Truth and Sensibility:  Epistemic Repair in Victim Narratives in Colombia

By Sebastián Ramírez Hernández

Emergent Conversation 11

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

Image credit: Courtesy of Meghan Keane.

When I first met José Luis in the fall of 2015, he told me he had to flee his home to escape death threats issued against him by a group of urban paramilitaries. He had been a life-long user of basuco (coca paste), he confided in me, and when the urban militia descended on his neighborhood, he had been labeled a social danger and targeted for murder. Together with Mariana, his wife and their three small children, they fled Manizales and headed for Soacha, a city immediately south of the country’s capital. They hoped to join the almost nine million Colombians who have been legally recognized as victims of the conflict, and thus benefit from the government’s reparation scheme popularly known as the Victims’ Law. The first step in their journey of reparation entailed the telling of their tale of victimization before a government representative, in what is known as a declaración. Instead of the account he shared with me when I met him, the story he would eventually tell during his declaración featured guerrillas as the perpetrators of his displacement and erased his drug use from the tale entirely.

When José Luis was able to provide his testimony at the appropriate governmental office (and only he was allowed to enter the official record), he told a chilling story of displacement and dispossession at the hands of guerrilla fighters from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC): the largest of the state’s historical antagonists in its own telling of the war. He recalled how the guerrillas would descend on the neighborhood regularly to gather supplies, extort money from local businesses, deal with snitches, and drink aguardiente. He told of how he was accused of being an informant because he made a little cash washing policemen’s motorcycles and how he was given three days to leave the neighborhood on his own before they killed him and his family. He spoke of how he left with his family that night, without packing anything other than a bag of diapers for the baby and doll for their little girl, and how they ended up in Bogotá, the country’s capital, hoping to find some help.

This alternative testimony was produced with the help of the other families in the shelter that received him and his family when they first arrived in Soacha. They crafted this narrative based on his own experience of violence, José Luis’s and Mariana’s knowledge of guerrilla activities around their hometown, and the other families’ cumulative knowledge of the bureaucratic procedures that gird bureaucratic claims to displacement. They built this narrative through the passed-down knowledge of what sorts of victimizers were recognized by government evaluators, and what sorts of experiences of war would pass muster within official evaluation mechanisms. Even more importantly, the process of communal construction of victimhood narratives allowed for new intimacies to form. In the communal process of discovering the epistemic mechanisms available to the state and their potential blind spots, shelter residents mobilized alternative forms of recognition that, in standing in contrast to those mobilized by the bureaucratic processes of the state, allowed for the bonds of community torn by war to be forged anew.

The government’s insistence that only certain actors, and certain encounters with violence would be recognized as victimizing, supports ongoing political projects through particular narratives of war. Following the paths taken by victim narratives along their journey of evaluation, a different form of repair emerges, one focused less on the well-being of claimants than on the reinstatement of the state’s own claims about its ability separate truth from untruth.

The mindful and communal construction of displacement narratives by people like José Luis and Mariana, their eventual interpretation in the offices of the Victims and Reparation Unit, and the role of such narratives within broader strategies of statecraft, illuminate concurrent, though disparate, efforts to define the practices surrounding sense-making in the aftermath of violence. In traversing this uneven epistemic landscape in which different expectations of veridiction meet, often without mixing, I consider the effects of this demand that victims produce narratives of their trauma for state evaluation. By examining the production of narratives of victimhood I ask, how is reparation differently assessed and made available? What, if anything, is being repaired?

Legal and Paralegal Victims

In 2011, after years of legal, juridical, and political battles, the Colombian government enacted Law 1448 known as the Victims’ and Land Restitution Law (or more simply, the Victims’ Law) in an effort to wrangle a piecemeal assemblage of legal institutions and programs into a single bureaucracy of repair for victims of the war (Alpargatero Ulloa 2011). The law created a burgeoning bureaucracy of victimhood that sought to offer free health care, preferential access to training programs and micro-loans, and subsidies paid directly to victim families every three months. The language of reparation is central to the framing of the law and to the bureaucratic system it created. The law specifically names victim reparation as its ultimate objective and this language has carried over to the institutions that purport to enact the law’s promises. These benefits are made available to those who have been successfully included within the National Registry of Displaced Persons (Registro Único de Víctimas—RUV), a procedure that begins with a declaración outlining the events surrounding the narrators’ victimization.

The Victims’ Law stipulates that all whose personal integrity or property has been undermined because of the internal armed conflict in the country can claim the status of victims and thereby be eligible for redress. However, the law specifically excludes from its benefits victims of what it calls delinquencia común—common delinquency (Ley 1448, Procuraduria Nacional, 2012). On its face, this exclusion may seem an obvious separation of victims of war from those who endure the more mundane damages of petty criminals. However, in fact this exclusion worked to demarcate the guerrillas as the exclusive perpetrators of war crimes and, indirectly, to legitimize the peace negotiations between the state and paramilitaries under the presidency of Alvaro Uribe.

