democraciaAbierta: Opinion

In Colombia the State is always late

A book review of El Estado siempre llega tarde (The State Always Arrives Late. Reconstructing daily life after the war,) from Julieta Lemaitre Ripoll, Siglo Ventiuno Publishing House/Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, 2019.

Mariano Aguirre
8 January 2020, 12.01am
Colombian police officer with rural family in Leticia, Amazonas, in a place where there is normally little state presence.
Wikimedia Commons, All rights reserved.

Expanding and building the State in regions where its institutional presence is weak or practically non-existent is a problem that has affected Colombia since its foundation, but especially since the mid-twentieth century. The geography’s complexity and the territory’s fragmentation since colonial times led to the surge of local powers that often created their own militias.

In the mid-twentieth century Latin American states had, not without difficulty, reached a certain level of coherence between the State’s presence and territorial control of most of the nation. Colombia, however, remained fractured and became the paradox that it continues to be today.

On the one hand, a constitutional State was created that guaranteed the provision of services, citizen rules, legitimate monopoly of the use of force (a basic principle for any modern State) and formal subjugation of the army to civil power.

On the other hand, reality did not always match formality, and continues not to. The legal system and many constitutional provisions, especially the ones included in the modern Constitution of 1991, are not applied consistently. This is due to deep inequality, corruption, the lack of presence of the State’s institutions and violence. This combination of factors leads to serious issues with regards access to justice (it is expensive, slow and labyrinthine) that affects large groups of citizens.

The lack of State presence goes hand in hand with the lack of a real universal tax system and the presence of armed groups that have, in a more or less stable, or sporadic, manner, established their models of social order through violence (murders, threats, extorsions, forced recruitment, sexual violence or displacements). These alternative models to the State (or at times, in some regions, working in combination with the State in a context of irregular shared sovereignty) grew stronger since the development of drug trafficking.

Nowadays organised crime operates in different fields: production and trafficking of drugs, illicit mining, human trafficking, prostitution, trafficking of endangered species, weapons trade, extorsion and robbery.

As to the State, it is divided in two, with several grey intermediate areas where it has varying degrees of power. The power held by the illegal groups in these areas varies accordingly. One part of the State is legal and the other is illegal; one is formally democratic and the rest is dominated by what Ana Arjona, from Northwestern University, calls the rebelocracy, the alternative order to constitutional order, based on a political economy of violence where armed groups interact with the local population.

Lemaitre's approach implies not solely building the State ‘from the top-down’ and local leaders’ and communities’ specificities being included in the process.

Although they seem like distant unrelated worlds, the links, channels, relations, and ties between these two worlds are close and economically strong. They are not always visible and are almost always obscured by financial and legal labyrinthine procedures. Violence, corruption and connivance in Colombia do not resemble the layers of an onion; instead, they are intricate mechanisms that bear more resemblance to a human brain, with certain visible links and others that escape even the closest scrutiny.

There are three bridges that connect the two Colombia: violence, corruption and inequality.

War, life, victims

Julieta Lemaitre Ripoll’s book immerses itself in Colombia and its regions where, as the title says, the State is always late. The State-controlled ‘blue zones’ -as Guillermo O’donnell called them-, where the State has a strong presence; the ‘green zones’, where the State has difficulties operating; and the ‘brown zones’, where the State does not operate at all and, as the book title states, is always late.

Her book presents a highly complex situation. It is, first, a summarised explanation of the reasons for the war between the State and the insurgencies. Secondly, it is an anthropological approach to the impact that war has on the lives of its victims. Thirdly, it is an analysis of the circumstances and potential of displaced women.

But it also presents alternative ideas to the reconstruction of the State. When academics, government workers, NGOs or the United Nations discuss the creation of institutions, their line of thought is that the existing State should launch a series of initiatives involving the military, the police, judges, doctors, teachers, engineers and technicians in various areas of expertise that should ‘mobilise’ to include the ‘excluded regions’. That is where they will bring the State to with the aid of public, private and international funds.

The State will go there and fight the armed groups if there are any. They will, in military terms, ‘clear’ the area. Then they will ‘hold’ it and will finally begin to ‘build’, following the peace-building (by donors) and stabilisation-building (by the government, the military and certain countries, especially the United States) plans carried out in Vietnam, the Philippines, Afghanistan and Iraq, generally with dire, or at least irregular, results.

