Attendance Sheets and Bureaucracies of Victimhood in Colombia

By Roxani Krystalli

Emergent Conversation 11

This essay is part of Bureaucracy, Justice, and The State in a Post-Accord Colombia, published on the fourth anniversary of the accord.

Embed from Getty Images

Female office worker sitting at desk with pile of paperwork – stock photo. Getty Images.

“It’s for the data”

On a Tuesday afternoon in 2018, I was standing in the reception area of the Dirección Etnias in Medellín, Colombia. This is one of the entities that manages state programs for indigenous people and Afro-Colombians, including both those who are recognized as victims of the armed conflict in Colombia and the general population. In this context, the term “victim” refers to people who successfully registered with the Colombian state as such, according to the definition of the 2011 Law of Victims and Land Restitution (known as Victims’ Law).[1] “Victim” is not merely a legal category or passive description of having suffered harm during the armed conflict; instead, it is a political status (Krystalli 2019; Jimeno 2007), as well as a basis of claim-making (Vallejo 2019; Dávila 2017), and a potential site of power (Counter 2018; Ramírez 2020; Vera 2017).

Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Colombia between July 2016 and September 2018, my research examines the bureaucratic production of hierarchies of victimhood through mechanisms of transitional justice, which refers to the processes by which states address large-scale human rights violations after war (Hinton 2010). My research also analyzes the role of people who identify as victims, and those who reject the term, in the contestation or reinforcement of these politics and hierarchies of victimhood. On this particular afternoon in 2018, these questions brought me to the Dirección Etnias to observe a meeting of a Mesa de Participación de Víctimas, a mechanism that the Victims’ Law created for the participation of those recognized as victims in public policy creation (Berrío 2013). [2]

The person staffing the reception desk placed a call to announce my arrival. “She says she’s here for the Mesa meeting for indigenous victims. [Pause] Is there a Mesa meeting today? I didn’t think there was a Mesa meeting. [Pause] I don’t know, no. [Pause] Shall I send her through?” In the reception area, I spotted a desk calendar with the logo of a funeral home and the tagline “So they can rest in peace.” Next to it, there was a framed document titled “Our Commitments to Public Policy” in block capital letters.

By 2 PM, when the meeting of the Mesa was scheduled to begin, I was one of four people in attendance. The facilitator from the Personería, Vanessa, arrived at 2:08.[3] & [4] After greeting me with a kiss and setting her notebook down next to me, Vanessa dragged a banner into a corner of the room. “I feel my Afro-Colombianness (Siento mi Afro-Colombianidad),” the banner read, with a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) logo on the bottom right.

By 2:30 PM, there were six of us in the room, seated at school desks arranged in a semi-circle to face a whiteboard. There was Juan, one of the regional managers of the national Victims’ Unit. Angélica, who had facilitated the general Mesa meeting for a different municipality a few days earlier, was in attendance too, alongside her supervisor, who spent ten minutes looking for markers so that he could write the meeting’s agenda on the board.

While we waited, we chatted about the environmental pollution warning for Medellín that week and the morning’s eerily red sunrise. Vanessa passed around an attendance sheet for everyone to sign. “You too, princesa, please. It’s for the data,” she told me. In this instance, Vanessa used ‘the data’ as shorthand, as an allusion to a greater cause whose appeal should require no explanation.

The meeting began at 2:50 PM, with seven state officials from various entities, five indigenous victim leaders, two non-indigenous victim leaders from other Mesas, and myself in attendance. The attendance sheet went around the room a second time. By 3:30 PM, an additional four indigenous representatives had filed in, with women bringing their children and shushing them in the back of the room for the rest of the meeting. The sound of a jackhammer next door drowned out any noise the children were making.

“Welcome, companions and friends,” Vanessa from the Personería began, placing the attendance sheet on a desk to start its third journey around the room. “We have some new faces here, so we all have to introduce ourselves again.” State officials introduced themselves with their first and last name and their entity: Juan Alemán, Victims’ Unit. The more senior ones added their titles: Director of Returns, Deputy Director of Victims’ Unit. The indigenous participants introduced themselves with the name of their indigenous community (cabildo), without reference to victim status or leadership in a particular organization.

When my turn came, the state facilitator jumped in before I could speak. “This is Roxani. She is an anthropologist and a student and she’s accompanying the process. Roxani, before you introduce yourself, you’ve signed the attendance sheet, yes?” By the end of the meeting, the attendance sheet had gone around six times.

