Small Victories: Urban Politics, After War

By Emma Shaw Crane

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.

Figure 1: Homes of brick and wood in a peripheral hillside neighborhood of Bogotá, June 2019. The city’s downtown is visible in the distance. Photo by Emma Shaw Crane.

Peace accords between the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army) and the Colombian state disarmed guerrilla combatants and transformed the guerrilla insurgency into a political party. The accords guaranteed the FARC ten seats in the Colombian congress, five in the Senate and five in the House of Representatives. Established in late August of 2017, the new FARC political party kept their acronym by a narrow internal vote to become the Common Revolutionary Alternative Force (the Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común). The party participated in their first elections in spring of 2018, seeking to legitimate their congressional seats guaranteed by the accords. They campaigned again in local and municipal elections in the fall of 2019. Colombia is one of the most urban countries in the world—nearly eighty percent of the population lives in cities—and the FARC knew that in order to build a legitimate and durable political party they would have to win urban votes. This essay reflects on the aftermath of war in the city, and on urban politics as a terrain of political reincorporation.

Cities in Colombia, especially the capital of Bogotá, are often understood to be always and already post-conflict, because the armed conflict has been principally rural. The peace accords focus on reconstruction in the “territories,” what my military interlocutors call “deep Colombia.” The ambitious accords mandate that the Colombian state integrate neglected rural areas, healing what Juan Pablo Vera (2017) calls the “nation-territory divide” (175). The FARC was not new to Bogotá: an urban front operated in the city for decades and one of the party’s sitting senators, Carlos Antonio Lozada, is one of the sole survivors of a massacre that eliminated nearly the entire unit. But it was principally a peasant insurgency.[1] Their political power was rural, and armed. With the birth of the new party, insurgents came to the capital, the heart of power, as the state ostensibly went to poor, rural areas.[2] In Bogotá, the new party chose to focus not on progressive, middle class neighborhoods near the city center but on the sprawling peripheries: the “city of victims,” as one ex-combatant put it.

Villa Luz is a hillside neighborhood in this city of victims, at the farthest edge of Ciudad Bolívar, the largest and most populous of Bogotá’s southern peripheries. Established by sixteen families displaced by paramilitary violence from Huila, Tolima, Antioquia, Apartadó and Meta, Villa Luz was built by rural-to-urban migrants. Marcela, now in her early forties, is a militant with the FARC political party. She arrived in Ciudad Bolívar in 1990 from Uribe, Meta when she was fourteen, fleeing paramilitary and army violence in the wake of the destruction of Casa Verde, the symbolic command center of the FARC. Her parents, community organizers sympathetic to the FARC, were frequently in hiding when they lived in Meta, and Marcela and her siblings often had to switch schools, changing their last names to protect their parents. After Casa Verde was “wiped off the map” by Israeli Kfir bombers and U.S.-made A-37 Dragonflies, Meta was flooded with counterinsurgents and Marcela’s family fled (Torres & Escobar 1995). Like so many others displaced by rural violence, they arrived in peripheral neighborhoods of Bogotá (Salcedo 2015; Ramírez 2020). Within a few weeks, Marcela and her family settled in Villa Luz, which was then a high, green hillside with a lone farmhouse and a view of distant downtown Bogotá. As militants and activists mostly sympathetic to the FARC, the families who established Villa Luz brought insurgent organizing sensibilities to peripheral urbanization (Caldeira 2017; Naranjo Botero 2014). Recognized as victims of the armed conflict by the state and with support from Provivienda and the local Catholic archdiocese, they seized the land and built small houses out of wood, collectively planning and auto-constructing a neighborhood that grew in the decades that followed.

A few years later, a landslide wrecked half of those carefully built homes. The residents of Villa Luz rebuilt, and more migrants came, settling on the steep hillside. Fifteen years later, another landslide tore a swath through the eastern embankment of the settlement, destroying more houses. Marcela, by then a primary school teacher, organized those who had lost their homes to demand collective relocation. When authorities did not respond, a group led by Marcela occupied the local housing authority’s office—putting pressure on the local municipal officials who had ignored them—and won. Their victory was bittersweet: those who lost their homes were relocated to apartment buildings for victims of the armed conflict in another peripheral neighborhood. Though it was a victory, Marcela remembers the day of the relocation as one of the saddest of her life as she said goodbye to beloved neighbors. She sometimes has dreams of the sounds of people’s muddied belongings as they were tossed into trucks to take them to the new apartments, more than an hour away. Over the years, the remaining homes in Villa Luz have been formalized and titled, the roads paved. With the concrete, municipal services arrived: a bus service now carries Villa Luz residents to their jobs as cleaners, security guards, domestic workers and informal laborers hours away in downtown Bogotá and the wealthy north of the city.

