Institutionalized amnesia : the (mis)representation of paramilitarism in Colombia



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Colombian state and non-state actors are engaging in an important conceptual debate concerning the nature of a "new" type of armed group in the country. The state labels these groups "BACRIM" (criminal gangs), arguing that they are actors of organized crime. Members of civil society reject the state's conceptualization, arguing that these groups are paramilitaries operating in the context of the armed conflict. These organizations explain that "new" groups commit the same systematic human rights violations and adhere to the same modus operandi as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, an umbrella organization of over 30,000 paramilitaries that the government supposedly demobilized in a 2005 negotiation. The state, in turn, argues that paramilitarism no longer exists in Colombia and that these "new" groups do not adhere to the counterinsurgent political ideology that was characteristic of paramilitarism. My research project is a nuanced analysis of the Colombian state and non-state debate concerning these "new" armed groups. I combine interviews with state and civil society representatives with historical contextualization in order to understand what is at stake in the positions that both sides are aggressively fostering in the debate. In conceptualizing these "new" groups, many key informants engaged in a renegotiation of the state-formed historical memory concerning paramilitarism. An analysis of the trajectory of paramilitary activity reveals the protection of important elite economic and political interests as the driving force of paramilitarism; this paramilitary project fits within the goals of a state-sponsored economic process of capital accumulation. In utilizing the paramilitary label, civil society highlights these as the structural causes of paramilitarism. The state, in turn, attempts to cement its simplified definition of paramilitarism as a counterinsurgency project in removing the term 'paramilitary' from the official discourse. Furthermore, in erasing paramilitarism from the discourse, the state attempts to disassociate itself with a dark history of human rights violations against civilians. To fully understand the debate in Colombia is to understand more generally the power and weight of words in denouncing or, conversely, in silencing important issues of human rights and, ultimately, in accurately or inaccurately constructing historical memory of armed conflict.