An Analysis of Structural Violence in a Reintegration Zone Designated by the Peace Treaty in Colombia: A Very Conflictive Post-Conflict Context.

For most Colombians today, the sad history of their country is plagued with stories of violence and conflict, of oppression and underrepresentation, and a fragile, yet somewhat resilient democracy. In 2016, a treaty was signed that promised to finally bring the conflict between the government and the FARC to an end, a conflict that began over 50 years ago, and that took the life of thousands of people. Under these circumstances, the treaty could only be seen as a light in the darkness that had taken over Colombia for decades. And yet, four years after the signature of the treaty we still see a country corrupted by violence. It is interesting, therefore, to examine why the peace treaty has failed at achieving its most essential objective: to bring peace in the country. Despite the fact that the FARC technically doesn’t exist anymore, the FARC dissidents are still active and extremely violent and dangerous. Likewise, many other armed groups continue to make the situation in Colombia quite bleak, mainly the ELN and many other drug-oriented armed groups. Indepaz reported that in 2018 and 2019, 22 out of 33 departments in Colombia were affected in some way by activities of the dissidence and residual armed groups. In addition, approximately, more than 2500 people were recruited to join such groups after the treaty was signed. Moreover, Colombia witnessed 33 massacres around the country in 2020 so far, according to the UN.

Therefore, it becomes important to ask which other factors have impacted the unableness of Colombia to achieve a long-lasting, real peace. Accordingly, the next article will analyze the concept of structural violence in the context of a reintegration area in Tumaco Nariño. Firstly, it will explore the concept of structural violence in Colombia, followed by an application of said concept on the reintegration area of La Variante in Tumaco, Nariño. Additionally, it will be argued that without tackling the structural violence that affects the zone, it is hardly possible for it to accomplish its objective to reintegrate ex-guerrilla members into civil society.  Hopefully, it will shine some light on why the post-conflict context of the South American country continues to be everything but non-conflictive, and why the peace treaty failed to tackle the structural roots of the violence in Colombia.

 

Structural Violence and positive peace in Colombia.

Perhaps many foreign observers of the 2016 peace agreement held hope for the future of the country, however, Colombians themselves did not. In fact, most of the Colombian population voted against the treaty in late 2016 before it was officially signed. To name some of the issues that created the most controversy about the document was the reintegration of FARC members into civil society, how these ex-fighters would be judged by their crimes, and most of all, the participation in politics by the very leaders of the FARC. Still, the treaty was signed and put into action in November 2016. This curious attitude towards conflict could respond to what Johan Galtung called the triangle of violence, a conceptualization of how violence is not only direct but also structural and cultural. In this triangle of violence, we find in one corner, direct violence, which is the literal act of murder, for example. This aspect is an occurrence, something that a clearly identifiable actor has committed to achieving an objective. Structural violence goes deeper than that and is understood as a process where the very structure of society violates basic human rights such as access to health, food, electricity, etc. Finally, cultural violence is the deepest and hardest to recognize because it refers to any cultural aspect that may be used to legitimize direct or structural violence. To illustrate the idea better, in Colombia we can easily find examples of all three. A massacre where an armed group killed several people, refers to direct violence. The poverty of an indigenous community that lives in the margins of the country, where most suffer from malnutrition, is considered structural violence, and finally, popular music that sings about mistreating women could be used to understand cultural violence. These three concepts are inter-related and create an indefinite cycle of violence, as Galtung himself explains: “violence creates violence” (Galtung, pg. 155  ). Consequently, for the author, positive peace is the absence of structural violence. This means that the absence of clearly identifiable actors, such as the FARC, who commit acts of direct violence, does not mean there is an absence of violence. Positive peace is the extermination or transformation of structural violence.

