A Colombian case study on state capacity: territorial control is facilitated because of the difficulty of civilians to mobilise with a collective purpose.

State Capacity and the Unintended Consequences of Peace

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. They can also regulate most public and private affairs and enforce 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, consolidating territorial dominance often entails the use of selective violence as a strategy to ensure the compliance of the local populations.

We researched the systematic killing of local social leaders that has taken place in Colombia in the last few years in a recent paper. The paper was co-authored with Mounu Prem and Andrés Rivera from Universidad del Rosario, and with Darío Romero from Columbia University,

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).

We found that the permanent ceasefire of 2014 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) encouraged killings of local leaders by other illegal armed groups. These other armed groups were seeking to occupy the areas previously controlled by FARC.

Peace negotiations in 2014

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 unprecedented surge in assassination of leaders casted shadows over the euphoria from the peace negotiations.

Did killings increase after FARC’s ceasefire?

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.

Key Findings

Results are consistent with the idea that territorial control is facilitated because civilians had difficulty mobilising 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 found that killing leaders isn’t explained by a differential trend of the homicide rate.

Thus, it 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.

Killings in areas with weak state capacity

In addition, we show that weaker state capacity and an inefficient local judiciary exacerbates the killing of leaders.

Our findings highlight the unintended consequences of the lack of state capacity:

  • Central governments in the context of civil war often have to exercise the monopoly of violence
  • The institutional presence in peripheral regions is traditionally dominated by illegal armed groups