A Colombian case study: territorial control is facilitated because of the difficulty of civilians to mobilise with a collective purpose.
A vast academic literature in economics and political science agrees that state capacity is an important determinant of economic development. In turn, this literature also recognises that a key element of state formation is the consolidation of the monopoly of violence within a given territory.
Importantly, however, this function is not limited to a central institutionalised authority. In the context of internal conflict, non-state actors can also establish social order within specific peripheral territories, regulating most public and private affairs and enforcing rules in what constitutes a de facto pseudo-state.
In this context, situations that end up in the withdrawal of the ruling actor generate a vacuum of power that other armed groups often rush in to fill.
In turn, as suggested by a large body of literature in political science, consolidating territorial dominance often entails the use of selective violence as a strategy to ensure the compliance of the local populations.
In a recent paper, co-authored with Mounu Prem and Andrés Rivera from Universidad del Rosario, and with Darío Romero from Columbia University, we study the systematic killing of local social leaders that has taken place in Colombia in the last few years.
From January 2009 to June 2017 over 500 social leaders were killed in Colombia, and this pattern seems to have experienced an important increase at the beginning of 2015 (see Figure 1). In the spirit of the territorial dispute argument described above, we find that the permanent ceasefire introduced at the end of 2014 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC from the Spanish acronym) encouraged the targeting of local community leaders by other illegal armed groups seeking to occupy the areas previously controlled by FARC.
The ceasefire was declared on December 20, 2014 and resulted from the peace negotiations that FARC held with the Government of Colombia since October 2012. The final peace agreement, signed at the end of 2016, is probably the most important political achievement of a country that faced over five decades of internal armed conflict. However, the simultaneous unprecedented surge in the assassination of social leaders casted some shadow over the euphoria generated by the end of the conflict with FARC.
Using a triple differences strategy, we show that the killing of social leaders increased disproportionally after the start of FARC’s permanent cease fire in places previously dominated by this insurgency and located in the proximity of areas with presence of other armed groups.
Figure 2 summarises both the methodology and the main results from our analysis. When the permanent ceasefire is announced (vertical line), the number of social leaders killed remains almost constant in municipalities with FARC presence prior to the cease-fire, but not exposed to the influence of other armed groups. In contrast, the killing of leaders increases dramatically in areas both controlled by FARC and exposed to the influence of other armed groups.
These results are consistent with the idea that the territorial control is facilitated because of the difficulty of civilians to mobilise with a collective purpose. Because the incapacity of FARC insurgency to oppose violently, the permanent ceasefire facilitated the arrival of other illegal armed actors to territories traditionally dominated by this insurgency. By killing local social leaders, these other armed groups reduce the collective action from communities, and increase their ability to exercise control locally.
Consistent with this interpretation, we find that the killing social leaders is not explained by a differential trend of the overall homicide rate, and thus is not explained by either a strategy of indiscriminate killings of civilians or a differential change of reporting rates in previously FARC-controlled areas after the ceasefire. In addition, we show that the killing of leaders is exacerbated in areas with a weaker state capacity and an inefficient local judiciary.
Our findings highlight the unintended consequences of the lack of capacity that central governments in the context of civil war often have to exercise the monopoly of violence and the institutional presence in peripheral regions traditionally dominated by illegal armed groups.