Imagining and Creating Peace: Civilian Peace Initiatives in Colombia

Bachelor Thesis, 2008

59 Pages



1.1 Aims and Social Significance
1.2 Research Questions
1.3 Theoretical Concepts
1.4 Paper Organization

2.1 Ethics

3.1 A Brief History of the Peace Talks in Colombia
3.2 Social Movements in Colombia: is it true that Colombians will not be able to break out with the vicious circle of violence?
3.3 A Polarized Country and the “Participant Observer” with a Broken heart

4.1 Peace Project Imaginación: “Peace is in the hands of everyone”
4.2 Activating the Anthropological Imagination

5.1 Some Challenges and Suggestions for Further Research



I want to thank the representative of the Peace project “Imaginación” in Canada for welcoming me in your home and giving me your time and your knowledge.

I would like to express my eternal gratitude to all the children and young people who participate in the peace project “Imaginación,” and all people who work for peace without violence in Colombia for giving me hope and a reason to dream.

Thanks to Carleton for all these years of learning.

“I dream that one day I will wake up and my father will go to work and I will not have the fear that he will be in danger; that he will be shot. This is the dream I am trying to build, that we are all trying to build.”

(A Colombian child as cited in Cameron 2000:23)

“People - and anthropologists among them- not only learn to think, they also learn to care […] On this account, too, there is an acute need for activating the anthropological imagination, so that the words may not only catch up with, but possibly also redirect present concerns.”

(Hastrup 1995:13, 73)

“Peace is in the Hands of Everyone”

(Peace Project “Imaginación”)


1.1 Aims and Social Significance

Human conflict is one of the most serious social and cultural concerns of our time. In a 1986 article published in the academic journal Science, scholar Hamburg expressed that “in a world full of hatred, repression, terrorism, small wars, and preparation for immense wars, human conflict is a subject that deserves the most careful and searching inquiry” (Hamburg 1986:533).

Similar anxieties have been expressed by some anthropologists who see conflict resolution and peace keeping as “probably the most culturally significant task for us today” (Rubinstein 1988:31). However, some anthropologists agree that most of the anthropological literature that exists about conflict resolution focuses on war and violence and hardly considers issues of peace and non-violent behaviour (Wolfe and Yang 2001: 147; See also Fry 2006: xiii). Scholars Wolfe and Yang further advocate for a change of focus in the anthropological approach to studies of conflict resolution. They base their argument on the idea that societies not only get involved in dispute and violence, but also integrate and have pro-social behaviours; therefore, it is important to expand the scope of our studies to issues of peace and non-violence (Wolfe and Yang 1996: 147).

A similar change of focus has been advocated by some grassroots groups in Colombia to understand the conflict in this country. They argue that most of what is known of Colombia is limited to the drug trade and the violence inflicted by the Colombian armed groups. However, Colombians’ efforts to promote peace remain unknown (AFCS nd).

This research effort is a response to this needed change in focus to approach conflict within anthropological circles and within Colombian society. Civilian peace initiatives in Colombia may serve as an example of how societies not only get involved in dispute and violence but also integrate and have pro-social behaviours.

By contextualizing my inquiry in this manner, my research paper will focus on civilian peace initiatives that have contributed to the reintegration of ex-combatant children through the peace project “Imaginación.” However, I will place my analysis within the broader context of the history of peace talks and social movements in Colombia.

Specifically, this research aims to seek an understanding of some of the socio-cultural, historical, economic and political factors influencing civilian peace initiatives using non-violent means to deal with conflict in Colombia. It also aims to understand the role that anthropology can play to suggest alternatives to war and violence.

1.2 Research Questions

Three key events guide my query: the failure of previous political attempts to solve the conflict in Colombia through peace talks; the civilian polarization taking place in Colombia due to the militaristic policies adopted by the government during the last few years; and the impact that social movements like the Children’s Movement for Peace (1996) and the Citizens Mandate (1997) had in Colombia.

These events led me to ask the following research questions: How are civilian peace initiatives like the peace project “Imaginación” still working in the middle of the militaristic actions of the government and armed groups? What is leading civilians to get involved and support peace projects like “Imaginación” in the middle of the polarization in this country?