 Villa Luz is exactly the kind of neighborhood the FARC political party hoped to organize and win: not only as voters, but as the urban base for an unarmed, anti-capitalist political movement. Poor, environmentally precarious, disproportionately Afro-Colombian and Indigenous, built by displaced people and migrants, Villa Luz had long been dominated by urban paramilitaries and right-wing political parties that traded votes for a hot meal or home improvements. As a FARC party militant put it to me, the FARC was at a disadvantage campaigning without “tamales or [roof] tiles” (ni tamales ni tejas). Though the peace accords guaranteed access to campaign funding, the FARC remained on the Clinton List.[3] Designated as a terrorist organization even after disarming, they were initially unable to open a bank account and campaigned without funding for months. Like the list of FARC assets that Alejandra Azuero Quijano analyzes in this collection of essays (2020), the new party’s transition to civilian life and civilian finance was haunted by the specter of the narco-terrorist.

The FARC campaigned with a platform organized around the right to the post-conflict city. Here, the “post-conflict” is best understood as both the time yet to come, a horizon of possibility, and the condition of the present, that “uncertain, elastic temporal space” of possibility and speculation (Morris 2019). The former combatants and urban militants who crafted the campaign platform read David Harvey, Milton Santos, and Jane Jacobs alongside insurgent intellectuals Jacobo Arenas and Manuel Marulanda as they labored to translate the principles of a Marxist-Leninist rural insurgency into urban demands. On one of many late nights sitting in the FARC’s new headquarters at work on a document outlining the campaign’s urban political platform, Eliseo, a party militant in his mid-twenties, explained that the urban vote was necessary. After all, he said, eleven million people live in rural areas of Colombia (roughly 22 percent of the population). The population of the Bogotá metropolitan area alone is eleven million.

Studies of the reincorporation of the FARC have so far focused, overwhelmingly, on the rural Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation, which concentrated former guerrillas in the immediate aftermath of the disarmament.[4] Both the party and the state expected a rural reincorporation; the FARC hoped the rural Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation would consolidate the party and provide possibilities for collective life. But as early as 2018, more than half of guerrilla combatants had left the designated zones, and many of them migrated to cities. Demobilization has long been an urban project, and the vast majority of former combatants who reintegrated before the accords live in peripheral neighborhoods of big cities. Before the reincorporation of the FARC, combatant demobilization was a genre of “humanitarian counterinsurgency” (Fattal 2018), closely tied to Colombian and American military intelligence and military aid metrics (Hoyos 2010). A government institution, the Colombian Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization, prepared former combatants for precarious and individuated civilian life, generally as low-wage laborers on the peripheries of cities (Carranza-Franco 2019). The FARC wanted something else.

If “reintegration” suggests a person has left society and after leaving war returns to it, reincorporation instead situates the FARC as a social and political body, one that will now be recognized as legal by the state. As a former FARC commander said to me, from her office in party headquarters in one of those progressive central neighborhoods, “Reintegration is for someone who left and came back. Someone who was defeated. Not us. We signed an accord. That’s why we talk about reincorporation.” During the peace talks, the FARC negotiated for—and won—social, economic and political reincorporation: the transformation of the guerrilla insurgency into a political party. Instead of the depoliticization of former fighters, particularly women (Giraldo 2020), the FARC imagined the transformation of the terrain of politics. In February of 2018, I sat in a meeting between a militant teacher’s union and representatives from the FARC political party. Jorge, a former commander, said, “What the state wants is to negotiate with each guerrilla individually, and for each of us to go home to our little houses and solve our own problems as best we can. What we want is something totally different.” What they want is a political movement; what they got is a political party.

Figure 2. A FARC political party event in a peripheral neighborhood of Bogotá. Photo courtesy of the Common Revolutionary Alternative Force (FARC).

Marcela joined the FARC party immediately after the peace accords were signed in November of 2016. By then she was working for an international youth non-profit in Villa Luz, around the corner from her mother’s house, one of the last still standing from the original land occupation. In 2019, Marcela ran for a seat on the Local Administrative Board (Junta Administradora Local) of Ciudad Bolívar in the municipal elections in Bogotá. She ran as part of a progressive coalition, Soy Bogotá (I Am Bogotá) that included the Unión Patriótica (founded by activists and former FARC combatants following peace accords in the 1980s) and Colombia Humana (led by former M-19 militant Gustavo Petro). Marcela campaigned on the right to housing, the promise of local participatory planning and transparent budgeting, and the regulation of a noxious city dump that leeches explosive gases into neighborhoods high up in the hills. Like many FARC party candidates, she reassured people that the guerrillas knew how to get things done. After all, she would say, we were the state! Marcela won, earning the most votes of any new candidate in the Local Administrative Board race in Ciudad Bolívar, the city of victims.

Marcela’s victory was a bright spot in an otherwise fraught election. The new party is fragile, and the grinding demands of everyday survival fray rank and file commitments to a collective political project. Though a few high-profile former commanders and party members have defected to join the dissident reformulation of the FARC, very few rank and file combatants have returned to arms. Instead, they disappear into the grind of precarious labor and stretched survival. The FARC is widely loathed, represented as outside of society and as criminals, rebels or terrorists (Uribe and Urueña 2019; Theidon 2007). There is no question that FARC caused irreparable wartime harm, including to their own combatants (Sánchez Parra & Fernandez Paredes 2020). My ex-combatant interlocutors were the first to admit that a political party of the same acronym is a tricky project.

