“Making a Presence”: Reconciliation and the State in Colombia

By Erin K. McFee[1]

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.


Professionals from the Colombian Agency for Reintegration, in their hallmark red vests and in front of their ever present agency banners, hand balloons out to neighborhood children in a “symbolic reconciliation activity” while the National Police emcees the alongside them.The Governor’s office in the Colombian department of Caquetá organized an Institutional Fair for Reconciliation (“Fair) in December 2015. The Fair convened various public institutions and NGOs in the city’s periurban informal settlement of Las Delicias[2] for a one-day offer of public service provision and recreational activities. These kinds of events served as the bread and butter of public, private, and NGO programs working to support the country’s transition out of war. The street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky 1980) present that day, when asked how their attendance contributed to reconciliation, stated that they were there to “make a presence” (hacer presencia).

Such a response might, at first blush, read as tangential or even dismissive, but my arguments to the contrary are twofold. First, the assertion does a tremendous amount of work for the state when held against the backdrop of historically situated ideas of state presence and absence. Given the real and imagined historic absence that made the conflict possible to begin with, making a presence carries with it a corrective connotation. Approached in this way, understanding its use(s) and significance(s) can provide meaningful insight into state-making in war-to-peace transitions, especially in pre-postconflict settings (Theidon 2007). Second, analyses of these kinds of discourses in context provide an opportunity for novel inroads into theoretical conversations about state presence and absence more generally.

The formal peace talks leading to the November 2016 signing of the Final Peace Accord between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) marked a major turning point in the half-century long legacy of the armed conflict in Colombia. However, violence neither started with the leftist guerrilla group nor ended with the peace accord. Clarity on the placement and kinds of punctuation marks in the history of violence in Colombia eludes even those most dedicated to registering the lexicon of war. The politics of memory, significance, and identity frame the everyday battles for survival and stability in the lives of those who arguably bear the greatest burden of peacebuilding: the victims and (former) victimizers. Everyday encounters among these individuals and the state form a core site of struggle for all implicated as they live this ostensible transition day-to-day: in a no man’s land far from peace, but neither on the front lines of war.

Victims and victimizers are problematic identity categories for a host of reasons. Two of which are that many people have embodied both over the course of their life histories, and that the structured interventions designed to serve these populations—which tend to be organized by these identity categories—can give rise to an entanglement of performances and claims that complicate the lofty aims of peacebuilding (Burnyeat 2020; Krystalli 2019; McFee 2019). Nevertheless, contemporary global development, peacebuilding, and humanitarian interventions in contexts of organized violence foreground “reconciliation” as a core policy objective. Rarely defined outright in practitioner and policy directives, reconciliation nevertheless tends to refer to the restoration of non-violent relations between victims and victimizers with some added dimension of coexistence that exceeds mere physical copresence.

For example, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has played a long-standing role in the Colombian conflict and post-conflict transitional life, including in the domain of reconciliation. In the fiscal year in which the event depicted in this essay took place (2016), USAID spent more than 5% of its total $326 million (USD) of foreign assistance to Colombia on “Reconciliation Activities” (USAID, 2016). Reconciliation ranked as the fourth highest priority for spending in the country, with Counternarcotics and Foreign Military Financing claiming the largest proportion of aid (>30% combined).

In this essay, I draw from 35 months of field work conducted between 2014 and 2018 in the international agencies, non-governmental, religious, and governmental organizations attempting to facilitate reintegration of former combatants into civilian populations and to promote reconciliation between them and their receiving communities. During this time, I spent 15 months conducting ethnographic research in an informal housing settlement in the department of Caquetá. In many ways, this settlement was emblematic of the contexts in which these interventions occurred countrywide: residents generally occupied the two lowest socioeconomic strata of the country’s seven-strata classification system; the public and armed forces were largely absent from quotidian life (local militias, microtrafficking gangs, and non-state armed group (NSAG) liaisons operated in their stead); basic services such as light and water were inconsistent and came and went with little urgency for remedy on the part of local public officials; public education was overcrowded and underfunded; a public health outpost non-existent; and many struggled to cobble together the resources necessary to sustain themselves and their families on a daily basis.