Hence, the logic of Galtung’s argument suggests that a post-conflict context should also prioritize structural violence.  This violence is not only the unsatisfaction of basic needs which lead to violent ends, mainly death and social alienation, but it is the process in which the political elites of a given country may oppress, and exploit society to consolidate power. For instance, indoctrination and the creation of a national narrative that only serves a specific part of society, repression, and social alienation to condition individual and collective freedom, and the disintegration of the social tissue are all part of the structural factors that facilitate direct violence. Poverty, inequality, lack of any State presence whatsoever, poor health services, under-representation, and a very weak democracy are symptoms of structural violence, and Colombia suffers from all of them. With a Gini coefficient of 0.51 in 2018 and a 9.71% unemployment rate in 2019, it is one of the most unequal countries in the world (DANE, 2018). Poverty is also a serious issue, at 17,5%, especially in the rural areas, and among minorities. Likewise, massive demonstrations from all corners of society have been taking place around the country in the last three years, protesting for violence against indigenous collectives, bad public education, police brutality, gender inequality and violence, corruption, and lately racism as well.

 

Structural Violence in Tumaco, Nariño.

Perhaps many foreign observers of the 2016 peace agreement held hope for the future of the country, however, Colombians themselves did not. In fact, most of the Colombian population voted against the treaty in late 2016 before it was officially signed. To name some of the issues that created the most controversy about the document was the reintegration of FARC members into civil society, how these ex-fighters would be judged by their crimes, and most of all, the participation in politics by the very leaders of the FARC. Still, the treaty was signed and put into action in November 2016. This curious attitude towards conflict could respond to what Johan Galtung called the triangle of violence, a conceptualization of how violence is not only direct but also structural and cultural. In this triangle of violence, we find in one corner, direct violence, which is the literal act of murder, for example. This aspect is an occurrence, something that a clearly identifiable actor has committed to achieving an objective. Structural violence goes deeper than that and is understood as a process where the very structure of society violates basic human rights such as access to health, food, electricity, etc. Finally, cultural violence is the deepest and hardest to recognize because it refers to any cultural aspect that may be used to legitimize direct or structural violence. To illustrate the idea better, in Colombia we can easily find examples of all three. A massacre where an armed group killed several people, refers to direct violence. The poverty of an indigenous community that lives in the margins of the country, where most suffer from malnutrition, is considered structural violence, and finally, popular music that sings about mistreating women could be used to understand cultural violence. These three concepts are inter-related and create an indefinite cycle of violence, as Galtung himself explains: “violence creates violence” (Galtung, pg. 155  ). Consequently, for the author, positive peace is the absence of structural violence. This means that the absence of clearly identifiable actors, such as the FARC, who commit acts of direct violence, does not mean there is an absence of violence. Positive peace is the extermination or transformation of structural violence.

Hence, the logic of Galtung’s argument suggests that a post-conflict context should also prioritize structural violence.  This violence is not only the unsatisfaction of basic needs which lead to violent ends, mainly death and social alienation, but it is the process in which the political elites of a given country may oppress, and exploit society to consolidate power. For instance, indoctrination and the creation of a national narrative that only serves a specific part of society, repression, and social alienation to condition individual and collective freedom, and the disintegration of the social tissue are all part of the structural factors that facilitate direct violence. Poverty, inequality, lack of any State presence whatsoever, poor health services, under-representation, and a very weak democracy are symptoms of structural violence, and Colombia suffers from all of them. With a Gini coefficient of 0.51 in 2018 and a 9.71% unemployment rate in 2019, it is one of the most unequal countries in the world (DANE, 2018). Poverty is also a serious issue, at 17,5%, especially in the rural areas, and among minorities. Likewise, massive demonstrations from all corners of society have been taking place around the country in the last three years, protesting for violence against indigenous collectives, bad public education, police brutality, gender inequality and violence, corruption, and lately racism as well.

During the peace treaty, certain areas around the country were designated as reintegration zones. They were given the name of Rural Zones of Transition to the Normalization of Territorial Peace, or simply ZVTN, which was later changed to Territorial Spaces of Capacitation and Reintegration or ECTR. The objective of these places was to prepare the economic, political, and social re-incorporation into the civil society of the ex-guerrilla members who decided to take part in the agreement. The ECTR of La Variante, in Tumaco, Nariño was one of these zones, however, whether it accomplished its purpose can be debated and most would probably argue that it didn’t, accordingly, much has to do with structural violence.

A clarification must be said. In this article, it is not being argued that La Variante has been a complete failure, or that any other zone for that matter, has no success stories. For instance, over 200 women have joined workshops led by the British Council that focus on gender in La Variante. However, if we take a look at the current situation in La Variante and its surroundings we can easily identify a series of grave problems that make it difficult to achieve the “territorial peace” that the government proposed in the beginning.

