Armed Conflict, Crime and Social Protest in South Bolivar, Colombia (1996-2004)Working Paper No : 65 (series 2)
Author: Gonzalo Vargas
Date : December 2009
Since the mid-1990s, scholars from different traditions have challenged standard assumptions about the nature of contemporary civil wars. On the one hand, they argue, armed organisations and combatants increasingly take part in criminal activities and behave as thugs rather than soldiers. Civilian collaboration, on the other hand, is less based in collective political action and more on individualism and opportunism. New findings from the Crisis States Research Centre challenge these claims based on the study of an episode of armed conflict and political mobilisation in a Colombian region during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
This paper raises questions surrounding the perceived divide between organised crime and politics. It shows how the involvement of criminals in armed organisations and of the latter in criminal activities does not preclude their participation in local political processes or strip their activity of their intrinsic political nature. Furthermore, it shows that the behaviour of civilians vis-à-vis armed organisations is not necessarily disparate or opportunistic. Rather, this research indicates that complex 'alliances' and co-operation exist between armed organisations and civilians and will evolve in relation to challenges and opportunities presented by public policy-making and changing patterns on territorial control. Conclusions drawn from this paper suggest that the political dimensions of the Columbian conflict should not be underestimated as they may provide valuable insight into this and other instances of 'irregular war'.