Militias and state formation

This project corresponded to my PhD thesis and addressed a paradox common to a number of countries in the Global South. While violence is often seen as the cause of state weakness and even failure, the participation of non-statutory armed groups to the exercise of power and the transformations of the state is pervasive.

I addressed this issue from the standpoint of a ‘borderline case’, which is characterized by apparently contradictory characteristics; with a decades-old armed conflict, Colombia features a case of absence of a state monopoly on violence over large parts of its territory. However, while the country was ranked among the most violent in the world between the early 1980s and the mid-2000s, the state’s authority was never really challenged. The political order was not disrupted and a competitive electoral process continued. Even more surprisingly, a relatively independent judiciary claimed the ability to criminalize violence, including pursuing state agents or pro-regime militias.

My research then focused on one armed group in particular: paramilitary militias. The book demonstrates that, far from weakening the state, they participated to the government of territories and populations, both in marginal zones, and in areas integrated to global capitalism. Moreover, paramilitary violence did not take place in a situation of state absence, but was on the contrary a matter of public regulation from the beginning of its history. Violence then became a public problem, subject to the action of specialized institutions. Paramilitary violence is then analyzed from a twofold point of view, as a case of government through violence, and a set of practices of the government of violence.

This interpretation was developed through two complementary points of view: an inquiry into the local forms of domination spurred by paramilitary groups, and a research on the forms of state intervention on paramilitary violence. I did a several month field research on the mechanisms of local control of population of territory by paramilitary groups. I crossed the data drawn from this ethnographic experience with other sources, such as data on murders and forced displacement, police and press reports, as well as a significant amount of legal documents produced within the criminal procedures against members of paramilitary groups and their political allies.

This research was complemented with a work on three institutional fields relevant for the study of paramilitarism: the legal field, the security apparatus and the field of peace and conflict resolution. I traced the history of each of these professional fields, and the place of paramilitary groups in each of them. How did the legal work on paramilitary violence changed between the early 1980s (when the problem emerged in the public agenda) and the late 2000s? What was the position of competing groups and networks inside the security apparatus (police and army professionals, intelligence agencies) towards paramilitary groups? How did the world of conflict resolution professionals deal with these groups? Questions such as these were addressed through a historical work on several public controversies about paramilitarism. My method was to reconstruct the mechanisms of problematization of this phenomenon, taking public controversies as a point of departure and reconstructing the underlying mechanisms. This was mainly done through interviews with actors of these policy fields and through archival research.

On the basis of this encompassing research design, I was able to study the relation between paramilitary groups and the state from complementary points of view. Paramilitarism was a security and a legal problem addressed by a number of institutions and individuals, who produced a significant amount of judicial, political and administrative works and whose approach to these armed groups shaped in return the characteristics of the militias. But paramilitary groups were also a part of complex configurations of power at the local level, engaged in the control of economic resources, territories and ballots, and embedded in the domination of a landed elite. As such, the deployment of paramilitary groups, that attained a daunting dimension in the early 2000s, before their partial demobilization, was not a sign of state weakness. On the contrary, these groups placed the state at the core of their strategy.

This project was supported by a doctoral grant at Sciences Po and a doctoral field research grant by the Fonds d’Analyse des Sociétés Politiques (FASOPO).

Academic output of this project:

Three books:

  • Grajales, J, and R. Le Cour Grandmaison R. 2018. L’Etat malgré tout. Produire l’autorité dans la violence. Paris: Karthala.
  • Grajales, J. 2017. Gobernar en medio de la violencia. Estado y paramilitarismo en Colombia. Bogota: Editorial Universidad del Rosario.
  • Grajales, J. 2016. Gouverner dans la violence. Le paramilitarisme en Colombie. Paris: Karthala.

And several articles:

  • Grajales, J. 2017. Violence entrepreneurs, law, and authority in Colombia. Development & Change, vol 47 n° 6, p. 1294-1315.
  • Grajales, J. 2017. Privatisation et fragmentation de la violence en Colombie: l’État au centre du jeu. Revue française de science politique, 67(2), 329–48.
  • Grajales, J. 2017. Private Security and Paramilitarism in Colombia: Governing in the Midst of Violence. Journal of Politics in Latin America, 9(3), 27–48.
  • Grajales, J. 2016. Quand les juges s’en mêlent. Le rôle de la justice dans la démobilisation des groupes paramilitaires en Colombie. Critique Internationale, 70, 117–36.
  • Grajales, J. 2013. State involvement, land grabbing and counter-Insurgency in Colombia. Development & Change, vol. 44 n° 2, p. 211-232.
  • Grajales, J. 2011. The rifle and the title: paramilitary violence, land grab and land control in Colombia. Journal of Peasant Studies, vol 38 n°4, p. 771–791.
  • Grajales, J. 2011. El proceso de desmobilización de los paramilitares en Colombia : entre lo político y lo judicial. Revista Desafíos, vol 23 n° 2, p. 149-194.

Check the publications page for a complete list