1.3 Theoretical Concepts

Throughout this paper, four concepts emerge and re-emerge all contested in their meanings and applications. These are the concepts of peace, violence, conflict and civil society. These concepts clearly deserve a discussion on what I want to convey with these terms in this paper.


According to Mac Ginty a definition of peace remains illusory due to the multiple meanings attributed to it. Nonetheless, Mac Ginty proposes the following definition of peace: “the facilitation of non-exploitative, sustainable and inclusive social relationships free from direct and indirect violence and the threat of such violence” ( Mac Ginty 2006: 24). Scholars Sponsel and Gregor further analyze the contested character of the concept of peace and distinguish two kinds of peace: negative and positive peace. According to Sponsel and Gregor, negative peace narrowly focuses on the idea of security, order and absence of war; positive peace is understood beyond the absence of war and through the lenses of non-violence. As Sponsel and Gregor puts it (Sponsel and Gregor 1994:6):

The negative concept of peace is focused narrowly on security, stability and order and defines peace as simply the absence of war [T]he concept of positive peace views peace not only as the absence of war but also as the presence of freedom, equality, economic and social justice, cooperation, and harmony[…] Those who follow the positive concept of peace give more attention to the subjects of non-violence per se. All levels are considered: individual, group (intra-and inter-) regional, national, international and global. Common themes include the causes of war; the causes of other forms of violence, including structural violence; non-violent conflict resolution; economic and social justice; and citizens’ peace movements. The working assumption is that it is insufficient to study only violence and war; rather non-violence and peace must be studied in addition. Non-violence and peace must be envisioned; they will never be approximated if we think only about violence and war.

Keeping in mind that issues of war and violence should also be considered in our attempts to understand non-violent conflict resolution, my analysis will develop mainly within the realm of the positive concept of peace suggested by Sponsel and Gregor.


Fry comments that “the term violence is reserved for forms of severe aggression […]Violence entails forceful attacks, usually with weapons that can result in serious injuries or death […]violence may be one of the most noticeable and destructive ways through which people handle conflict” (Fry 2006:11).

Taking into account issues of aggression to understand violent behaviour is problematic. Howell and Willis argue that violent behaviour and human conflict should not be solely understood in terms of aggressiveness or “primitive” emotions because it can encourage a reification of peoples’ actions cross-culturally and ignore the variety of ways different people have to make sense of the world which also determines how people deal with conflict in different localities. As Howell and Willis put it (Howell and Willis 1989: 22):

The ethnographic papers do not provide the “answer’ to why human beings are aggressive (or peaceful). We have argued throughout that such formulation of the problem is inappropriate, for it leads to a reification of human qualities for the purposes of comparison. Violent and peaceful social interaction is not to be understood through the search of a thing called aggression, but through the sensitive and detailed explication of the values and meanings that embody and shape behavior in different social settings.

Abbink offers a definition that considers violence as both a use of severe physical force and a cultural construct; As Abbink expresses it, violence is “The contested use of damaging physical force against other humans with possibly of fatal consequences and with purposeful humiliation of other humans. Violence is contingent and context - dependent, and thus not a straightforward urge in all humans wanting to come out” (Abbink 2000 xi,xii).


Fry considers conflict as “ a perceived divergence of interests- where interests are broadly conceptualized to include values, needs, goals, and wishes-between two or more parties , often accompanied by feelings of anger or hostility […] The existence of conflict in a society is expected and does not mean that violence inevitably will result” (Fry 2006:11, 82).

Similarly, Turner argues that conflict is necessary to show fundamental aspects of society that are taken for granted in our daily interactions. As Turner puts it, “Fates are the necessities of the social processes. Conflict seems to bring fundamental aspects of society, normally overlaid by the customs and habits of daily intercourse” (Turner 1974:35). Thus, conflict and violence are not synonymous; violence is one of the means people have to deal with conflict.