In what follows, I examine the actions and narratives of those who constitute the “face” of the state (Burnyeat 2020) – i.e., those street-level bureaucrats who represent the government to society through everyday interactions and who otherwise give embodied form to the assemblage of edifices, edicts, and ideas that is the state. These individuals represent the public institutions that have proclaimed their status as mediators for reconciliation. The hegemonic narratives emanating from them and their institutions position them as neutral arbiters between the betrayers and the betrayed at the end of war. These same narratives, however, also reveal deeper institutional anxieties rooted in a long history of discourses and understandings of the state as absent—having abandoned its people to the “wild,” “savage” periphery (Ramírez 2015; Serje 2005). 

Reconciliation as “Making a Presence”

From the lower section of the community of Las Delicias, I hitched a ride in the back of the Army cargo truck up to where the Fair would take place in the foothills. In the soft light of the December Caqueteño dawn, I stood among equipment and a handful of soldiers who would form the rifle-bearing perimeter of the friendly neighborhood gathering as we bounced and swerved along the unpaved roads leading up to the polideportivo (covered, cement athletic field). Though the Governor’s office was the principal event sponsor, the Fair drew from a constellation of donors, and the banner that hung high up in the rafters of the tin roof covering the athletic field informed observers of the startling array of institutions that also funded the event: private, public, non-governmental, international cooperation, and the public and armed forces sectors. Officials from the United States Embassy also stood off to the side, conspicuous for their size, dress, and demeanor, explaining their presence to me as “observers” following on a donation of several hundred pairs of prescription glasses for the event, which were distributed out of the Colombian Army’s medical service tent set up for the occasion.

As the institutional representatives set up for the day, I approached the Families in Action program table. Families in Action is a public initiative within the Department for Social Prosperity that focuses on poverty reduction and provides education benefits to families with children. After chatting with one of the officials about the scope of their work, I asked what they were doing at a reconciliation event. The twenty-something official responded: “I presume that we will be doing our normal office work, but just doing it here.” Behind her, two male colleagues dramatically gestured to the empty table in front of them, annoyed that the computers had not yet arrived. It was three hours after the scheduled institutional arrival time, so I extended my sympathies to the stressed teammates. “Oh, it’s always like this,” one responded. “Everything’s always half-assed.” He continued, having overheard my question to the young woman in front of him. “We’re here to provide information and support today, and to make an act of presence (hacer un acto de presencia) but what we do doesn’t have any connection to reconciliation. They just told us to be here today; we don’t know why.” I left the three to their WhatsApp conversations and said good morning to some officials from institutions that struck me as more obviously congruous with the topic of the day – the Victims’ Unit and the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR–now, the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization).

“What’s the plan for today?” I asked the three young women who wore matching gray branded institutional vests and represented the Victims’ Unit. One responded as she set up her laptop, which had found more reliable transportation that morning than those of her colleagues at Families in Action: “I don’t know. To make an institutional presence (hacer una presencia institucional)?” When I pushed for what specifically “making an institutional presence” might mean, she provided me with a short list of statistics on how many victims of the armed conflict had formally registered in Caquetá, how many they “treat” each day in their brick-and-mortar service center, and the phone number of her boss if I had any further questions. Throughout my fieldwork, many officials in these kinds of events articulated the idea of “making a presence” as their role in facilitating the transition to a post-conflict society. These statements emerge at the very highest levels of national and international governmental engagement with the Colombian people and, I argue in the following sections, constitute part of a sociohistorically consistent struggle marked by ambivalence and contested claims for power and recognition.

“The State Has Abandoned Us”

The notions of “making a presence” or “making an act of presence” in the Colombian context carried with them the sense of a response to allegations of state absence and abandonment. The catchphrase that punctuated countless tales of past and present need in both urban and rural communities was “The state has abandoned us,” and indexed both real and imagined state absence.[3] State abandonment in the form of a physical absence of institutions and public and armed forces has a direct role in propagating the rise and permanence of irregular groups and illicit economies, and can itself fall within the categorization of “violence in context” (Ortega 2015). It also interweaves with other population concerns, such as social exclusion, poverty, and a lack of the kind of public institutions that contribute to a dignified quality of life. For example, in other comparable locations in Colombia in terms of armed conflict and economic ties to illicit economies (e.g., Tibú, Norte de Santander) a vast majority of the population (>70%) had reported that they felt abandoned by state (Ortega 2015).

