Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia

Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia

by Winifred Tate

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At a time when a global consensus on human rights standards seems to be emerging, this rich study steps back to explore how the idea of human rights is actually employed by activists and human rights professionals. Winifred Tate, an anthropologist and activist with extensive experience in Colombia, finds that radically different ideas about human rights have shaped three groups of human rights professionals working there--nongovernmental activists, state representatives, and military officers. Drawing from the life stories of high-profile activists, pioneering interviews with military officials, and research at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Counting the Dead underscores the importance of analyzing and understanding human rights discourses, methodologies, and institutions within the context of broader cultural and political debates.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520941175
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/09/2007
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #18
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Winifred Tate is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studes at Brown University and will become an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Colby College in September 2008.

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Counting the Dead

The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia
By Winifred Tate

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-25283-7

Chapter One

Colombia: Mapping the Eternal Crisis

For most international observers, violence remains the primary evidence of Colombian national failure. For the past two decades, debates about Colombian national identity have focused on Colombia either as a country in progress or as a failing state. Popular culture references consistently portray Colombians as criminal; the State Department warns U.S. citizens that travel to Colombia is dangerous. Inside Colombia, academics, artists, politicians, and cab drivers spend hours debating why, where, and how the country went so terribly wrong. By most measures, Colombia has been counted among the most violent places in the world, yet this is not the reason that it is a useful place in which to consider violence. Many other countries have experienced the dramatic spikes in political violence that are characterized by observers as a human rights crisis; the death toll in the Balkans and Central Africa during the 1990s dwarfs the number of Colombians who died in such circumstances.

What makes Colombia's case illuminating is not that it is the site of the worst violence but rather that multiple forms of violence exist in the context of a relatively wealthy, established democracy. Throughout the twentieth century Colombia has experienced periodic waves of political violence in which murder and torture were used to ensure electoral outcomes, guarantee property rights, and solidify economic power. Over the past three decades, Colombia has also had one of the world's highest murder rates and entrenched organized crime. The kinds of violent acts committed in Colombia-political, domestic, common, and organized crime-coexist and commingle, making the classification of violence and the production of accountability a highly contested public process. Despite the inability of the Colombian state to monopolize the use of force, to control national territory, or to guarantee its citizens basic rights, Colombia has a wealth of democratic institutions, a stable economy, and a relatively well financed media and educational infrastructure. Colombians have traditionally enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes in Latin America, and the country is defined as a "middle income" country by the World Bank (although poverty and inequality levels are growing) (Vélez 2002). The persistent levels of violence combined with the wealth and educational levels enjoyed in major cities have created generations of policy makers, activists, and scholars devoted to analyzing and arguing over the causes and consequences of Colombian violence.

Here I want to sketch the broad outlines of Colombian history in order to locate debates over human rights activism within the history of debates over violence, focusing on the categories used to classify the episodic violence that has erupted since Colombian independence: partisan struggle, insurgent violence, counterinsurgency efforts, and organized criminal violence. The dynamics of these types of violence have varied over time and by region: the changing nature of capital accumulation privileged certain actors over others, and the shifting structure of political institutions facilitated new kinds of power accumulation. In my tour through discussions of Colombian violence, I draw on some of the most insightful studies, which have explored these changes in particular places over limited windows of time (Carroll 1999a, 1999b; Roldan 2002). For readers unfamiliar with Colombia, I paint with broad strokes the most prevalent evolving forms of violence over the past six decades. From this history, I turn to the example of complicated violence in one place, Trujillo, Colombia, where a specific set of murders came to be investigated and eventually categorized as human rights violations. I examine the factors that made this possible, factors that are the focus of much of the rest of this book: the increasing professionalization of human rights groups (and their corresponding greater credibility and research capacity), the growing acceptance of human rights in the post-cold war era, and the new state human rights agencies. Despite the achievements of the commission established to investigate these murders, which produced a consensus document finding local military commanders and drug traffickers responsible, the case demonstrates the limits of human rights activism. Finally, I examine two frames according to which the international community responded to the violence during the 1990s: Colombia as a humanitarian crisis and the need for a culture of peace. Each frame catered to different institutional interests and constituencies, and while some organizations employed both frames, many groups viewed the human rights focus on justice and accountability as an obstacle to humanitarian assistance and the search for peace.


