In Colombia, a Colgate University professor draws upon journalism to get to the bottom of a conflict over land, governance, and power

In Urabá, Colombia’s northwest region that hugs the Caribbean Sea, a paramilitary commander accused of drug trafficking and mass murder described his plan for an ecotourism project to help endangered sea turtles. Nicknamed El Alemán — The German — he explained how his employees would “work with the local campesinos, teaching them not to eat the turtle eggs or bother the hatchlings.”

The year was 2007. Paramilitaries — gangs of men with guns, founded by people like El Alemán — that had participated in Colombia’s drug-fueled civil war were demobilizing. Anticipating a cessation in hostilities, those same paramilitary leaders were speaking the language of ‘grassroots development’ in order to retain their relevance in a nation that might soon be at peace.

The project, El Alemán said, was much more than a way of attracting tourists to participate in the protection of Colombia’s precious fauna. It set out to “repair the community’s social fabric” after decades of forced displacement and violence.

But according to Teo Ballvé, assistant professor of peace and conflict studies and geography, we shouldn’t be fooled.

To see through such deceptions, Ballvé combines academic ethnography with techniques from his earlier career as an investigative journalist. His research is just as much about people’s personal experiences of paramilitary violence as it is about the shadowy networks of political and economic power that sustain these groups. Before people’s faith in governance can be restored in post-conflict places like rural Colombia, it is important first to understand how things went wrong.

“Many researchers study people’s perceived experiences,” says Ballvé. “But regardless of what people think happened — also, what did happen?”

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When it comes to the U.S. role in Colombia’s drug war, what happened was this: in the 1980s, America’s desire for drugs spurred a massive demand for Colombian cocaine. Drug cartels boomed, including the infamous Medellín cartel run by Pablo Escobar. These cartels aligned themselves with elite land owners to create paramilitary groups that would safeguard the cartels’ activities using violence. In order to seize even more land, those paramilitaries also displaced entire communities of Colombian farmers.

“As the private militias of landowners and drug traffickers, paramilitaries forced millions of campesinos off their lands,” according to Ballvé, who has spent more than a decade researching and reporting on Colombia’s narcotics-fueled land conflicts, most recently as a Fulbright Scholar. Demand for land on which to grow coca — the plant from which cocaine is made — was exacerbated by demand for land on which to grow crops and raise livestock. “Agribusiness companies have seized the abandoned family farms and turned them into huge cattle ranches and monocrop plantations.”

This lack of land rights, explains Ballvé, “has been at the heart of the Colombian conflict.” Left-wing guerillas such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) sought to redistribute land to the masses, whereas right-wing paramilitaries helped elite land owners and drug lords to keep land for themselves. Most of the approximately 6.5 million Colombians who were displaced between 1985 and 2014 as part of Colombia’s civil war were forced out by paramilitary groups.

“During the paramilitary takeover, these people lost everything” writes Ballvé in his 2019 book, The Frontier Effect. To maintain their power, paramilitary groups appointed figureheads of their own choosing to govern over the local populations while concealing the illicit origins of the land in what Ballvé calls “land laundering.”

At the same time that El Alemán — real name Freddy Rendon Herrera — was espousing the conservation of endangered sea turtles, Ballvé was living in the country’s capital, Bogotá, as a Fulbright Student Researcher. He was startled to hear the former warlord describe his ecotourism business in terms of helping “repair the community’s social fabric.” After all, it was precisely that social fabric that El Alemán had helped rupture in the first place, back when his paramilitary group took control of the community. “Why would violent, drug-trafficking paramilitary groups in Colombia be using discourses of grassroots development?”

Once, I was interviewing a mayor who said, “There’s no state here.” I said, “But you’re a mayor! You’re in an actual building called a municipal office. You were elected.”

By conducting interviews and accessing public records the way a journalist might, Ballvé discovered that the same groups that had orchestrated years of violence and forced displacement to steal land were now legitimizing their existence by co-opting the language of development. “The paramilitaries turned grassroots development into a vehicle for executing their massive land grabs,” he says.