Civil Society

Scholars emphasize that definitions of ‘civil society’ are highly contested. Nonetheless, there seems to be a wide agreement among academics that ‘civil society’ occupies an intermediate position between the private sector (individual, family and the market) and the state. As Barnes expresses it, “Most broadly understood, however, civil society refers to the web of social relations that exist in the space between the state, the market (activities with the aim of extracting profit), and the private life of families and individuals” ( Barnes 2005:7). Similarly, while citing scholar Larry Diamond, Colombian scholars Echeverry and Garrido comment that, “Civil society is an intermediary entity between the private sphere and the state, therefore it excludes the individual and family life. [Civil society] comprehends all citizens who act collectively in the public sphere to express their interests, passions and ideas, exchange information , achieve mutual goals, make demands to the state and public servants so that they fulfill their responsibilities” (Diamond as quoted in Echeverry and Garrido 1998: 146, 147). These scholars further stress that civil society “refers always to public ends and not private or lucrative ends” (Echeverry and Garrido 1998: 146, 147).

1.4 Paper Organization

This paper is organized in five sections. As we have seen, section One provides a brief introduction to the contents of the discussion and the aims of the research. It also explores the concepts of peace, civil society, violence and conflict as the key terms that underlie my study.

Section Two outlines the methodology followed to collect information and analyze its meaning. Ethical issues of the methodological choices I made will be discussed. In addition, a recognition of my position as a Colombian and the way it can affect the way data is interpreted will be acknowledged here and in general through my paper.

Section Three discusses the literature review of this research to provide a general understanding of the process from which my analysis of civilian peace initiatives in Colombia results. This section is divided in three subsections. In subsection 3.1 I will present a brief history of the civil war in Colombia and the political solutions to the conflict with the aim of getting some understanding as to why peace talks have failed in this country. In subsection 3.2 I will explore the dynamics of social movements to shed some light into the different ways collective action has led civilians to participate in the resolution of conflict and engage in peace initiatives. Subsection 3.3 documents the deterioration of the relationship between guerrillas and the Colombian government during the last few years and the militaristic measures adopted by the government to put an end to the armed conflict in this country. In this subsection I will also discuss my involvement with Colombia and the last events taking place in this country during the months of February , March and April 2008.

Section Four presents an analysis of the peace project “Imaginación” and the semi-structured interview I conducted with the representative of the project. Theoretical approaches will be discussed as the discussion develops in this section. In addition, the current situation of this project will be contextualized within the last civilian demonstrations that have taken place in the last few months in response to the deterioration of the relationship between guerrillas and the Colombian government.

Finally, I will present some concluding remarks and suggestions for future research.


To provide some alternative answers to my research questions my work combined library and online research. Information and official reports published by national and international organizations’ websites involved with the peace project “Imaginación” such as the International Organization for Migrations (IOM) and the Colombian Center for Social Responsibility (CCRE) were analyzed to support the information found in textual sources cited in the bibliography.

My qualitative research centered on a semi-structured interview with the representative of the peace project “Imaginación.” It also included some participant observation in the Colombian demonstrations and public events that took placed in Ottawa during the months of February, March and April 2008.

2.1 Ethics

There were ethical concerns regarding the anonymity of the representative of the peace project due to the public character of this position. I offered the representative confidentiality. The representative’s given name was entirely changed and any other characteristic features such as the representative’s place of residence were not mentioned. An informed consent form and a letter of information outlining the purpose and details of this study was given to the representative of the project. In terms of objectivity, a recognition of my position as a Colombian and the way it can affect the way data is interpreted is acknowledged throughout my paper. There are advantages and disadvantages to my position. Among the advantages it has is that I can understand the meaning of most of the symbols people use in their daily interactions in Colombia. However, I may also take for granted certain behaviours and attitudes which may lead me to overlook certain aspects that can be relevant to analyze the information provided. The way I tried to overcome this aspect was through reflexivity, by reminding myself constantly of my position and taking a moment to think upon the different events I was going through the research process.


3.1 A brief history of the peace talks in Colombia

Colombia has been in a civil war for sixty years. On April 9, 1948, the popular leader of the Colombian liberal party, Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, was assassinated in Bogotá city. Historians Bergquist et al. comment that Gaitán’s assassination marked the beginning of the civil war in Colombia (Bergquist et al. 1992:81). By the same token, Richani notes that, “Eliecer Gaitan’s death ushering in what it was referred to in Colombian historiography as “La Violencia,” a civil war between partisans of the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party” ( Richani 2002:23). Thus, scholars agree that civil war in Colombia is mainly a confrontation between different political and armed groups that compete for land and power (Cameron 2001:2 ; See also Solimano 2000: 1). Political solutions to the Colombian conflict have proved to be ineffective and the conflict has become more intense (Meltzer 2001:2; See also Cameron 2001:3).