These discourses have a long history with both national and international origins. Within Colombia, Ramírez’s (2015) work in the frontier lands of lower Putumayo demonstrates the way in which cries of state abandonment evidenced nostalgia for a state that had not yet arrived, but should. Lamentably, its eventual arrival, when marked by a misrecognition of its subjects, resulted in undesirable consequences for the very populations who invoked it in the first place. This contrasts with the idea that the state had been present previously but had turned away and abandoned the citizens, as the phrase might suggest. Indeed, as Ramírez argues, “the state” in the Colombian imaginary is itself a fiction, and discourses of what the state is and should be find no purchase in the everyday realities of even the most effectively governed areas of the country.

Discourses of state abandonment are further complicated by the fact that “the state has abandoned us” is often not entirely representative of the condition under which my interlocutors lived. “The state” comprises many entities and actors along with related subjective experiences, understandings, and effects (Abrams 1988; Mitchell 1991). Certainly, the Colombian Armed Forces and illegal armed actors who have at times benefitted from the protection of the state have made themselves very much present in large swathes of the countryside. Discourses of state absence and ungovernability can thus do darker work. For example, when national or international government actors make such claims, they can simultaneously obscure and create the conditions for clandestine collaboration between state and paramilitary factions (Tate 2015).

Such possibilities undermine any ethical assumptions regarding the inherent “goodness” of state presence. Even in the absence of overt human rights violations (cf., Tate 2015) innumerable stories of bureaucratic abuses suffered by the Colombian population at the hands of el papa estado (i.e., paternal state) pepper accounts of a wide array of conflict-affected actors (cf., Cronin-Furman & Krystalli 2020). In this collection of essays, for example, Peñaranda interrogates how state presence—associated with failures related to corruption, malfeasance, and ineptitude—itself can be problematic. Furthermore, citizen accusations of an absent state are themselves sites of ambivalence, as many rural communities with which I interacted deployed these discourses while simultaneously rejecting practices like taxation and governance over land use that a state presence would bring with it. Claims and sentiments also varied greatly according to whether they were made in rural versus urban settings, a dynamic that Crane develops in her essay in this collection.

Rather than debating the physical presence and absence of state institutions, then, it becomes more productive to examine what these discourses do for those who live and reproduce them, as much interpersonally as intergenerationally. Taken together, it would seem that the state has quite a lot of work to do if it wants to correct these conceptualizations and move Colombia away from being, as 2002 Vice President Gustavo Bell once bemoaned, “more geography than State” (AFP May 10th, 2002).

“Making a Presence”

The street-level bureaucrats I engaged said that there was no connection between their mandated Saturday workday and the Fair’s theme of reconciliation. Clearly, someone higher up in the chain the chain thought differently, dedicating scarce public (read: international donor) resources to a daylong event in a community that was, on any other day, an institutional vacuum.

Such acts of making a presence are reminiscent of Navaro-Yashin’s (2012) investigation into post-partition Cyprus, in which she analyzes the Turkish effort to rename previously Greek town names in the newly minted “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” following the violent 1974 Partition. This renaming represented one of the many ways that the material (bureaucratic artifacts of the renamed towns) and the imaginary came to co-constitute emergent realities: residents began to inhabit their surroundings both physically and psychically. She argues for make-believe as a social form that juxtaposes the labor of producing practices, procedures and processes, and the imagination that goes into infusing that labor with meaning.

