Inventories, Insurgent Wealth and Settling Accounts in Post-Agreement Colombia

By Alejandra Azuero-Quijano

This essay is part of Bureaucracy, Justice, and The State in a Post-Accord Colombia, PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation 10, published on the fourth anniversary of the accord.

I.

On August 15th, 2017 the FARC-EP officially completed its disarmament during a highly anticipated televised ceremony. That same day the now disarmed guerrilla group presented the government with the second most important document and forensic object resulting from the peace agreement: an inventory of the organization’s assets. As per the agreement reached by the parties, the assets listed in the inventory would be monetized for the purpose of repairing the FARC’s victims.[1]

What was the place of an inventory within the agreement’s promise of legal and political accountability? Generally speaking, inventories refer to lists or detailed accounts of goods and, despite their outright simplicity, they constitute one of the earliest forms of commercial bookkeeping (Poovey 1998, Nelson 2015).[2] In the context of the peace agreement between a state and an insurgent army, for the latter to list and surrender their property fell nothing short of unprecedented. Indeed, the peace agreement made the inventory—one of the most archaic forms of commercial bookkeeping—what I call a forensic object; that is, an object that could yield a public truth subject to being contested. In practical terms the obligation created an intimate relation between the content of the inventory and the promise of monetary compensation for victims and their relatives. But beyond reparations per se, the inventory also mobilized the state’s long-drawn obsession with measuring the wealth accumulated by the FARC over the course of 50 years of war, as well as the popular counterinsurgent belief that seizing such wealth was the surest path to defeating the enemy.[3]

The delivery of the inventory, a 135-page long detailed statement of their property, happened without much formality. In contrast to the widely publicized and televised ceremony of surrender of the FARC’s weapon stockpile, the U.N.’s Special Mission in Colombia submitted the list of properties and other belongings in a sealed manila envelope directly to the country’s Secretary of Justice. In turn, the Secretary proceeded to put it inside a safe box as agreed by the parties and distributed authorized copies to the few state agencies that had been granted immediate access to the document, among them Colombia’s Office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía). A week later, on August 22, 2017, Colombia’s Fiscal General (Attorney General), Néstor H. Martínez, made public his response to the inventory by way of a letter addressed to the Secretary of State, Guillermo Rivera. This was not the first time that the Attorney General took issue with the inventory; on the contrary, as a staunch critic of the peace negotiation process, he repeatedly warned the Colombian public against the mechanism agreed upon by the parties to fulfill the fifth point of the peace agreement concerning reparations.

Interestingly, the Attorney General’s response letter opens with a contradictory remark. In its opening paragraph Martínez explicitly acknowledged his office did not have jurisdiction to evaluate whether “the FARC completely fulfilled the obligation to inventory all of their illicit patrimony” (Fiscal General 2017). Nonetheless, he proceeded to denounce the various ways in which the list failed to fulfill the obligation as per the peace agreement to produce a “definitive inventory of their bienes and activos” (properties and assets). Salient in Martínez denunciation was the way he decried as irrelevant a large portion of insurgent equipment and everyday wares included in the inventory. Crucially, it would be this last charge against the document that would have the greatest impact in shaping the public’s distrust towards the FARC’s willingness to surrender their property.

The Attorney General blamed the “topsy turvy” accounting of the inventory on the FARC, bypassing the extent to which the very accounting ideologies on which it is premised might have been at stake in the instrument’s failure to measure insurgent wealth (Taussig 1987, 2-3).[4] His letter described the scene of failed accounting as resulting from the FARC’s corrupt accounting practices—although not explicit, his premise was that their intent had been to hide their assets. Additionally, Martínez threatened to deploy the state’s criminal apparatus to prosecute individual members of the organization for the failure of the inventory to adequately measure and account for the wealth accumulated over a 50-year war.[5]

Taking Martínez’s crusade against the inventory as the opening scene of an ongoing struggle over post-agreement accountability in Colombia, I suggest that alongside the discussion over the possibility of hidden assets, the epistemology of accounting itself needs to be brought to bear on the discussion. In the profit-value-wealth system it is not just the inventory but double entry bookkeeping itself that fails to do precisely what the peace agreement promised: to measure the FARC’s wealth. In choosing to fault  primarily the FARC with the failings of the truth yielded by the list of assets, the Attorney General’s critique fetishized the inventory’s accounting potential, thus leaving unexamined the epistemology of accountability on which it is premised.

