Introduction to Bureaucracy, Justice, and The State in a Post-Accord Colombia

By Erin K. McFee

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.

A state representative awaits the start of the day at the Fair for Reconciliation.

The fourth anniversary of the signing of the Havana Peace Accord (November 24, 2016) provides an apt moment to reflect on the historic peace process between the Government of President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon and the leadership of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP). It is towards this end that several members of the Laboratory for Anthropology of the State in Colombia (LASC)[1] and our colleagues have assembled this essay collection, which offers empirical and theoretical contributions not only to scholars of Colombia and Latin America, but also to those investigating post-conflict transitions and organized violence worldwide. Taken together, it is our hope that this collection is received as an invitation for scholars and practitioners to think together about what such research during a time-of-not-war-not-peace (Nordstrom 2004) can teach us about larger questions related to transitional justice, identity-making practices, and state- and society-building.

Anthropologists have found that the identity categories created and maintained in the wake of armed conflict can have depoliticizing, marginalizing, and stigmatizing effects on the very populations that institutions and organizations work to serve (Finnstrom 2010; McFee 2016; Shaw & Waldorf 2010; Theidon 2010). Furthermore, neither institutions nor communities represent monolithic entities with homogenous sensibilities (Burnyeat 2018, 2020; Theidon 2013). As such, these scenarios present fertile grounds for investigating the stakes of contests over memory, relations of power, and the construction of new ways of being in the world. A growing body of research has contributed to a rich understanding of the role of bureaucracy (Gupta 2012) , legal and justice mechanisms (Ocampo 2014), and (inter)national discourses surrounding the state (Serje 2005; Tate 2015) in reproducing violence in Colombia and beyond. This collection of essays extends this work and expands into new conceptual frameworks (e.g., complicating state presence/absence dichotomies), new methods of investigation (e.g., introducing the forensic object as a locus of study), and new populations and contexts (e.g., the emergent FARC political party).

Several qualities of the Colombian context offer unique points of entry for those of us thinking about the lived experiences of state officials, conflict-affected actors, and the bureaucratic practices that bind them. The peace process ushered in many firsts into Colombian and international conversations about peacebuilding, negotiations, and transitional justice, among other things. It was the first to include combatant interlocutors in the development, design, and implementation of their own reintegration processes and programs. It featured the first Bipartisan Gender Commission as part of the negotiation process to ensure differential approaches according to gender (Bouvier 2016). It was the first time that an armed group agreed to a process of wealth deaccumulation as a condition for peace (see Azuero’s essay in this collection for more on this). And it was the first accord that resulted in an international criminal tribunal and special court that can prosecute through direct application of international law without being limited by a list of crimes statute (see Sanchez and Fernandez’ essay in this collection). In contrast to these innovations, certain enduring dynamics also play a significant role in framing any analysis of this context. For example, the governmental structures that existed during the half-century armed conflict—many of which contributed directly to the suffering it produced—remained unchanged, as does the dominant economic model.

As might be expected, the realities of implementation in the everyday lives of those most directly affected by these processes have been simultaneously progressive and retrograde, as assassinations of social leaders and disarmed former guerrillas continue to climb at an alarming rate, remaining non-state armed groups fill power vacuums that opened up when the FARC-EP demobilized and state forces failed to step in, and a global pandemic infects not only its human hosts, but also whatever modicum of development gains, job opportunities, and physical security that had managed to advance over the last few years.

These particularities, however, do not preclude contributions to broader anthropological debates on transitional justice and post-conflict transitions. Though post-accord, the country still finds itself in a pre-postconflict state (Theidon 2007) due to the persistent presence of other illegal armed groups in wide swathes of the country. Unfortunately, as of the time of publication, the needle moves increasingly towards the “pre” and away from the “post” in many domains of social, political, and economic life. I intentionally do not use the phrase back to, however, because that would suggest a linear unfolding of events that would obscure the tortuous, disjointed, and cyclical nature of the lived experience of armed conflict and its aftermath that are the hallmark of transitioning settings in many parts of the world.

What follows in these essays is a decolonized, non-extractive approach to knowledge production about one particular knot in this currently writhing world. The authors are split between the Global North and the Global South and many approach their ethnographic work drawing from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and professional experiences. We are anthropologists, but we have also been or currently are professionals, activists, and/or practitioners. We are as much as our interlocutors a composite of many identities, and we work to collectively draw from them here to align these worlds for a brief moment in shared analysis of the early years of a post-Accord Colombia.

We address several overarching themes: the first is the territorial reshuffling and contestation of governance inherent to any large-scale shift in regimes, organized armed actors, and an ostensible end to internal conflict. McFee, for example, examines the way in which state discourses of “making a presence” juxtapose alongside deeply rooted historical understandings of the state-as-absent. Through this “making,” bureaucrats work to reconfigure civil society beliefs about the roles and capabilities of the state. Hers is a call to consider the multiple forms of state presence and absence that occur and the multivocal discourses that inhabit those forms.  Peñaranda explores the fragmentation, ostensible politicization, and contests over forms of governance taking place on the Development Plans with a Territorial Focus (PDET), which are illustrative of widespread demands for “spaces of participation” in the post-accord development context. These works extend current scholarship on the state in Colombia (Ramírez 2011; Serje 2005; Tate 2015) and war-to-peace transitions in Colombia and beyond (Lederach 1998; Özerdem et al. 2008; Shaw & Waldorf 2010; Theidon 2007, 2013).