Despite a landmark 2016 peace treaty between Colombia’s government and the FARC, most of this land has not been reclaimed from the paramilitary groups who took it. Today, many rural Colombians who lost their land to the paramilitary groups or to multinational agribusiness companies feel as if their government has abandoned them — that it is absent: unable or unwilling to provide services or enforce the law. “Once, I was interviewing a mayor who said, ‘There’s no state here.’ I said, ‘But you’re a mayor! You’re in an actual building called a municipal office. You were elected.’”

“I think what they really mean when they say there’s no state, they mean a lack of schools, healthcare, opportunities, employment,” says Ballvé. “One of the quickest ways to win people’s support — hearts and minds — is by building a road or a school or a clinic.” For many rural Colombians, the only way to get these things has been to ask the paramilitaries themselves.

“If you get sick and you are three hours away from the hospital, they’ll have an SUV there in a matter of minutes,” says Ballvé. “You want to organize a community Christmas party? The paramilitaries would bankroll the party and give all the kids toys.”

“You might think these are good things,” says Ballvé. But they come with a price: Despite occasional benevolence, paramilitary groups rule over these rural communities with an iron fist, silencing opposition figures — and sometimes murdering them. “A lot of social leaders are being killed by the heirs of the paramilitaries for clamoring for the return of their lands.”

Worker harvesting yellow potato (Solanum phureja)

Worker harvesting yellow potato near Bogota, Colombia. Photo by Ana Maria Mejia

Which is why Ballvé found it strange that communities he visited spoke so highly of their paramilitary power brokers. Residents described to him how the paramilitaries built roads and other infrastructure and enforced a sort of order and occasional justice — sometimes better than the Colombian government. But locals either did not know or were too afraid to say anything about the powerful elites who helped the paramilitaries in the area.

By using his investigative experience to track down a trove of public records, Ballvé was able to document clearly paramilitaries’ collaboration with local politicians and powerful agribusiness companies. “That’s how I got a fuller picture of what happened,” he says. “The paramilitaries essentially became the brokers between the government and the community.”

What’s more, the United States may even have helped entrench and enrich these anti-democratic gangs by funding development aid projects in paramilitary-controlled areas. In a 2009 journalistic investigation for The Nation, Ballvé described how a “multibillion-dollar U.S. aid package aimed at fighting the drug trade” had in fact “put drug-war dollars into the hands of notorious paramilitary narco-traffickers.”

Called Plan Colombia, the program was designed to help Colombian peasants cultivate palm oil for biofuel — an alternative to growing coca plants destined for the drug trade. But because the paramilitary ‘land-launderers’ still held power, it was they who profited. “The United States is implicitly subsidizing drug traffickers,” one Colombian senator told Ballvé, of the impact of U.S. foreign aid there.

When people in war-torn areas put their faith in non-state actors, they gain legitimacy. That in turn makes it even harder for the national government to restore its own legitimacy.

By taking people’s perceptions at face value without investigating other realities on the ground, we might not know that the United States “has been supporting the wrong people,” says Ballvé.

The takeaway from Ballvé’s research is that narratives about the weakness of government can be self-fulfilling: When people in war-torn areas put their faith in non-state actors, they gain legitimacy. That in turn makes it even harder for the national government to restore its own legitimacy. The same thing happens “in many of the world’s violent hotspots, including countries as far afield as Afghanistan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, Iraq, and Somalia,” writes Ballvé. In Colombia, “it’s a problem of misidentifying the problem. The problem isn’t the absence of the state — it’s the presence of the paramilitaries.”

So what can be done to circumvent Colombia’s paramilitary and restore the government’s monopoly on power?

“The first step to holding the state accountable is to recognize that it is actually present. Once you do that, you can force it into protecting your rights — giving roads, schools, hospitals, and most importantly land,” Ballvé says. When the state provides these things, the paramilitaries’ usefulness would wither, and their legitimacy would wane. And that, Ballvé’s research suggests, might restore rural Colombian’s faith in their government anew.

Jacob Kushner is a foreign correspondent who reports on conflict and extremism, foreign aid, corruption, and human rights abuses in East/Central Africa, Germany, and the Caribbean. He was a 2017–2018 Young Journalist Fulbright Fellow in Berlin. Follow him @JacobKushner.