Small victories like Marcela’s are overshadowed by persistent scandal, including the arrest and later defection of Jesús Santrich, a former FARC negotiator accused—first by the U.S. DEA and then by the Colombian Attorney General—of continuing to traffic drugs after the disarmament. Writing about the public spectacle of the incarceration of Santrich, the novelist Juan Cárdenas wondered whether some future civilization might look back and wonder if the debilitated body of Santrich, who is partially blind and at the time ill enough to use a wheelchair, was “an offering at the altar of a god that promises, once and for all, to eliminate the specter of a peasant uprising” (2019).[5] We might say the same of the killings of rank and file ex-combatants who, unlike Santrich, are not assigned bodyguards or offered seats in congress. As of mid-October of 2020, at least 236 former combatants have been murdered, some by police and members of the military. Some wins feel like losses.

The dilemma of reincorporating the FARC is often framed as one of two opposing visions: a counterinsurgent state that hopes to neutralize and individuate former combatant (sending them home, as Jorge put it, to their little houses) and an insurgent party that demands recognition as a political collective. A national government openly hostile to the implementation of the accords certainly fractures and forecloses possibilities for peace. The desire for collective reincorporation—a project that includes a legitimate political party, shared economic projects, alternate ways of organizing social life—is also up against dilemmas of social reproduction and survival in capitalism. In August of 2019, the Colombian Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization introduced an individual route for reincorporation, one that mirrors the pre-accord reintegration route for combatants who abandoned armed groups, including defectors from the FARC. The FARC party leadership called the new route an attack on the integrity of the political project, but privately understood that rank and file ex-combatants must do what they can to survive. What possibilities for insurgent political life exist in a post-conflict and thoroughly individuated present?

Figure 3: A retaining wall in the aftermath of a landslide in a peripheral neighborhood of Bogotá, August 2019. Vida Digna means Dignified Life. Photo by Emma Shaw Crane.

Small victories in the post-conflict city remind us that the work of transitional justice is not separate from the struggle for the city. Doing politics after war requires engagement with ordinary forms of local administration. Problems that do not neatly track to armed conflict—landslides, a noxious city dump, a privatized bus system—become the terrain of political reincorporation. Attending to these problems requires daily labors of maintenance, endurance and urban repair (Mattern 2018); in the aftermath of war, repairing the city and repairing wartime harm layer and coincide. The FARC party, often overshadowed by stigma and scandal, attempts to enact small urban repairs in neighborhoods like Villa Luz, which they understand as neglected post-conflict “territory,” too. Marcela’s small victory and the FARC’s contested endurance as a political party constitute enactments of a determined—even if at times contradictory—politics of repair. It is difficult to make a life after war, and it is difficult to transform a city.

At a campaign event at a bar in summer of 2019 in Bogotá, I teased an old friend, then a candidate for the FARC’s Soy Bogotá coalition, that he had turned into a real politician, kissing babies and posing for selfies in a new suit. He replied, “We’ve always done politics. And now we are doing politics without guns.” A few months later, he left the party.

Emma Shaw Crane is a PhD candidate in American Studies at New York University. Her research focuses on U.S. empire and the urban aftermaths of counterinsurgent violence. Emma’s dissertation is an ethnography of war-making and remediation in a military-migrant suburb of Miami, Florida. She is also at work on a long-term project on combatant demobilization and reintegration in peripheral neighborhoods of Bogotá, Colombia. Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the Social Science Research Council. Before beginning graduate school, she was a Fulbright fellow to the Critical Medical Anthropology Working Group and the Center for Social Studies at the National University of Colombia, Bogotá.

Acknowledgements. This essay was greatly improved by insights from Alejandra Azuero Quijano and Vanesa Giraldo Gartner. I am grateful to Maira Hayat, Zahra Hayat, Shakirah Hudani and Lana Salman for comments on an earlier draft.


[1] There were extensive networks of militants in the city, organized as cells of the Clandestine Colombian Communist Party (Partido Comunista Clandestino Colombiano, also known as the PC3).

[2] I am indebted to Juan Felipe Hoyos (Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia) for his analysis of how the demands of the new party spread the FARC’s leadership thin in rural areas and “suctioned” high-ranking FARC leadership to Bogotá. Personal communication, 2019.

[3] The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control keeps a list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons that designates certain individuals and organizations as terrorist and/or drug traffickers, preventing them for doing business with U.S.-affiliated banks.

[4] For a comprehensive analysis of the early reincorporation of the FARC and the Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation, see Excombatientes y acuerdo de paz con las FARC-EP en Colombia: Balance de la etapa temprana (2019) edited by Erin McFee and Angelika Rettberg (Universidad de los Andes).

[5] Just before the fall of 2019 elections, Santrich (also known by his legal name, Seuxis Pausias Hernández Solarte), former peace negotiator Iván Marquez, and several other high-profile former FARC leaders returned to arms, joining the dissidents who reject the accords and accuse the state of intentionally failing to fulfill them.


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