“Write ‘woman’ and pass it on”

A few weeks earlier, I arrived at the Victims’ Unit just as a couple was being turned away. “The thing is, the officials cannot see you without an appointment. You need a trámite, a procedure form,” the security guard informed them. He then turned towards me, even though the couple was still standing there. The security guard ushered me into the building, leaving the couple alone at the entrance. When I entered the large conference room five minutes before the meeting of one of the many municipal Mesas in Antioquia was set to begin, chairs were still being set up. The conference room was not decorated, except for a poster of a tree with hearts as its fruit. Beneath it, in block capital letters: “Send us the peace” (mándanos la paz).

By 9:25 AM, twelve of the twenty-five chairs were full. As people trickled in, an official from the Personería circulated an attendance sheet with eight columns: Name, ID number, phone number, email, signature, time of arrival, time of departure, observations. When a blind man arrived, the official placed a pen in his hand and wrapped her hand around his, so he, too, could sign the attendance sheet.

Right before the meeting began at 9:40 AM, a man I had not yet met sat next to me. “Gerardo, Unidad,” he introduced himself, as though “Victims’ Unit” were his last name. Another attendance sheet went around, this time with different columns asking people to indicate the entity with which they were affiliated, and to check off boxes for the characteristics of the differential focus (enfoque diferencial) they represented.[5] Write the number ‘1’ for woman, 1 for heterosexual, 1 for étnico (corresponding to indigenous people and Afro-Colombians), 1 for ‘other vulnerability.’ When the attendance sheet arrived in front of me, I handed it to Gerardo, but he nudged me to fill it out myself. “Are you sure?” I whispered. “I’m not a victim or a state official,” I reminded him. “Yes, yes, yes, we need to be judicious (juiciosos) and document all the data,” he reassured me. “Write ‘woman’ and pass it on.”

Follow the attendance sheet

The events I observed during my research may have varied in subject matter and tone, but attendance sheets were a constant in every meeting that involved the state (McFee 2019; Lederach 2019). State officials imbued these documents with anxiety. I noticed the urgency with which they tracked attendance sheets, photocopied them, and filed them into folders as soon as the meeting concluded.

Attendance sheets are an instrument of audit culture (Strathern 1996), referring to “norms and social practices of assessment, through which accountability and ‘good practice’ are demonstrated and made visible” (Vannier 2010: 283). They tell stories not only about the presence of those recognized as victims in particular spaces, but also about the work of institutions and officials of the state towards transitional justice. They also illustrate the ways in which some labor gets quantified and therefore “counts,” while other labor goes undocumented and unnoticed (Shore et al. 2015). As Sally Merry writes, “one effect of power is what gets measured,” which “depends on which problems seem politically important” (Merry 2016: 2019). In the context of interactions between state officials and those recognized as victims, attendance sheets are both a site of politics and an instrument of power.

In my interviews with state officials, I traced the journey of attendance sheets from the moment of their circulation for signing to their analysis and to the dissemination of the data that resulted. When discussing the challenges of being a facilitator for a Mesa in the greater Bogotá area, Catarina, a state official at the High Advisory for Victims, told me:

The first time I showed up at a Mesa, it was terrible. They attacked me. They wouldn’t talk. Or they would say “The High Commissioner for Victims doesn’t do anything, why are we here?” And they wouldn’t sign the attendance form. I thought to myself, “Oh God, where did I put myself?” I was afraid that if I came back [to the office] without the attendance form, that would be it for me (Interview, Bogotá, May 2018).

Cast in this light, attendance sheets were not only a way to prove the presence of those who identify as victims at a particular space, but also a strategy for proving that state officials were doing their jobs. The labor of presence of those recognized as victims, verified through their repeated checking of boxes and signatures on forms, certified the labor of the state officials whose mandate it was to tend to them. In this way, attendance sheets became part of the logic of what Valentina Pellegrino (2017) calls the phenomenon of “incumplir cumpliendo,” referring to the practice of not fulfilling the promises of public policy while generating a discourse (and bureaucratic apparatus) that performs fulfillment.

The attendance sheets thus became an instrument for attesting to state compliance with its own public policy for victims of the armed conflict. My interview with Luisa, a data analyst at a municipality in the Antioquia region, further illustrates this point. Because of her positioning, Luisa was not sure if she could be helpful for this research project. “I understand you work with victims,” she told me. “But I don’t work with victims, I work with data.” While interacting with those who identify as victims is, indeed, a different modality of work than managing spreadsheets and information systems, I was struck by the confidence with which Luisa drew the distinction of what does not count as victim-oriented work.