This short essay,  based on ethnographic research that explores Colombia’s post-agreement legal and capitalist accounting practices, offers a meditation on some of the entailments of tying reparations to the possibility of inventorying and monetizing FARC assets. In particular, I consider how blaming the FARC for the inventory’s failures might be best understood as part of ongoing political and technical conflicts over the concept of insurgent wealth, the methods, techniques, and instruments to measure it, as well as the role of counterinsurgent fantasies in setting up the post-agreement scene of failed accounting.

II.

Among the various reasons for concern raised in the Attorney General’s letter, the phrase “worthless assets” captured media attention and turned into a fast-traveling sound bite both in Colombia and beyond. In the U.S., Douglas Farah, a private consultant speaking to U.S. Congress members of the anti-narcotics caucus, reproduced almost verbatim Martínez’s words during a congressional hearing on plans for adapting U.S. counternarcotic efforts to a post-FARC scenario. As part of his testimony, Farah lashed out against the asset inventory:

“The Attorney General found that, rather than detailing real estate holdings, businesses, and other financial assets that could be forfeited to pay reparations, the FARC has mostly listed “assets” in their inventory that are largely worthless, including a list of the household brooms, kitchen utensils, and rubber boots used by the guerrilla ranks. The list also included an inventory of the weapons the group had turned in, the value of roads they claimed to have built, and some gold and tangible goods.” (Farah 2017).

In order for us to fully grasp the official horror conjured by the brooms, orange presses, and other kitchen utensils listed, we must first have a sense of what the inventory was expected to yield: in the wildest counterinsurgent dream it should have given us the narco-terrorist, a man in camouflage bunkered in the Colombian forest investing in Swiss gold markets in the morning and Saudi oil markets by night; all this from his laptop.[6] The rage at the homely details captured by the inventory is in part about the feminized and devalued work of social reproduction, but it is also about the affective attachment of Colombians, the U.S. military, and global aid institutions to a particular figure of insurgency sowed by decades of counterinsurgency ideology[7]. The disappointment that there would not be something grander and more lucrative being handed over to do justice to the wars’ victims became tangled up with the refusal to let go of counterinsurgent fantasies.

The FARC’s lack of self-knowledge of their wealth (either as a function of their cunning or as a fact), which the Attorney General was quick to ascribe to the guerrilla’s bad faith, also  calls for an analysis grounded on the insurgent group’s well-known financial decentralization. Indeed, while the FARC is known for its highly bureaucratic military hierarchies, a feature that shaped the rigid accounting systems that each front was required to follow and the harsh—and violent—punishment that followed when they failed to do so, this does not provide us with a full picture of the organization’s accounting protocols.

As one of Fiscalía’s forensic accountants, an expert on FARC finances, told me: the group’s accounting practices involved a combination of conventional commercial bookkeeping – as found in the seized laptops of Raúl Reyes and Mono Jojoy – with “human components.” In other words, the insurgent security protocols that governed any and all accounting practices included high levels of secrecy and compartmentalization, making sure only a few people oversaw finances and knew the location of assets. Moreover, the relative autonomy of different fronts, combined with the fact that no FARC assets could be owned by the organization as they had no legal personhood or bank accounts, meant that there existed many variations on the accounting theme. And so, instead of exclusively blaming the FARC for the post-agreement failures of the inventory, it would perhaps be helpful to ask the question; how did it become a widely shared expectation that a centralized FARC negotiation team in Cuba could capture this complex accounting system in the first place?

III.

How did it come to be that a sum of money could count for a person, say, in the form of reparations?

—Diane Nelson 2015, 17.

This is yet another crucial question raised by the inventory, one that anthropologists have given particular attention (Wilson 2001, Jaramillo 2012, Slyomovics 2014, von Schnitzler 2014). In Colombia the legal architecture that created the conditions for a sum of money to account for a person’s life as reparations — known locally as the “Ley de Víctimas” or Victims’ Law — predates by half a decade the signature of the peace agreement between the FARC and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos. In contrast to the Ley de Víctimas, established in 2011 as the basis of a humanitarian bureaucracy that sought to address Colombia’s protracted war against itself (Vera 2017), one feature that made the peace agreement with the FARC a distinct type of reparations project was the fact that the FARC committed to surrendering their assets in order to contribute to repairing their victims.[8] This was the first time an armed group agreed to a process of large-scale disaccumulation of their wealth as one of the conditions for peace. It also meant that in order for individual combatants to benefit from the agreement’s transitional justice regime—which includes the possibility of amnesty for specific crimes under legally defined circumstances, as well as being tried under more lenient standards than those entailed in the country’s ordinary criminal justice system—the FARC as an organization had to break with the modes of value production that enabled it to thrive as an insurgent organization and surrender the wealth thus accrued.[9]

However, it is not the leniency that is most surprising; after all, one of the premises of transitional justice accountability is precisely the call for the state to back down from criminal punishment for the sake of social reconciliation and in order for victims to see their harms repaired. What makes this point of the agreement so unique is, first, the obligation to surrender all their property linked to the “war economy,” and second, the instrument chosen by the parties to account for the fulfillment of this obligation: an inventory.