Crane theorizes on how the emergent FARC non-violent political project manifests in and through the work of city-building in a settlement at the Southern (and socioeconomic) fringes of the country’s capital city of Bogotá. She traces discourses and relationships to urbanity and rurality in Colombia to explain how they cradle FARC party members’ efforts to establish themselves during a time of transition and uncertainty during which “some wins feel like losses.” Separately, Giraldo presents a gendered analysis of the presentation of female former FARC members as new mothers—important because such possibilities came on the tail of years of reportedly strict reproductive regulation by FARC leaders—simultaneously setting the potentialities and limits of life after war for these women.

Motherhood also features in Sanchez and Fernandez’ essay on reproductive labor and reproductive violence, specifically, the way in which the naturalization of motherhood renders particular forms of intergenerational wartime violence invisible among mothers and their children who were born of war-related sexual violence. The combined feminist anthropological and juridical approach to analysis in this work offers an important advance in our thinking about how to position research in service of a more gender-sensitive model of transitional justice. Furthermore, it demonstrates the ways in which reproductive violence can exceed the legal categorizations of harm. It also serves as an example for the often-untapped potentials emerging from more collaborative work in our field. We learn from these accounts that the transitional justice project is always already enmeshed within a web of complementary and competing understandings.

This collection also tackles the bureaucratic complexities of the institutions scaffolding various transitional justice initiatives. For example, Azuero analyzes how the use of an inventory—to borrow her words, a forensic object—to measure the FARC’s wealth in order to contribute to victims’ reparations was a woefully ineffective measure to attempt to capture the intricate financial status of an insurgent group with decades-old decentralized accounting practices. Doomed from the start, the exercise most starkly illuminated the ongoing political and technical conflicts that emerge from the clash between counterinsurgent fantasies and a post-agreement world.

In her piece, Krystalli reflects on another inventory of sorts: that of bodies and measured qualities (gender, ethnicity, “other vulnerabilities”) deemed important among those attending state-sponsored transitional justice events, and as tracked on the omnipresent roving attendance sheets that circulate constantly throughout every meeting. These tangible artefacts of institutional and post-accord life delineate what does and does not register as work with victims and embed within logics of what Pellegrino (2017) calls “cumplir incumpliendo” (complying incompliantly), which refers to the performance of compliance and fulfillment to the letter that belies a lack of compliance with the spirit of the policy. This work contributes to a rich line of scholarship on what “counts” and what the work of accounting does for all implicated in the domain of transitional justice (Merry 2016; Nelson 2015).

Ramírez tackles performances of a different kind in his analysis of victims´ narratives among Colombia’s displaced persons. He delves into the two sides of the same coin, which he terms the ¨bureaucracy of victimhood”: on one hand, victims are received in good faith by the state agency responsible for their reparations and according to the Universal Human Rights standards. On the other, their accounts are subjected to a battery of bureaucratic processes designed to sniff out fraudulent victims’ claims so as to make way for the “true victims” of the conflict. Such processes result in a relatively narrow repertoire of commonly accepted narratives of victimization, muting other tales of quotidian violence that occurred in the same context. He further compellingly argues that a “transition” is not a singular event, but rather an ongoing unfolding of experiences as they are told and retold over time. In the case of his interlocutor, this entails erasing some aspects of personal histories (drug use) while remaking and reproducing others (extortion and violent displacement). War stories, Ramírez shows, are founded in individual experiences, but are nevertheless the result of broad social networks, accumulated knowledge, the drive for legibility in the labyrinthine state bureaucratic apparatus, and, sometimes, outright coaching and fabrication.

Contemporary debates in the field of transitional justice, human rights, and post-conflict interventions materialize around questions related to the contested origins of human rights discourses, their efficacy in achieving stated aims, and whether or not those aims are even the correct ones to begin with (e.g., should we pursue sufficiency over equality? Also, recent clashes between Moyn 2018; Sikkink 2017). What this collection offers, and what the discipline of anthropology can contribute to these debates, is a reframing of the question from “What is right?” to “What do questions about what is right reveal (and obfuscate) about living with and through the state and post-conflict transitions in general?”