Luisa’s job requires managing a series of systems summarized in acronyms, an essential component of the lexicon of transitional justice bureaucracies (Mora-Gámez 2016). Every quarter, Luisa updates the FUT (Unique Territorial Form), a system that contains projections of financial investments in victim-centered programming. Every month, she updates the RUSICIST tool. She admitted that she did not remember what each letter of the acronym stood for, but explained that it was essentially an integrated reporting system of “managing and following-up on the territorial dimensions of public policy for victims.” [6] I asked Luisa to tell me what this reporting entails.

Basically, there are a few thematic lines, such as “conflict dynamics in the region” or “territorial articulation to fulfill public policy.” We also report on adequacy, which refers to teams and spaces and things like that. And we report on participation. It’s about whether the [Victims’] law is being fulfilled or not.

Seeking to understand how state entities document “whether the law is being fulfilled or not,” I asked Luisa about the supporting evidence she has to provide. She responded (emphasis mine):

There are lots of attachments. We have Excel sheets showing how many programs we ran and how many people came and how much money we spent. The attendance lists are really important to show participation and to show that the state is creating spaces for victims. We present this data to the Mesa regularly to fulfill the process laid out in the law. We also attach some more qualitative data, like meeting minutes and photos, but that can go in the appendices. The qualitative data isn’t really required; it’s more the statistics that are required.

Luisa’s remarks exemplify what Sally Merry calls the seductions of quantification. Merry argues that “indicators are part of a regime of power” and that “the political hides behind the technical,” both in the moment of indicator creation and in its subsequent circulation (Merry 2016: 5, 21). In this instance, through attendance sheets appended to a monthly report and uploaded to a database, “victim participation” and “state policy fulfillment” become part of what Merry calls “the magic of numbers,” creating “certainty in spaces of great ambiguity” (Merry 2016: 127). This certainty allows the state to make pronouncements regarding the fulfillment of its public policy for victims.

In this brief analysis, I do not mean to suggest that the Colombian transitional justice system forecloses the possibility of counter-narration on the part of those recognized as victims.[7] Indeed, like other transitional justice processes (Wilson 1997), the Colombian one relies on victim narratives. It is through narration of conflict-related experiences of harm that people secure recognition as victims and participate in the processes of truth-telling and reparation (Riaño-Alcalá and Baines 2012). That form of victim narration, however, often centers on what Kimberly Theidon (2012) calls “making suffering legible to the experts,” and not on what those recognized as victims consider the meaning of justice or participation in public policy to be (33). As such, the attendance sheets and accompanying Excel forms establish a particular official narrative about transitional justice. Since the qualitative data, reflecting the power dynamics of the meetings and what people actually discuss in them, “isn’t really required,” we are left with little space to ask what meaningful “victim participation” is, what “fulfillment” means, and who is able to enjoy either.

Roxani Krystalli is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where her research and teaching focus on feminist approaches to peace and conflict studies. Her PhD on the politics and hierarchies of victimhood in Colombia received the Peter Ackerman award for best dissertation at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 2020. Grants and fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the United States Institute of Peace, the Social Science Research Council, the Henry J. Leir Institute, and the World Peace Foundation have supported this research. Roxani’s published research on narratives in conflict, hierarchies of victimhood, and feminist approaches to peace has appeared in the International Feminist Journal of Politics, the European Journal of International Relations, the Oxford Handbook on Gender and Conflict, among other academic and media outlets.


[1] The Victims’ Law defined as victims “those people who individually or collectively suffered harm due to acts that occurred after 1st January 1985, as a consequence of infractions of International Humanitarian Law or grave violations of international human rights norms that occurred within the context of the internal armed conflict” (Law 1448 of 2011, Art. 3). The Victims’ Law also created numerous state institutions, such as the Victims’ Unit, and formalized channels through which those recognized as victims (or seeking recognition as such) could interact with state entities that had a victim-oriented mandate.

[2] The Victims’ Unit describes the Mesas as: […] part of the spaces that the State offers to the population to guarantee the impact on the policies that affect them. They are also the institutional spaces of representation of the population affected by the conflict for dialogue with the state at all territorial levels (municipal, departmental, district, and national), and its purpose is to impact on the construction, execution, and control of public policies for victims. “Mesas de Participación,” Unidad para las Víctimas, accessed April 2019, (translation mine).