At present, the Colombian government is preparing these kinds of stabilization missions for the excluded and violent areas called Zonas Futuro, as Pacífico nariñense, Catatumbo, Bajo Cauca y Sur de Córdoba, Arauca, and Chiribiquete y National Parks.

Rebuilding communities

Lemaitre offers another option that would not necessarily need to replace, but instead complement the current approach. It implies not solely building the State ‘from the top-down’ and local leaders’ and communities’ specificities being included in the process. She suggests analysing what kind of life they led during the war, what challenges they faced, how they managed to survive, how they maintained their dignity (when they were able to) when confronting different armed groups that turned them into victims and often also accomplices.

The author also suggests studying the communities’ capacity to rebuild, even the communities that were subjugated by what she calls the ‘other powers’ and evaluating the possible revitalisation of the local community-based institutions like the Juntas de Acción Comunal that can be revitalised.

In order to create ‘a good life’, a life of dignity, responsibility, citizenship, the author considers that we must learn from the women she interviewed.

The book describes those illegal ‘other powers’ and how they operate; how they co-opt mayors and local authorities, how they ally up with local, regional and national economic stakeholders, how they buy the favours of judges (when there are judges) and public forces (when they are present), and how citizens learn to relate to them, to navigate through that brown-coloured part of the country.

The violence of those powers as described by Lemaitre is not something of the past, before the demobilisation of the paramilitary groups over a decade ago, or to the 2016 peace treaty with the FARC. It continues to exist, just like a ghost returning to haunt those willing to rebuild their lives; it returns in the form of the ‘motorbike guys’, the sicarios, those who kill in the name of powers that operate in the shadows, those who kill social leaders and ex-guerrilla members who are mobilising their communities precisely in order to build the State on a small or medium scale.

Since the signing of the Peace Agreement, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has verified 303 murders of activist and defenders of fundamental guarantees and social leaders, 86 of which (including 12 women) occurred in 2019.

In his last report about the Colombian peace process the UN Secretary General António Guterres indicates: ““Despite the general improvements in security registered after the Peace Agreement, communities continue to be attacked by illegal armed groups and criminal organizations in areas where the limited presence of the State has left institutional gaps and where the lack of economic opportunities has made that communities are vulnerable to illicit economies”.

A critical look from a legal perspective

Reading The State is Always Late is like delving into a novel in which the link between the various characters slowly becomes clear. The war, its stakeholders and interests; the lives of the displaced and the battle of the women who must fight and rummage to feed their families and keep up an appearance of normality in the face of chaos and lack of resources (how to purchase medicine, to obtain the first communion dress for their daughter, to pay for the coffin of the grandmother who passed away); what allies to make, what prices to pay; how, at some point in the book, (and hopefully in reality too) that process of building is connected to a State ‘that is always late’.

When the State reaches ‘the territories’ a dramatic reality takes place, which Lemaitre speaks about in her book: the meeting between government civil servants (the guys with the vests), NGOs, international organisations and victims.

The author explains how often the civil servants are young university graduates who go to the territories to ‘listen’ to the terrible life stories of the people; they have the authority to decide who constitutes a victim, who is entitled to compensation and who does not constitute a victim because they did not suffer enough or because they are usurpers.

The description of this meeting between government workers and victims is daunting and leaves nobody untouched, neither the well-intentioned people working in that department nor possibly the readers of this book.

An especially relevant domain that the book broaches is Law. As an expert in this field, the author questions how this discipline, and the sector of Human Rights in general, conceives and approaches victims, equalising them as if they were all the same, robbing them of their stories and thereby also of their agency to build their own future.

In order to create ‘a good life’, a life of dignity, responsibility, citizenship, the author considers that we must learn from the women she interviewed. The women who, violently robbed of almost everything, including children, friends, homes, land, rummage to find a life for themselves and for their loved ones. But they also find dignity in the action of taking care of others, in practicing a ‘care-based lifestyle’ that they consider essential for the creation of an alternative society to that of violence.

From that starting point the author lays out a political philosophical theory of peace and suggests that the State restore or recreate its role as a service provider, guarantor of rights and safety and that it protect and care for its citizens so as to avoid them becoming victims or a part of the violent powers operating in the shadows. The aim being for the State to build itself both from the top-down and from the bottom-up, so that it stops always being late.


Translation from Spanish: Róisín Allen Meade.

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