A central point of this book is that the production of statistics on violence is a profoundly political and contested act. The debates among and between groups about which deaths to count in what category are explored throughout. Understanding the basic universe of figures being debated is important for understanding the wider context for these debates. Colombian homicide rates peaked in the early 1990s at more than 28,000 violent deaths a year (86 per 100,000 inhabitants). Since then the death rate has declined but still remains extremely high; during my research in 2002, the homicide rate was 66 per 100,000 inhabitants, almost eleven times that of the United States. Kidnapping is a major industry; half of all the kidnappings in the world occur in Colombia. Colombia is home to the longest-running civil war in the western hemisphere and currently suffers from the highest rates of political violence. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, on average, ten people were killed daily in political violence in 1990; by 2000 that figure had risen to almost twenty a day (CCJ 2001: 4). The Council on Human Rights and Displacement (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos, CODHES), an NGO that researches the Colombian conflict and internal displacement, reports that the number of people fleeing their homes has climbed dramatically, to an all-time high of 412, 553 people in 2002, a 20 percent increase from the year before (CODHES 2003: 2). There are currently three Colombian groups on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations: the two Marxist guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), and the largest umbrella organization of right-wing paramilitary forces, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC).


Colombian violence does not fit into the model of internal conflict most prevalent during the post-cold war period, which focused on ethnic and religious divisions. Religious institutions, in particular, the Catholic Church, and ethnic divisions within society have shaped how violence was deployed and mobilized, but these factors were not the primary motor of the conflict. The vast majority of Colombians are Catholic, and the Catholic Church has played a privileged role in Colombian history, having been granted special rights, including control of the educational curriculum, by the 1886 Constitution (which was replaced in 1991). The church has also occasionally taken sides in the conflict. Historically, it was identified with the Conservative Party, and the hierarchy backed the Conservative government during moments of political violence. Despite the conservative hierarchy, many priests were involved in liberation theology and promoted grassroots organizations that were targeted for repression.

While significant discrimination is practiced along racial divisions, Colombia does not experience significant violent ethnic or racial tensions. Unlike the Incan Empire to the south or the Aztecs and Mayans to the north, Colombia's indigenous population lived in relatively isolated small groups and today accounts for approximately 2 percent of the population, one of the smallest percentages of any Latin American country. Despite their small population, indigenous communities control almost 25 percent of Colombia's territories through the resguardo system (comparable to the system of Indian reservations in the United States). This has contributed to the targeting of indigenous groups by all the actors in the armed conflict (Jackson 2003). Scholars have only recently begun to examine the racial dimensions of Colombian violence, particularly in terms of the Afro-Colombian population. Colombia has one of the continent's largest African-descendant populations, approximately 26 percent of the population. Between 1580 and 1640 as many as 170,000 African slaves were brought through the port of Cartagena de Indias, the only slave port in Spanish America besides Veracruz, Mexico, primarily to work in plantation and cattle ranching and gold mining on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts (Arocha 1998). While slavery was abolished in 1821, total manumission was only gradually achieved over the next three decades (Lohse 2001). Afro-Colombians remain concentrated on the Pacific Coast, especially the department of Chocó, where freed and escaped slaves established independent communities; over the past two decades, however, Afro-Colombians have migrated throughout the country, in part because of the internal conflict. Racial identity remains a slippery category in Colombia, and most Afro-Colombians do not identify themselves as such, despite incipient efforts to organize around Afro-Colombian rights to combat ongoing discrimination (Wade 2002). In the current conflict Afro-Colombians are disproportionately victims of forced displacement (Jeffery and Carr 2004). Although systematic demographic surveys do not exist, Afro-Colombians appear to be well represented among paramilitary combat troops (but not the command structure) because of their extensive recruitment along the Atlantic Coast.

"Culture," understood as a national essence or identity, is often used as the default commonsense explanation for Colombian violence: Colombians are violent because violence is inherent in Colombian culture. In addition to being a dangerously reductionist and static view of culture, this view suggests that there is no possibility for transformation, or any need to address structural inequalities and injustices. Such a view of culture should not be confused with the more nuanced efforts by anthropologists and historians to understand the relationship between Colombian violence and political culture. For example, the historian Marco Palacios argues that "Colombian political culture inasmuch as it is pseudolegal, ambiguous, and tramposa [deceitful], is not born of the matrix of modernity, Enlightenment, and Independence but from the matrix of tradition, conquest, and Baroque institutions" (Palacios 1999: 256). Most of those analyzing and reflecting on Colombian violence consider culture to varying degrees; here I focus on political culture broadly conceived, including how individuals imagine their relations to the state as well as the institutions that channel political power and participation.