[3] The Personería is a difficult agency to translate. It loosely translates to ‘legal advocate’ and is distinct from the Office of the Ombudsperson (Defensoría del Pueblo) or the Attorney General (Procuradoría). One of the Personería’s important tasks is to receive intake forms for those initiating the victim registration process. Personería officials also accompany the work of the Mesas.

[4] All names are pseudonyms.

[5] The differential focus, articulated in Article 13 of the 2011 Victims’ Law, “recognizes that there are populations with particular characteristics due to their age, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. For this reason, the forms of humanitarian assistance, attention, and integral reparation established in this Law must have such an approach” Law 1448 of 2011, Art. 13.

[6] Reporte Unificado Systema Integral de Control y Seguimiento Territorial de la Politica Publica de Victimas.

[7] Thank you to the anonymous reviewer for helping me draw out this point.

Works Cited

Berrío, Julián Martín. 2013. “Las Mesas de Participación de Víctimas:?` Una Frustración Más o Un Mecanismo de Transformación Social?” Revista de Derecho Público, no. 31.

Counter, Max. 2018. “Producing Victimhood: Landmines, Reparations, and Law in Colombia.” Antipode 50(1): 122-141.

Dávila Sáenz, Juana. 2017. “A Land of Lawyers, Experts, and ‘Men Without Land:’ The Politics of Land Restitution and the Techno-Legal Production of ‘Dispossessed People’ in Colombia.” PhD Dissertation: Harvard University.

Hinton, Alexander. 2010. “Introduction: Toward an Anthropology of Transitional Justice.” In Transitional Justice: Global Mechanisms and Local Realities after Genocide and Mass Violence, edited by Alexander Hinton. Pp. 1-22. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Jimeno, Myriam. 2007. “Lenguaje, Subjetividad y Experiencias de Violencia.” Antípoda. Revista de Antropología y Arqueología 5: 169-190.

Krystalli, Roxani. 2019. “’We Are Not Good Victims’: Hierarchies of Suffering and the Politics of Victimhood in Colombia.” PhD dissertation: The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Lederach, Angela J. 2019. “‘Feel the Grass Grow’: The Practices and Politics of Slow Peace in Colombia.” PhD Dissertation: University of Notre Dame.

McFee, Erin Katherine. 2019. “An Ambivalent Peace: Mistrust, Reconciliation, and the Intervention Encounter in Colombia.” PhD Dissertation: University of Chicago.

Merry, Sally Engle. 2016. The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mora-Gámez, Fredy Alberto. 2016. “Reparation beyond Statehood: Assembling Rights Restitution in Post-Conflict Colombia.” PhD Thesis, School of Management, University ?

Pellegrino, Silvana Valentina. 2017.  “Incumplir Cumpliendo: Una Etnografía al Papeleo Del Auto 004.” PhD Thesis: Universidad de Los Andes.

Ramírez, Sebastián. 2020. “Truth and Sensibility: Epistemic Repair in Victim Narratives in Colombia.” PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation 10, Bureaucracy, Justice, and The State in a Post-Accord Colombia.

Riaño-Alcalá, Pilar, and Erin Baines. 2012. “When the File Is in the Witness: Documentation in Scenarios of Chronic Insecurity.” Análisis Político 25(74): 49-70.

Shore, Chris, Susan Wright, Vered Amit, Judy Brown, Casper Bruun Jensen, Mark Maguire, Sally Engle Merry et al. 2015. “Audit Culture Revisited: Rankings, Ratings, and the Reassembling of Society.” Current Anthropology 56(3): 431-432.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1996. “From Improvement to Enhancement: An Anthropological Comment on the Audit Culture.” Cambridge Anthropology 19(3): 1-21.

Theidon, Kimberly. 2012. Intimate Enemies: Violence and Reconciliation in Peru. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Vallejo, Catalina. 2019. “Pricing Suffering: Compensation for Human Rights Violations in Colombia and Peru.” PhD Dissertation: University of Virginia.

Vannier, Christian N. 2010. “Audit Culture and Grassroots Participation in Rural Haitian Development.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 33(2): 282-305.

Vera Lugo, Juan Pablo. 2017. “The Humanitarian State: Bureaucracy and Social Policy in Colombia.” PhD Dissertation: Rutgers University.

Wilson, Richard A. 1997. “Representing Human Rights Violations: Social Contexts and Subjectivities.” Human Rights, Culture and Context: Anthropological Perspectives, edited by Richard Ashby Wilson. Pp. 145-155. London: Pluto Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s