In the 1980s, large landowners created, with the help of the Colombian state, private militias to protect themselves from guerrillas’ extortions. Those groups quickly grew to be independent armies who fought fiercely against the guerrillas, often in collaboration with the army. These paramilitary groups espoused far-right policies and inflicted violent punishment on civilian populations they considered collaborators with their enemies. Leftist political actors, those who refused to pay the neo-paramilitary groups’ extortion fees, or simply those whose lands they could steal, were targets of threats, assassination and displacement. By the time they entered peace negotiations with the Colombian government in 2003, 30,000 paramilitary soldiers fought under the single banner of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. While the Uribe administration points to thousands of demobilized fighters, the lengthy jail sentences for some of their leaders under charges of drug trafficking, and the dismantling of the structures of paramilitary organizations as proofs of its success (Agudelo 2007), the outcomes of this peace process are widely questioned. In 2006, Amnesty International reported that “paramilitaries in supposedly demobilized areas continue to operate, often under new names, and to commit violations.” In 2010, Human Rights Watch observed that “the successor groups have taken on many of the same roles, often with some of the same personnel, in some cases with the same counterinsurgency objectives of the AUC.” Today, these former paramilitaries’ organizations are called bacrim (short for criminal bands) and continue to exert territorial control over the country’s hinterlands and cities, displacing thousands every year. Yet because of their status as criminal bands—as opposed to armed actors—those who, like José Luis and his family, were displaced from their homes by these neo-paramilitaries were excluded from the benefits of the Victims’ Law.

The dismissal of the claims made by those who suffer violence inflicted by neo-paramilitary bands from benefits promised by the Victims’ Law constrains a particular definition of the country’s war within a narrow reading of its actors and their effects. More broadly, the very exercise of making an assessment of victimhood represented an attempt to repair the state’s own capacity to produce war narratives by carving truth from fiction. In this sense, part of the reparation that was on display in the demand that claimants narrate their victimization, followed by the mobilization of a novel bureaucracy to assess such claims, was a repair of the state’s own claims of institutional veridiction. This sort of epistemic repair was not based on an established correspondence of narration and event, but rather, through the mobilization of a bureaucracy that, while hiding its procedures, doled out the stakes of legally-recognized victimization.

Access to the benefits of reparation offered by the state hinges on a declaración, a testimony offered to a public ministry of the experience of displacement. Other shelter residents offered advice to José Luis and Mariana in preparing their testimony. This part of the intricate process of inclusion within the aid bureaucracy for displaced persons filled José Luis and his wife with anxiety and doubt. Though the declaración is portrayed as a free testimony in which would-be victims are allowed to present the facts as they experienced them, the process as a whole takes the form of an inquest. After the paperwork has been completed and the interview written down at the public ministry’s office, the declaración is sent to the central offices of the Victims’ Unit, where it is evaluated and entry to the Registry of Victims is decided. During evaluation, the testimony is checked against databases of guerrilla activities, death certificates, the known modus operandi of the different armed actors, and any other corroborating evidence that can be marshaled. Though the process is governed by a principle of good faith with regards to the would-be victims’ testimonies, the need to verify their stories against databases of corroborated and sanctioned facts speaks to suspicion about fraudulent claims, and, in the words of an official at the Victims’ Unit, “the imperative to protect not just the integrity of the process of adjudication, but also the integrity of the true victims of the conflict.”

In his description of paramilitary violence, Michael Taussig (2003) famously likened the war in Colombia to “mythological warfare,” a war machine that “knows how to suspend reality, how to create the black hole” (11). Colombia’s particular brand of conflict pitted armies against each other in a miasma of confusion and obfuscation that often made it impossible to ascertain with any degree of certainty the identity of perpetrators or victims. For many Colombians, and indeed most of those who endured the worst of its horrors and those whom I met in the course of my research, the war was best encapsulated by a phrase echoed by one of Taussig’s informants: “The war in Colombia? It’s crazy. It makes no sense whatsoever” (2003, 4). In demanding that victims recount the stories of their displacement (and in assessing these narratives according to pre-approved distinctions of who the war’s legitimate violent actors were), the bureaucracies of recognition broached that which made no sense and made it otherwise sensible.