The geographic distribution of mountains, rivers, and flood lands has contributed to Colombia's strong regionalism as well as the ongoing conflict (Park 1985; Safford and Palacios 2001). The interior is cut off by the three Andean cordilleras, making land travel extremely difficult. The major rivers flow northward, and their passage is often obstructed by marshy wetlands and seasonal flooding in the northern regions. Almost two-thirds of Colombia's landmass, the Amazon jungle and the flooded eastern plains, house less than 12 percent of the population. Much of this region remains to this day accessible only by plane or river during large parts of the year. Similarly, the Pacific Coast remains undeveloped, with few roads, as did the Atlantic Coast until the mid-1980s. The human geography of institutions, settlements, and infrastructure has been the decisive factor in shaping the patterns of Colombian violence, but this physical geography makes addressing conflict and promoting national integration more difficult.


The first one hundred fifty years of Colombian independence were characterized by three major periods of violence: early coups and conflicts; the War of a Thousand Days in the early 1900s; and La Violencia during the 1950s. Until the emergence of the leftist guerrillas in the 1960s, most of the violence was defined as partisan struggle between the Liberal and Conservative Parties, which continued to dominate Colombian political life until the 1990s. However, political life was characterized by sporadic violence throughout the past two centuries. While the fighters identified with Liberal red or Conservative blue, many scholars have pointed to conflict over resources, particularly land, as being the primary motor of these conflicts.

In many ways the parties were indistinguishable; that they inspired such passionate allegiances has been one of the great mysteries of Colombian political science. Both were led by members of the elite, with little difference between their economic and political platforms. Some scholarly explanations for the strength of party allegiances have focused on symbolic identification akin to a religious identity; party allegiances ran in families and were inherited from one generation to the next. Strong clientalist relationships led to intense rural and lower-class identification with parties, as the vertically linked networks of privilege and patronage were the only channel connecting remote rural regions to national politics. One of the few significant differences between the two was the issue of power and privileges accorded to the Catholic Church, with the Conservatives strongly backing Catholic legal and economic privileges and control over the public education curriculum (Bushnell 1993). As was common throughout Latin America, political debates centered on three major divisions, protectionist or free trade, centralist or federalist, and pro- and anticlerical, although in practice the positions of the parties varied from region to region.

The winner-take-all political system encouraged conflict to control bureaucratic resources, and those shut out of the political system often used violence to gain political power. The political structure established by the 1886 Constitution significantly contributed to Colombia's entrenched clientalism and conflict by creating a hierarchical system of political appointments. Departments (similar to states) were headed by presidentially appointed governors, who in turn appointed local mayors, and elected legislative assemblies were subject to strict review by national politicians (Park 1985: 265). This distribution of power remained in place until the electoral reforms of the 1980s, described below, and created a structure in which strong local leaders interacted directly with the national government rather than with locally based governance networks such as department-wide assemblies. This system encouraged backroom dealing and consolidated the power of local strongmen who functioned outside official electoral hierarchies. Regional powerbrokers were known as gamonales, while their local counterparts were called caciques, from the local slang for "Indian chief."

Colombian political life was characterized by the use of violence to effect political change and control resources. The early years of Colombian independence were marked by political upheaval-one historian counted at least thirteen coups and armed insurrections during the last decades of the nineteenth century (Bushnell 1993: 13). While most were skirmishes with little impact on political order, "what is inescapable is the sheer frequency with which political factions in this land, which paradoxically always has prided itself on its adherence to civil government and strict legalism, made use of force, or the implied threat of force, in the hope of effecting a change in the rules" (Bushnell 1993: 12). Combat during the poetically named War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902) killed an estimated one hundred thousand people, about 2 percent of the population, and displaced hundreds of thousands more, pushing land colonization into new areas. Generated by partisan struggles (the Liberal revolt against the Conservative government) and exacerbated by an economic crisis caused by a sharp decline in world coffee prices, the guerrilla tactics developed during this conflict were a taste of things to come.


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Table of Contents

Map of Colombia

1. Colombia: Mapping the Eternal Crisis
2. Solidarity with Our Class Brothers: The First Wave of Human Rights Activism in Colombia
3. The Production of Human Rights Knowledge and the Practice of Politics
4. The Emotional Politics of Activism in the 1990s
5. The Global Imaginaries of Colombian Activists at the United Nations and Beyond
6. State Activism and the Production of Impunity
7. Human Rights and the Colombian Military’s War Stories
Conclusion: The Politics of Human Rights Knowledge

Selected Bibliography

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Contributes significantly to our understanding of how activist institutional culture and identity evolves in a context where traditional labor and religious activists increasingly engage with and become more deeply enmeshed in the larger global activist community."—Hispanic American Historical Review (Hahr)

"A fascinating study of how and why the idea of human rights has gained such currency in Colombian society."—Latin American Perspectives: a Journal On Capitalism & Socialism

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