Her theorizing has global relevance and complements Serje’s (2005) contextualized argument that, in Colombia, the absence of a formal, physical state presence lays the groundwork for others (including NSAGs, non-state armed groups) to create narratives around this absence. The NSAGs, gaining a foothold in governance through organized violence, form barriers to future state presence, thus creating the conditions for the reproduction of discourses of state absence. To work against, or alongside these legacies, state actors dedicate resources to “making a presence”: physically inhabiting a space that they had not previously and working on the citizens’ imaginaries in order to reshape their understandings and narratives of the state. In this way, the Institutional Fair for Reconciliation was not just the physical arrangement of booths, laptops, bodies, and services rendered but also a chiseling away at long-standing imaginaries of state absence—an effort to make the residents of Las Delicias believe. This all took place under the figurative and literal banner of the post-conflict anthem of reconciliation.

But state presence is not a monolithic construct, as we have seen. Instead, shades of presence and gradations of absence can come to signify different things to different actors. For example, during the same period in Colombia and in similar institutional forms of engagement with communities, Burnyeat (2020) theorizes on another form of presence: giving face (dar la cara). For the government officials, both street-level and those presiding from centralized offices in the capital of Bogotá, “giving face” refers to presenting oneself to the public to take accountability for prior state absences and failings. In contrast, those with whom I spoke during the Fair arrived to hacer presencia without much of an idea of what that had to do with reconciliation and little in the way of any affective charge that might signal the kind of investment in the exchange that dar la cara suggests.

A cynical read on the Fair might come to the conclusion that making a presence that day was an instance of “complying incompliantly” (incumplir cumpliendo) (Pellegrino 2017), which refers to the institutional ability to simultaneously demonstrate compliance in letter (e.g., state institutions led an event that held “Reconciliation” in its title) while failing to create the intended outcomes (e.g., it is difficult to identify clear connections between the production of this event and lived experiences of reconciliation among individuals implicated in the armed conflict). And certainly, such efforts at facilitating transitions out of conflict have met with similar challenges. For example, transitional justice institutions and policies in post-Apartheid South Africa brought with them a wave of totalizing human rights discourses that, rather than deposit a sense of the inviolable rights of the people, led to a growing crisis of state legitimacy. Lofty promises far exceeded state capacity to fulfill them and work to centralize state justice practices created tensions with extant and plural localized forms of the same (Wilson 2001). In post-genocide Rwanda, various forms of grassroots courts, operationalized under the banner of promoting unity and restoring the social fabric, simultaneously laid the groundwork for the extension of existing hierarchies of power and governance into the lives of those individuals already disproportionately negatively affected by those relations.  The focus on law-based mediation and reconciliation, combined with the punitive power of these courts, enabled an increasingly authoritarian state to extend its reach and control and reduce—rather than restore—access to meaningful justice (Doughty 2016).

Without ascribing motive where it is impossible to do so, I suggest here that not all forms of state presence and absence are equal: neither in the structures and practices that constitute them, nor in the ideas and effects that follow from and feed back into them. They are instead deeply contextualized and variable in their significance for those involved. For example, the presence of the Army medical tent at the Fair that day, with its several hundred pairs of reading glasses to distribute, may have planted the seed for a new relationship to the state for a community member who received much needed care, while at the same time simply being more of the same for another who was unable to get on the list of patient visits for the day. This suggests a need for approaching our study of these phenomena in a way that accommodates the multiple, overlapping, and concurrent forms of state presence and absence. It is my hope that both this and other essays in this collection have contributed to nuancing our understandings of state-building during times of transition and against the backdrop of other forms of ongoing violence. From there, we may begin to connect the dots on how the state is located within a broader constellation of actors and forces working towards reconciliation after war.

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] Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Chicago and Visiting Fellow at the Latin America and Caribbean Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The research for this essay was conducted thanks to the support of the Fulbright DDRA Fellowship, the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, and the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights. This essay greatly benefitted from the readership of an anonymous reviewer at the publication, the Laboratory for Anthropology of the State in Colombia, Gwen Burnyeat, Roxani Krystalli, Sebastian Ramírez, and Kelsey London Robbins. Any mistakes or misjudgments remain my own.

[2] The name of this community has been changed.

[3] In this context, absence (ausencia) and abandonment (abandono) are distinct terms, and the common refrain is “the state has abandoned us” (el estado nos ha abandonado). While there are slight distinctions between what these two terms signify, they were often used interchangeably in context by my interlocutors.


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