Leaning on the language of Universal Human Rights that made it a cause célèbre around the world, the Victims’ Law calls for good faith to rule over the evaluation of the victims’ narratives, and, in that sense, partakes in a view of victimhood as pure and transparent—what LaCapra (2001) has called a sacralized trauma. Yet the suspicion that surrounds the adjudication processes operates within bureaucratic machineries designed to establish the validity of claims to victimhood within particularly narrow designations of veracity (Noiriel 1991, Cabot 2016). Anthropologists investigating how experiences of suffering are evaluated by bureaucratic mechanisms have identified a rise in biomedical (Ticktin 2006, 2011a, 2011b), and in particular psychiatric evidence (Fassin and Rechtman 2009; Theidon 2013; Weiss 2014), as adjudicators of veracity and humanitarian worth. If testimonies were once celebrated as a narrative genre that could upend the politics of historical accounting (cf Anzandlúa 1990), recent scholarship has uncovered the constraints of storytelling, particularly within environments heavy with legal and economic (Segall 2002, Colvin 2004). Along these lines, scholars have also identified a proliferation in the knowledge of such evaluation mechanisms, and their manipulation and strategic navigation by claimants who may otherwise not fit the legal, bureaucratically approved version of beneficiary (Sandvik 2009; Piot 2019). Alongside these authors, my account illuminates the ways in which practices that are nominally meant to alleviate and repair suffering in fact contort realities on the ground to fit images of the world warped by political concerns, and ultimately reproduce the conditions in which suffering emerges in the first place.

The image of war produced in bureaucratically-approved narratives builds upon, deepens, and sustains violent structures of dispossession and inequality that are at heart of the Colombian conflict. The demand that victims offer narratives of their victimization may well work to undermine efforts to reckon with violence’s multifaceted effects. What Gribaldo (2019) has written for intimate violence trauma holds well for the enduring violence faced by those most likely to endure violence in Colombia: “It is the very everydayness and repetitiveness of …  daily experience of violence that make these experiences difficult to classify as trauma” (285). Lost to the burgeoning archive of victims’ narratives are accounts of the quotidian violence that marked the war for so many Colombians, and of the complex politics and circumstances that separate causes from effects temporally and render a neatly relatable “victimizing event” impossible.

As other contributions to this forum illustrate, the historical transition towards “peace” in Colombia has also set the stage for a series of efforts to assert the state’s presence in places where it has long been deemed to be absent. The “chiseling away at long-standing imaginaries of state absence” that McFee (2020) describes, often takes place within grand spectacles of presence such as road openings and development plans discussed by Peñaranda Currie (2020), or the national political debates over FARC assets described by Azuero Quijano (2020). Just as often, such presence is asserted through unremarked bureaucratic procedures such as the collection of attendance sheets described by Krystalli (2020). The violent dispossession of millions of Colombians is often marshalled as a powerful statement of the state’s inability or unwillingness to protect its most vulnerable citizens. The collection and evaluation of testimonies of dispossession provides an attempt to reorient such claims through the language of repair. In effect, however, this procedure is also an effort to assert the state’s presence more broadly, through the ideological effect of providing meaning to the narratives the country tells about itself.

Intimate repair

When José Luis, Mariana and their family first arrived at the shelter, the story of displacement they told prominently featured the paramilitaries.  “We used to live in the worst neighborhood in the world,” he would often begin, and then launch into a macabre yet familiar story of urban violence, poverty, and uncertainty. Their neighborhood was one of the poorest in Manizales, etched into steep slopes that often crumbled during heavy downpours, destroying homes and killing residents. Violent gangs brought other dangers; by murdering, extorting, and threatening, they sustained their own version of order in the neighborhood and kept tight control over its flourishing drug trade.

When José Luis and Mariana shared this story with others in the shelter, they were told by residents and volunteers to refrain from telling that particular story to the authorities if they wanted to be included in the RUV. A resident who had been living in the shelter a few months before José Luis’s arrival later told me, “They came saying all that stuff about the paramilitaries and, we know it’s true because there are many here who have those stories and many of us have lived through that. But you get rejected [from the RUV] if you say that.” Though knowledge of the paramilitaries’ continued existence allowed for a recognition of José Luis’s narrative of victimhood, its condition as a public secret (Taussig 1999) demanded that other testimony be enacted when facing state institutions. Foundation residents who had gone through the process of registration, and were therefore more knowledgeable of the demands that the bureaucracy of victimhood imposes on the victims’ testimonies, helped José Luis and his wife forge their testimony. While vaguer, this story, built on the common knowledge of guerrilla movements and their violent incursions in the area around Manizales, produced a more efficacious narrative. Over the coming days, the other displaced families in the shelter coached José Luis in the appropriate ways to render his family’s testimony within the bounds of demands imposed by the bureaucracy of victimhood. This coaching did not only entail suggestions about the content of their story, but also was brimming with insights into its form. “You have to look like a sad puppy,” an elderly woman who had become a permanent resident at the foundation, told José Luis the night before his appointment, “And you can’t wear those shoes: they are too nice.”