Political approaches to solve the conflict in Colombia begun few years after Gaitan’s death when the commander of the Colombian armed forces, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was elected as president of Colombia in 1953 (Bergquist et al 1992: 100). Rojas’ priority was the reconciliation of this country; therefore, in 1953, Rojas offered a “general and unconditional amnesty” to disarm and demobilize guerrillas (Bergquist et al. 1992: 101, 102)

However, as Bergquist et al. maintain, in 1954, state agents and political parties opposed national pacification and tried to destabilize the peace process. As a result, Rojas’s attempts to pacify the country failed ( Bergquist et al. 1992: 109). Demobilized guerrilla members were persecuted and attacked creating an atmosphere of distrust and a conviction that violence was the only way to resolve the conflict. As Bergquist et al. puts it (Bergquist et al. 1992: 109):

[A]gents of the secret police , specially those of the Colombian Intelligence Service, used the newly released killers to assassinate individuals who had been amnestied, demobilized guerrillas who have not turned in their arms, and defenceless peasants. The killings were so open that even the army expressed its unease. What happened next is by now well known. Those guerrillas who had not laid down their arms were further convinced of the need to hold onto them, and those who had surrendered their weapons regretted doing so. Many Colombians began to view the amnesty as a ploy of the government. The partisan violence soon regained its dynamic of past years. Former guerrillas such as Teofilo Rojas (Chispas), found it easy to recruit new fighters and to convince all comrades that peace was an illusion and that they had to rearm.

Bergquist et al. observe that the two political parties –liberal and conservative- used the daily acts of violence to hold president Rojas responsible for it leading Rojas to lose people’s support which ended up in his resignation in 1957 (Bergquist et al. 1992: 109- 110). These scholars further comment that in 1958 the two political parties created the “Frente National” (English:National Front) which consisted in the sharing of power between conservatives and liberals every four years excluding other political parties outside the bipartisan system (Bergquist et al. 1992: 113). Colombian ‘civil elites’ played a determinant role in these two events, Rojas’s resignation and the establishment of the National Front. As Bergquist et al. note (Bergquist et al. 1992: 218):

It was the civilian elite that brought General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla to power, ensured the essentials of government administration, and ended this brief digression. It was the elite that set in place in 1958 a coalition regime between the Conservative party and Liberal parties, which has monopolized the electorate since the nineteenth century. Designed to last sixteen years , This National front system , based on strict division of governmental functions and public offices, is still in effect today with only minor changes. Of course, this civil democracy quite often has resorted to exceptional measures , beginning with an almost permanent state of siege, and has raised many obstacles to the development of opposition parties.

Here, it is important to consider Blowfield and Frynas’ account of the tendency that exists to treat ‘civil society’ as a “valid, unproblematic and largely positive category, despite the many differences among civil society organizations and the questions their roles raise about contemporary democracy” (Blowfield and Frynas 2005: 511) . Indeed, civil society in Colombia cannot be treated as a homogenous, positive whole. As Bergquist et al. show, the civilian elite in Colombia has played a role in the problematic of this country including the establishment of the “National Front” which has created a “limited democracy” where people’s participation is restricted as they have to submit to the system of the two traditional parties (Bergquist 1992: 218).

By mid-1984, Colombian president Belisario Betancur reinitiated the peace process (Bergquist 1992: 219). Nonetheless, peace talks during the presidency of Betancur failed in a similar fashion. As Lock comments, guerrilla members who demobilized were part of a minority and had a very limited participation as they had to submit to the dominant system. In addition, there were no warranties for the protection of demobilized guerrilla members to reintegrate to society and many of them were killed massively during this period (Lock 2006:504). Consequently, as Lock notes, guerrilla groups in present-day Colombia do not consider demobilization as an option because, in addition to the lack of warranties for their protection and sustainment during reintegration attested by past experiences with peace negotiations, there are many social and economic changes that need to be made which are not going to be achieved with demobilization and reintegration (Lock 2006:501,504 ).