The first problem is the lack of good public services, without an aqueduct, poor electrical services, and less than optimal health services like hospitals. The Latin-American Center for Rural Development or Rimisp reported that in 2015 only 51% of the area of Tumaco had aqueduct coverage, and in 2018-2019 there were only 11 aqueducts at a rural level. Similarly, the report explains that diarrhea, parasitic diseases, malnutrition, and respiratory diseases are quite common, especially because the violence makes it hard for medical personnel to reach rural areas such as La Variante. Also, the electrical services are constantly interrupted with entire days where this zone has absolutely no electricity. On other basic services such as education, the landscape does not get better. The analphabetism level in 2015 was 17.5%, and of that percentage, 31% was in rural areas. However, even bleaker are the numbers for higher education where over 90% of the population between 17 and 21 years old are not a part of the higher education system. (Rimisp, 2017).

These issues clearly demonstrate what Galtung wanted to portray with the concept of structural violence because without these basic services people continue to be violated against, even if direct violence were to be eradicated completely. For Galtung, dying by a disease that could have been cured if there were enough health services, still counts as violence and in fact, it possibly has an impact on direct violence as well. This also proves a serious lack of government presence in the area, which is shocking because this is an important project for the future of the peace treaty. All these factors give people little motivation, and capacities as well, to successfully reintegrate themselves into civil society and leave behind life in armed groups. On the other hand, how can they be reintegrated if the conditions of said society are also precarious? If La Variante suffers from poor public services it’s also because the entire zone of Tumaco has the same problems, giving the ex-guerrilla members very few options as to where to have a dignified, fulfilling life. Multidimensional poverty in Tumaco in general is about 84.4% with a rural incidence of 96.3%, (Rimisp, 2017), and the informality rate in 2017 was 75%, which means there are few economic opportunities these people can have in their own home.

The second issue, that is closely related to the first, is the lack of State presence and institutional weakness that gives way to direct violence and illegal drug cultivation. Above, it was argued that the lack of basic public services was in itself a continuation of violence, as Galtung would see it, but also it created little economic or social motivation for reintegration participants to actually be reintegrated, and if they are, it is highly likely they will still live in precarious situations. However, with very little State presence and with a governmental weakness in the region, not only is the motivation to reintegrate low, but the motivation to join armed groups again grows dangerously high. Without good and strategic governmental supervising there is little faith ex guerilla members will have in the institutions that are promising a better, legal life. For instance, many ex-guerrilla members during the years of 2017-2018, received threats from other groups and illegal recruitment continued to happen unchecked even after many voiced their concerns. Similarly, with weak institutions that could guarantee justice and security, it was inevitable that eventually many dissidents of the ex FARC and other drug-related groups began to take control of the region once again. Thus, direct violence and cocaine crops continue to be one of the main problems in the area. However, the issue of low State presence is not new, it was just not well handled either. It does not directly kill people, as armed groups surely do, but it heavily influences the reintegration of ex-guerrilla members and their future.

 

Conclusion

Consequently, these problems can only be understood as structural since they are part of a process that has been going on for decades in the country, but that doesn’t refer to the military, direct violence many talks about. This is a process of negligence towards certain areas and populations of the country, of corruption, and very little civil or political culture. Galtung’s purpose, among many others, was to understand conflict not only in a military light, and therefore his theory is very helpful to analyze this case. The reason why reintegration has been very hard in La Variante, and probably many other reintegration areas, is because these structural issues have been left unresolved and in some cases even made worse.

Without basic human rights guaranteed, there will be no real peace, and the threat of direct violence becomes more intense. The peace treaty in Colombia and the reintegration zones had no hope of an integrated strategy to tackle firstly these issues did not exist. Therefore, the conclusion of the article is that for the future of Colombia to look a little less violent, the answer is not a military one. Instead, to combat structural violence, there needs to be a structural change that prioritizes giving these people a better, healthier life, instead of only eradicating direct violence. Additionally, the structural problems analyzed here can be used to understand the situation in many other areas of the country, as well as the peace treaty as a whole.

Written by Catalina Ospina

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