unable to replace AG, then it has done little to end violence. Total Peace lacks many things, but the most dangerous shortcoming is perhaps the lack of understanding of the governance conditions under which many Colombians live. Without changing the terms of the discussion, Total Peace may just be a way of reviving the old cycles of violence to which Colombians are accustomed.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.


Reynell Badillo Sarmiento

SHOC Network Member - Researcher

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Juan Corredor-Garcia

SHOC Network Member - Researcher

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Luis Fernando Trejos Rosero

SHOC Network Member - Researcher

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