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Oct 21, 2016 | SSR Initiative

Editor’s Note: This blog article features forthcoming research to be published in the journal State Crime and its forthcoming special edition which will address the theme “Post-Conflict Reconstruction, the Crimes of the Powerful and Transitional Justice” (to be published in April 2017). In keeping with the tradition of innovation for research dissemination on security governance and peacebuilding issues, the Centre for Security Governance is pleased to publish this new kind of contribution to the Academic Spotlight series.


The historic announcement on 24 August 2016 of the peace agreement between the Government of Colombia and FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) paves the way towards peace after 52 years of conflict. Nonetheless, there are many challenges facing Colombia as it transitions to peace. Not least among these are high levels of poverty and socio-economic inequalities, which fueled the insurgency, at least in its early days, and which have helped undermine security and enable crime to escalate.

In Colombia, crime is inextricably linked with conflict. The production and trafficking of drugs has sustained and intensified the armed conflict. Insurgent and criminal groups use extortion and kidnapping to pacify communities, control territories and as a source of funds. A vicious circle has been created whereby political and criminal violence are often indistinguishable, and the criminality resulting from conflict has enabled the escalation of the conflict. The opportunities offered by the drugs trade, and the many other illicit economies that exist in Colombia, have attracted paramilitary, criminal and guerrilla groups and others, including officials in the state security sector and administration. There are alliances between these groups and, as a result, impunity, corruption and insecurity have escalated.

The penetration of organised crime into the fabric of Colombian society is unlikely to be easily addressed in the aftermath of armed conflict and will continue to pose threats to security and the longer term peace process. This is, in part, because under the final peace agreement, the demobilization of FARC carries the risk of other guerrilla or criminal groups taking control of formerly-FARC controlled territory and criminal enterprises, and filling power vacuums left by demobilized FARC combatants. There is already evidence that some of the territory and activities are being reorganized and alliances are shifting. Similarly, demobilized FARC may join or form other guerrilla or criminal groups or otherwise continue to engage in criminal activities.

Crime, poverty and socio-economic inequalities

Poverty and socio-economic inequalities have contributed to escalating levels of crime and, subsequently, to the conflict dynamics. There is a stark divide between the rich and poor in Colombia. It has among the world’s highest levels of income and land ownership inequalities and poverty is also comparably very high. Colombia is a highly stratified society, geographically as well as socio-economically: there is a physical divide between the haves and have-nots. Such segregation tends to reinforce the othering of a marginalized group and blame them for their marginalization and victimization. Where the suffering of others cannot be seen it is easy to dehumanize or to deny harms have occurred. Additionally, impoverished areas, many of which are in rural locations, have little if any State presence, services or protection. In essence, physical segregation prevents poor Colombians’ access to resources (security, justice, jobs), whilst allowing access to those who want to prey on those with little power and much need.

The inextricable link between poverty and crime in Colombia is exacerbated by the sharp divide between the rich and the poor as well as physical segregation. People in these areas are exposed to crime, insecurity and violence to a heightened degree and are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by paramilitary, guerrilla and other groups. In these areas there is also often no other way to survive than by joining insurgent or paramilitary groups.

In Colombia, as elsewhere, the discourse of the criminalization of the poor is reiterated in popular, political and media discourse. Criminalizing those who are socio-economically marginalized offers the opportunity to blame the poor for their poverty, and scapegoat them for broader societal social and economic problems. It also serves to justify social stratification and helps to ensure that any grievance they may air will be seen as illegitimate. Because it is difficult to occupy the status of criminal and victim, crimes against the poor are hidden by the denial of the poor as victim. In Colombia, when someone from an impoverished neighborhood is the victim of a crime the police rarely take action, and those who seek justice for crimes committed by powerful armed groups (paramilitary, guerrilla, state or criminal) are often threatened and sometimes killed.

Portrayal of the poor as criminal can additionally function to discourage others from venturing into poor neighborhoods, which helps ensure the poor remain unknown, dehumanized, ‘other’ or the threatening stranger in need of being controlled. As they become dehumanized, crimes and other harms against them become disguised, hidden or justified. This is compounded by their lack of power and, consequently, ability to influence public perceptions of threat and the conflation of poverty and crime.

The myth is that society is at risk from the poor, whereas the greatest threat to security comes from privileged and elite groups: collusion between government officials, paramilitary, criminal and insurgent groups; the exploitation of the poor and the land of the poor; the provision of security to those most in need which terrorizes more than it protects; control of those deemed to be disposable, disorderly or undesirable, which is often a euphemism for arbitrary execution. The poor suffer a multi-pronged attack of structural violence, socio-economic inequality, political marginalization, and physical insecurity. Most are trapped in poverty, targeted by those who seek to exploit the most vulnerable and the most desperate, and then are feared and scapegoated by those who have benefited from their victimization.

There is a long-standing denigration of poor and marginalized people as disposable (desechables) or undesirable, and violence against them is often justified with claims of efforts to impose justice, security and order. The recent false positives scandal in Colombia involved the arbitrary execution of, principally, poor and otherwise marginalized male civilians by the Army between 2002 and 2008 (although there have been cases before and since this period). Colombia also has a history of social cleansing operations, which have killed thousands of those deemed to be undesirables or disposable over the years. Victims include street children, the homeless, disabled people, petty criminals, drug addicts, sex workers, and homosexuals; generally the poor and marginalized. Vigilante groups and members of the police, army and other representatives of the State have orchestrated social cleansing operations against those seen as a burden and responsible for society’s problems rather than victim of them.

Peacebuilding, crime and insecurity

These crimes are in part borne of a weak and ineffective judicial system, which has encouraged people to take justice into their own hands; high levels of crime and homelessness, with a perception that the State was unable to cope; as well as a society in which violence has been the norm. There is also a legitimate fear of the poor – not that they are dangerous in the way portrayed but their victimization and oppression may give rise to grievance which may ultimately find its expression in violence and revolt. The irony, of course, is that this victimization and oppression results in heightened insecurity, widespread grievances, and in pushing poor people towards crime and guerrilla groups as the only viable economic opportunities that exist, all of which negatively impact conflict dynamics. But it may be that property ownership is regarded (by those who continue to oppress and exploit) as more valuable than peace.

In short, unless poverty, socio-economic inequalities and structural violence – as well as psycho-social attitudes towards the poor – are addressed in the peacebuilding process, high levels of crime and insecurity are likely to continue and, as a result, peace is unlikely to be sustainable. There can be no peace if large sections of the population live without security, justice and opportunity. Those most affected will remain the more vulnerable and marginalized members of society, and a peace process that does not improve their security loses credibility.


Dr Eleanor Gordon is a Lecturer in Conflict and Security Studies at the University of Leicester, a Centre for Security Governance Senior Fellow, a Saferworld Trustee, and a consultant for various NGOs, universities, government agencies and the UN on issues related to building security and justice after conflict.


The author would like to thank the Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Government of Colombia for inviting me to for a Newton Caldas Fund scoping workshop on post-conflict development in Colombia in March 2016, during and after which time I had the opportunity to speak with many people about the current challenges facing Colombia, whom I would also like to sincerely thank. I would also like to thank the editors of the journal State Crime and of its forthcoming special edition which will address the theme “Post-Conflict Reconstruction, the Crimes of the Powerful and Transitional Justice” who invited me to submit an article on which this post is partially based (to be published April 2017).

Feature Photo Credit: Flickr/Nick Harris