In fact, scholar Salazar and Moser agree that it is important to avoid reducing the Colombian problematic to the armed conflict because violence is very complex in Colombia and there are no warranties that the social and economic problems will be resolved when the armed conflict ends (Salazar 2006: 289; see also Moser et al. 1992: 19). In this vein, Moser et al. distinguish three kinds of violence in Colombia: political violence, social violence and economic violence. As Moser et al. explain it (Moser et al. 1992: vii):

The causes of political violence are manifold. However, stated simplistically, they tend to revolve around such historical issues such as the legacy of political conflict; broad structural factors such as unequal access to economic power, especially land and resources, and unequal access to political power, and causes in institutional factors such as the role of drug-related , paramilitary and guerrilla violence Turning to the causes of economic and social violence, at the structural level these relate to poverty, inequality and rapid growth; at the institutional level, causes relate to both the high levels of impunity within the justice system and to the lack of educational and employment opportunities; finally, interpersonal and individual factors relate to role of the household and family in violence reproduction, and situational precipitators such as alcohol, drugs and firearms.

Moser et al. further advocate for the creation of a holistic approach for intervention so that violence in Colombia can be addressed in all these three levels (Moser et al. 1992: 19). Nonetheless, political solutions to the conflict have continued to be the priority of the Government’s agenda. During the late 1990s, peace talks with the guerrilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) resumed under the presidency of Andres Pastrana. Scholars Lock and Montana agree that the peace process failed this time as well due to similar causes: the lack of clear warranties for protection and sustainment of guerrilla members during reintegration, lack of organization, and the continuous violent attacks of the armed groups ( Lock 2006: 507; see also Montaña 2006:2).

As a result, some scholars are pessimistic about the future of Colombia. As Bergquist comment (Bergquist et al. 1992: 218):

The question thus becomes: who or what is responsible for this state of affairs? Pecaut finds his answer in the legacy and contemporary expressions of the violence itself, and he places particular responsibility on the National Front . His prognosis for the future is not optimistic about the ability of Colombians to break out of the vicious circle defined by limited democracy and violence.

3. 2 Social Movements in Colombia: Is it true that Colombians will not be able to break out with the vicious circle of violence?

To start this section it is necessary to consider the definition of social movements and civil society already discussed in the introduction. Both, Bennet and Lofland define social movements in terms of “collective actions” intended to transform relations of power (Bennet1992:242; see also Lofland 1985:22).

Echeverry and Garrido quote scholar Diamond to propose a definition of civil society which “comprehends all citizens who act collectively in the public sphere to express their interests, passions and ideas, exchange information , achieve mutual goals , make demands to the state and public servants so that they fulfill their responsibilities” (Diamond as quoted in Echeverry and Garrido 1998: 146).

Bergquist et. al. argue that unlike many other countries in Latin America, social movements have been very weak in Colombia. Some of the reasons these scholars offer to explain this phenomenon is the “absence of large-scale European Immigration in the republican era” which prevented the country from “assimilating socialist and revolutionary thinking” (Bergquist et al. 2001:41, 50).

However, some scholars comment that European immigration was actually encouraged by the Colombian government and the elite during the republican era.[1] For instance, Torres notes that in 1905 president Rafael Reyes and the Colombian elite promoted European immigration to the country. Nonetheless, the purpose went far beyond pursuing a “socialist and revolutionary thinking.” Reyes’ presidency facilitated European immigration with the purpose of ‘whitening’ indigenous and black populations in Colombia (Torres 1997:153; see also Rojas 2001:18). Violence in Colombia has this face too. It is also a fight


[1] The republican era in Colombia comprehended the period between 1810 and 1953 (Ortega 1955: 10).

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Imagining and Creating Peace: Civilian Peace Initiatives in Colombia
ANTH 4900
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Colombia, Colombian Peace Initiatives, War, Peace, Violence, Civil Society, Conflict, Anthropology, Ethnology, Ex-combatant Children
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Ana Fonseca (Author), 2008, Imagining and Creating Peace: Civilian Peace Initiatives in Colombia, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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