The discussion between José Luis, Mariana, and the other shelter residents about the shape and content of his testimony also offered fora in which to discuss the difficulties of dispossession, the everyday hardships of life in the city, and their own expectations of the future. Carlos, with whom the family shared a bedroom, often chided José Luis for failing to remember that paramilitaries did not exist anymore. It was while explaining to the couple the intricacies of securing a bedroom for rent near the shelter that Lina told them that “You should look like you’re hungry but not dirty. That also applies for the declaración.” Mariana would recall the extortion payments she would pay to the local paramilitaries that claimed control over the neighborhood and demand a cut of her income, hoping out loud that when her government money came, she would not have to give the guerillas a bite. These jokes only landed in the shared knowledge of the fictions of paramilitary demobilization and the now-enduring presence of the guerrillas in their narrated lives.

Perhaps the most intense efforts to provide a narrative frame for José Luis’s story of dispossession came in conversations between him and Mariana. In the days and weeks after their friends were killed and their home abandoned, José Luis and Mariana had to account not just for their immediate loss and dispossession, but also for what had come before. The reworking of José Luis’s struggles with addiction and violence into a narrative that may fit bureaucratic notions of victimhood was also an effort to take stock of the life he and Mariana had built together over the years and of the losses they had endured. I suspect that José Luis’s remembrance of his family’s uprooting was also a reworking of the terms of responsibility, a reckoning with the weight of guilt. These narratives were produced in an effort to repair the frayed strands of torn expectations and tattered social worlds.

What became clear to me as I listened to the reworking of life histories was that this process was the stuff through which relationships among displaced persons and between displaced persons and others were established and sustained. As much as they chronicled the past (in whatever its form), I took them to be also accounts of the present, ways to chart potential relationships and latent possibilities (Theidon 2006, 2013; cf. Steffen 2017). If the war is indeed “crazy” and “makes no sense,” if even those who endure its violence “don’t really know what happened,” the insistence on producing accounts of their dispossession and of finding ways to make such accounts sensible to official evaluation speak to an enduring faith in the process of story-telling itself as a vehicle for sociability. Their communal efforts to “make sense” of the violence for the benefit of bureaucratic practice was, then, a vehicle to reclaim a shared capacity to traverse a social world that is often wrought with uncertainty. In the face of a para-state violence that dismisses certain lives, and the state’s epistemic violence that denies certain accounts of the war, the communal production of state-acceptable war narratives offered an opportunity to reestablish one’s place within a commonly sensible world.

From this perspective, a very different picture of the war emerges. In José Luis’s hope that his experience of violent dispossession could be mobilized, even in a transformed version, to claim a legal status of victim of the war, we may well discern a broader understanding of the multiple effects of the war and the many forms of its injuries.  These efforts to secure state recognition point to how claimants understand their victimization more broadly than the state, and that they discern a multiplicity of ripple-like effects of the war and its continuations beyond the battlefield. In seeking restitution, claimants like José Luis, Mariana, and their fellow residents at the shelter recognize that the harm they endured was not independent from the violence of war. More so, they recognized that the harm they endured was not independent from its accounts. In manipulating chronicles of victimization, the dispossessed were also implicitly asserting the incompleteness of the state’s definition of the war and its victims. In the commitment of José Luis, Mariana, and other displaced persons I met, to the production of such accounts there is also a gambit for an on-the-ground capacity for repair.


José Luis and his family would eventually be included in the Victims’ Registry. “It is a white lie for my family,” he told me when he got his admission letter. “I did it for my kids, so I could give them a life.” Yet the fulfillment of the promise that came with the inclusion into the victimhood bureaucracy would remain as elusive as the narratives that found it. Over the coming months and years José Luis, Mariana, and their children found themselves mired in ever longer lines, bouncing between government offices, homes, and the streets of Soacha and Bogotá. The promise of a new and better life would also elude them as José Luis found himself returning to the same means of escape that had instigated his family’s hasty departure from their home in Manizales. Drugs, debt, and uncertainty would continue to bind their struggle for a better tomorrow.

Sebastián Ramírez is a Postdoctoral Research fellow in the Center for Health and Well-being in Princeton University. His research among internally displaced persons in his native Colombia explores the role of healthcare services in efforts to remake ideas of home and citizenship in the aftermath of violence. His work elucidates how official networks  of aid and restitution for victims of the war are remade in the everyday efforts of the uprooted to claim their rights and remake their lives. He is embarking on a second project that investigates how survivors of social cleansing campaigns forge mental health support networks through artistic projects that commemorate the loss of family and friends. Image credit: Courtesy of Meghan Keane

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