Methodologically, the inventory resulted from a bottom-up strategy led by regional FARC commanders with the support of footsoldiers.[10] However, this method did not allow for the FARC to rely on the state’s already existing data about FARC assets, a process of cross-referencing that might have enabled to integrate greater accountability to the process of inventorying itself. On the side of the state, this methodological choice also presented challenges. Mainly, due to the fact that the government did not possess a unified inventory of its own against which to verify the contents of the FARC’s list. Fully aware of this weakness, the Attorney General saw the debate over the inventory as an opportunity to claim for his agency the power to produce a counter-inventory.

However, this was not in any way a straight-forward strategy. While the Colombian state’s war against the FARC did produce a wealth of data about the group’s financial structure and its methods for financing its operations, knowledge about FARC’s wealth remained distributed across multiple state agencies; including the military, state and financial intelligence agencies, as well as Fiscalía. In addition, given that for the most part this has been a project centered around the goal of defeating the FARC as an enemy in war, the highly classified nature of this information has made it susceptible to inter-agency antipathy, contestation, and to a certain extent to speculation. So much so that when The Economist published a lengthy article that presented an exact sum of money as the FARC’s worth, the amount allegedly reported in the leaked government document (originally produced by Colombia’s Financial Intelligence Unit) was never confirmed or denied as a fact by the government (The Economist 2016).

And yet, in the aftermath of the peace agreement the murky nature of insurgent wealth continued to be primarily framed as resulting from the FARC’s unwillingness to produce such knowledge. In contrast, as one high official within the state’s military intelligence apparatus explained to me, part of the problem with the inventory was the FARC had been simultaneously truthful and also struggled to measure their own wealth. In his view, both statements were true. The problem was not only that the FARC or some of its former militants may have indeed hidden assets, a possibility that need not be denied, but that the very question of measuring the wealth accrued during the course of the “longest continuous war in the world” (National Security Archive 2017) and doing so through an inventory, effectively one of the most archaic instruments of capitalist accounting, might have been a weakness of the peace agreement in the first place. In other words, the choice of the inventory might have set up the scene for failed accounting that Martínez blamed on the FARC.

Four years after the conclusion of a historical agreement, the ongoing debates over insurgent wealth do not merely expose the shortcomings of the FARC asset inventory; they also shed light on the contradictory aspects of accounting practices at the heart of the project of political transition. Even as transitional justice promised to settle accounts by tying reparations to the monetization of FARC assets, its accounting methods appear limited in their ability to measure the wealth accumulated over the course of 50 years of war and the even greater challenge of disaccumulating such wealth.

Alejandra Azuero-Quijano works at the intersection of law and anthropology. Her research examines the role of legal knowledge in political transition. Her first book manuscript, Redesigning Crime, investigates the relation between design, criminal liability, and forensics. Her current book project, Forensics of Finance, examines the role of financial forensic expertise in shaping Colombia’s most recent political transition. Azuero-Quijano holds an SJD from Harvard Law School and is a PhD Candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her article, “Making the World Spectacle Trial: Design as Forensic Practice at the Nuremberg Trials,” is forthcoming in Grey Room. Her essays and poetry have appeared in AlJazeera and New American Writing, among others.

Notes

[1] The obligation to submit an inventory, agreed to by the parties during the peace agreement’s review period following the Plebiscito vote against the peace accord, “was not expressly written in the agreement” (Acosta-López 2016). Instead, it is found in one of the presidential decrees (Decreto Ley 903, 2017) issued by President Santos in order to operationalize the contents of the accord. In 2017 Colombia’s Constitutional Court upheld the obligation to submit an inventory (Corte Constitucional 2018).

[2] Assets (bienes in Spanish) refers broadly to the “ítem[s] on a balance sheet representing the value of a resource, right, item of property, etc.” As used in the peace agreement the notion of assets appears closest to “all the property of a person or company which may be made liable for the payment of debts.” (OED Online 2020). In the context of the peace agreement, the FARC agreed to surrender all of their property linked to the “war economy” (Gobierno Nacional 2016). As this essay sketches, the definition of FARC assets in these terms would give rise to legal and political disputes regarding what counts as a war economy asset as well as whether the FARC fulfilled their obligations as per the Acuerdo Final. To monetize FARC assets meant that they would be converted into money which would then, in turn, become part of a legal trust that would be used to repair the war’s victims.