We anthropologists take for granted that post-conflict state-building and transitional justice mechanisms represent breeding grounds for competing interests, ideological contradictions, and contested claims—i.e., the answer to “what is right?” is inextricably bound up in where one stands in all of this and, even then, the answers are multiple. Interrogating instead the epistemological bases for arguments of what is desirable, right, and good in the context of peacebuilding against the backdrop of ongoing violence allows us to offer more than empirical insight—what is so often (mis)understood as the key contribution of our discipline. It allows us to deconstruct human-made categories, such as human rights, the state, and transitional justice in ways that, in their best instantiation, are part of an ongoing dialogue with other disciplines and the policy world and constitute our part in a long-term ethical commitment to those populations that have so generously shared with us their stories and their lives. Though the Colombian Peace Process provided host, history, and home for us, this is less a conversation about Colombia and more an invitation to reflect on what it means to learn how to be against the backdrop of radical change: a change that sometimes feels like nothing will ever be the same, and other times feels more like the whiplash of a rapid launch forward only to be slammed back again.[2]

In 2021, Dr. Erin McFee will begin her post at the LSE Latin America and Caribbean Centre (LACC) as a UK Research & Innovation Future Leaders Fellow. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in Anthropology at The University of Chicago, where she teaches courses on peacebuilding, trust, violence and armed conflict in Latin America, and post-conflict societies. She completed her PhD and MA in Human Development at The University of Chicago and obtained her MBA at Simmons University in Boston. McFee’s research focuses on individuals who decide to take up and lay down arms with non-state armed groups, the interventions that target these individuals, and the topic of trust in societies and communities that have experienced organized violence. She draws from theoretical work in philosophy, anthropology, and social psychology, and her work speaks to both the academic and public policy domains. She has conducted extensive field work in Colombia since 2010 both in an informal housing settlement of conflict victims and former combatants, as well as in the non-governmental, religious, and international organisations that design interventions for such communities. Recently, she has extended her work into El Salvador and Mexico. Her most recent co-edited volume with Angelika Rettberg is Excombatants and the Peace Accord with the FARC-EP in Colombia: A Balance of the Early Stage (Spanish) and she is a member of the Laboratory of Anthropology of the State in Colombia.


[1] The Laboratory for Anthropology of the State in Colombia (LASC) is a collaborative transnational network of researchers based at universities in Colombia, the UK and the USA, who share an interest in studying the Colombian state ethnographically, analysing its practices, processes, institutions, narratives, materialities, and effects.

[2] Many thanks to Gwen Burnyeat & Sebastian Ramírez for contributing several of the points included in these concluding paragraphs.


Burnyeat, G. 2018. Chocolate, Politics, and Peacebuilding: An Ethnography the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia. Palgrave Macmillan.

Burnyeat, G. 2020. The Face of Peace: Pedagogy and Politics among Government Officials in the Colombian Peace Process with the FARC-EP [Doctoral Dissertation]. University College London.

Finnstrom, S. 2010. “Reconciliation Grown Bitter? War, Retribution, and Ritual Action in Northern Uganda.” In R. Shaw & L. Waldorf (Eds.), Localizing Transitional Justice: Interventions and Priorities after Mass Violence (pp. 135–156). Stanford University Press.

Gupta, A. 2012. Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Duke University Press.

Lederach, J. P. 1998. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. USIP Press Books.

McFee, E. 2016. “The Double Bind of ‘Playing Double’: Passing and Identity Among Ex-combatants in Colombia.” Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 22(1), 1–11.

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

Moyn, S. 2018. Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Nelson, D. 2015. Who Counts? The Mathematics of Death and Life after Genocide. Duke University Press.

Ocampo, G. I. 2014. Poderes regionales, clientelismo y Estado: Etonografías del poder y la política en Córdoba, Colombia [Regional power, clientelism, and the State: Ethnographies of power and politics in Córdoba, Colombia]. ODECOFI-CINEP.

Özerdem, A., Podder, S., O’Callaghan, S., & Pantuliano, S. 2008. Reinsertion Assistance and the Reintegration of Ex-Combatants in War to Peace Transitions (p. 45). Centre for International Cooperation and Security.

Pellegrino, S. V. 2017. Incumplir Cumpliendo: Una Etnografía al Papeleo Del Auto 004. Universidad de Los Andes.

Ramírez, M. C. 2011. Between the Guerrillas and the State: The Cocalero Movement, Citizenship, and Identity in the Colombian Amazon. Duke University Press.

Serje, M. 2005. El Revés de la Nación: Territorios Salvajes, Fronteras y Tierras de Nadie. Universidad de los Andes – Ciencias Sociales.

Shaw, R., & Waldorf, L. (Eds.). 2010. Localizing Transitional Justice: Interventions and Priorities after Mass Violence. Stanford University Press.

Sikkink, K. 2017. Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century. Princeton University Press.

Tate, W. 2015. Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats: U.S. Policymaking in Colombia. Stanford University Press.

Theidon, K. 2007. “Transitional Subjects: The Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration of Former Combatants in Colombia.” The International Journal of Transitional Justice, 1, 66–90.

—. 2010. “Histories of Innocence: Postwar stories in Peru.” In R. Shaw & L. Waldorf (Eds.), Localizing Transitional Justice: Interventions and Priorities after Mass Violence (pp. 92–110). Stanford University Press.

—. 2013. Intimate Enemies: Violence and Reconciliation in Peru. University of Pennsylvania Press.



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