[3] See Crane’s essay in this same dossier reflecting on the hopes of the counterinsurgent state (Crane 2020).

[4] In his essay on Roger Casement’s report on the abuses against workers in the rubber plantations of the Peruvian Rubber Company, Michael Taussig writes about the “topsy turvy semiotics” of corporate accounting methods (Taussig 1987, 2-3). They are topsy turvy in the sense that inherent to the corporation is a mode of accounting in which, by definition, terms like payment and advance can be inverted. Anne Stoler wrote similarly about the accounting practices of Dutch corporations in Indonesia (Stoler 1985).

[5] Peñaranda’s essay for this dossier explores yet another dimension of failure in post-agreement Colombia in her analysis of regional development (Peñaranda 2020).

[6] I am enormously grateful to Emma S. Crane for pointing this out to me and lending me her forceful words to articulate it here.

[7] See Giraldo as well as Sanchez and Fernandez’s essays in this dossier analyzing the politics of post-agreement social reproduction;  respectively, the reproductive politics of insurgency and violent reproduction (Giraldo 2020, Sanchez and Fernandez 2020).

[8] On post-agreement humanitarian bureaucracies see Krystalli and McFee’s contributions to this dossier (Krystalli 2020, McFee 2020). See also Ramírez’s essay analyzing a form of repair centered on the evaluation of victim’s narratives by the state that emerges within the same bureaucratic apparatus (Ramírez 2020).

[9] See, Corte Constitucional 2018.

[10] It is worth noting that the peace agreement and subsequent demobilization created a practical paradox for the FARC. On the one hand, they were responsible for inventorying their assets, however, on the other hand, the military and bureaucratic structures on which it would have relied to do so were rapidly changing, when they had not altogether disappeared, at the time that the work to produce the inventory began. While I do not claim there was a deliberate effort on the part of the government for the FARC to fail at inventorying their assets, I do argue that the scene of failed accounting laid out in this article exceeds the FARC’s actions or lack thereof.

Works Cited

Acosta-López Juana. 2016. “The Colombian Peace Process in Light of Other International Experiences of Conflict Resolution: Why Is It Exceptional?” Keynote address, Leaders of the World Conference 2016: Future of Civil Society, University of Central Arkansas, November 18, 2016.

Gobierno Nacional and FARC-EP. 2016. “Acuerdo final para la terminación del conflicto y la construcción de una paz estable y duradera.”

Corte Constitucional de Colombia, Sentencia C-071 de 2018.

Nelson, Diane. 2015. Who Counts? The Mathematics of Death and Life after Genocide. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

The Economist. 2016. “The FARC’s Finances: Unfunny Money.” April 14, 2016. https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2016/04/14/unfunny-money

Farah, Douglas. 2017. “Adapting U.S. Counternarcotics Efforts in Colombia.” Testimony of Douglas Farah before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, September 12, 2017. https://www.drugcaucus.senate.gov/sites/default/files/Douglas%20Farah%20Testimony_Senate%20Caucus%20on%20International%20Narcotics%20Control%20.pdf

Jaramillo, Pablo. 2012. “Deuda, desesperación y reparaciones inconclusas en la Guajira, Colombia.” Antípoda. Revista de Antropología y Arqueología. 14: 41-65.

National Security Archive. 2017, “The New Chiquita Papers: Secret Testimony and Internal Records Identify Banana Executives who Bankrolled Terror in Colombia.” April 24, 2017. “The New Chiquita Papers” https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/colombia-chiquita-papers/2017-04-24/new-chiquita-papers-secret-testimony-internal-records-identify-banana-executives-who-bankrolled

Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2020.

Poovey, Mary. 1998. A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Slyomovics, Susan. 2014. How to Accept German Reparations. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Stoler, Anne L. 1985. “Perceptions of Protest: Defining the Dangerous in Colonial Sumatra.” American Ethnologist. 12(4): 642-658.

Taussig, Michael. 1987. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Von Schnitzler, Antina. 2014. “Performing Dignity: Human Rights, Citizenship, and the Techno‐Politics of Law in South Africa.” American Ethnologist. 41(2): 336-350.

Wilson, Stuart. 2001. “The Myth of Restorative Justice: Truth, Reconciliation and the Ethics of Amnesty.” South African Journal on Human Rights. 17(4) (2001): 531-562.

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s