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Militaristic Neoliberalism: An Impediment to Peace in Post-Conflict Colombia

by Sara Meger and Julia Saschseder on February 11, 2020

After more than 50 years of war, in 2016, the Colombian government signed a historic peace accord with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP). Many critical scholars lauded the 2016 peace agreement for its unprecedented focus on issues of gender, race, class, land, sexualities, and other structural sources of inequality. Yet, violence remains rife in the country, with multiple reports of the systematic killing of (especially female) social activists, human rights defenders, and members of FARC.

Against this background, we posit in a new article that Colombia’s peace agreement is unlikely to end systematic and organized violence in the country because a culture of (para-)militarism is reinforced by the dual forces of patriarchy and neoliberalism, both of which benefit from, and contribute to the durability of structural and overt violence against civilians in Colombia, especially against women and Afro-descendant and indigenous groups, and class-based opponents to capitalist accumulation. This violence, we argue, reinforces a system of economic advantages that are tacitly accepted if not actively supported by the Colombian state, and which we classify as part of a larger project of militaristic neoliberalism.

Violence as Intrinsic to Neoliberalism

The prevailing wisdom in international security and international political economy scholarship has been to conceive of war and armed conflict as barriers to economic development and, consequently, to peace.  By drawing on the concept of ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ proposed by Ian Bruff and Burak Tansel, we argue that not only is militaristic violence integral to neoliberal capitalist development, but is also effective in ‘weak state’ contexts through the outsourcing of militarism to non-state actors acting in concert with the interests of political and economic elites. Rather than requiring absolute authority and sovereign control of a territory to enact authoritarian neoliberalism, our concept of militaristic neoliberalism allows for coercive practices of neoliberal reforms to be deployed by state and non-state forces in concert.

Outsourcing violence in Colombia’s neoliberalization

Eighty per cent of the lethal violence perpetrated during the civil war has been attributed to paramilitaries, who have largely been using this violence to clear land for commercial interests (Oslender 2007; Hristov 2014).

Paramilitaries have played a significant role in the Colombian economy. While at their establishment, a central factor in the formation and consolidation of paramilitaries in the 1980s was the interests of landed elites that any political settlement between FARC and other leftist guerrillas and the government not “undermine their class interests” (Richani 2007, 407).

That paramilitaries in Colombia are an effect of militaristic neoliberalism is perhaps most evident from an examination of how and where the groups operated. The sudden interest of paramilitary groups in peripheral regions of the state coincided with the export-orientation of the economy under neoliberalization. By the 1990s, the umbrella paramilitary organization, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), declared gold-rich south Bolivar as its “prime military objective,” resulting in the massacre of hundreds of artisanal miners and the mass displacement of villagers. In other regions, the AUC have wrested control of lands through which pipelines for British Petroleum, Total, and Triton pass, and have been integral to the growth of the palm oil industry. The collusion of interests between paramilitaries, multinationals, and the state have led Richani to conclude that “the concerns of multinational corporations intersect with the local war-system actors in their areas of operations” (Richani 2013, 112) and implicate those corporations in massacres perpetrated against local populations considered ‘guerrilla sympathizers’. Thus, the era of neoliberal development was the golden age of paramilitarismo as a social, economic and political phenomenon, facilitated by the accelerated growth of narco-trafficking and the construction of FDI mega-projects in locations close to natural resources.

Gendered and Racialized Logics of Militarism in Colombia

While systematic, targeted, large-scale violence has been effective in the construction and maintenance of conditions for neoliberalization, it is only through an understanding of the gendered and racialized logics of both the violence itself and the appeal to violence that we can comprehend its function as part of militaristic neoliberalism. Paramilitaries’ violence is not only economically motivated, instrumental and in pursuit of a particular utility, but highly ideological and informed by both their hypermasculine identity and their ideologies about the rightful conduct of men and women, in a reflection of their ‘masculinity nostalgia’. Many paramilitarists are socialized in violent and heterosexist contexts, which rely on the gender dichotomy of men as strong and powerful and the subordination of women as natural. They engage in an enforcement of a hierarchical gender order, with women being inferior to men, and certain groups of men (primarily Afro-Colombian and indigenous Colombians) as non-masculine and inferior to the militarized masculine hegemonic form, which thus reproduces violent forms of hyper-masculinity in their everyday activities as well as in their continued violence in Colombia’s post-conflict period.

Amongst the most common victims of the paramilitaries’ violence have been those considered by the armed groups to exhibit ‘undesirable’ characteristics inconsistent with their regressive social attitudes. Entire groups of people have been feminized in the context for displaying alternative gender norms to the militarized masculinity adopted by paramilitaries, including women, sexual minorities, indigenous and Afro-Colombians, and even the guerrillas. This violence can be read as a means of physically overpowering the ‘other’, feminizing one’s opponent through the employment of a symbolically or – in the case of rape – physically sexual weapon.

In her doctoral dissertation, Garzon provides an illustrative example involving a Southern village in Putumayo, El Placer. First occupied by FARC, El Placer was an epicenter of coca production, and soon became contested by paramilitaries, who occupied the village from 1999 to 2006. During their reign, paramilitaries imposed a strict code of conduct over the population, including “a specific gender regime through which members of this group differentiated between decent and indecent women, and divided the population between allies and enemies […] For instance, men’s body postures, ways of walking, marks on the body, hair styles or ways of dressing were not only ways of disciplining masculinity, but also markers used to identify whether a man belonged to the guerrilla or whether he was a civilian” (Garzon 2017: 239). Women, too, were evaluated as guerrilla members or sympathizers based on their character, physical strength, physical fitness, or for “walking briskly.” From this determination, the paramilitaries would then sentence offending peasants “to forced displacement, torture, disappearance or assassination” for the men, with additional punishments of sexual violence, sexual torture, or rape for the women.

So what?

Given the reach of the military as an institution and of militarization as a practice well beyond the sphere of military operations and defense, securing ‘peace’ in a post-conflict context requires a much more expansive agenda than demobilizing troops and decommissioning weapons, or reducing military defense budget spending and closing forward bases. Demilitarization requires a more substantive transformation whose progress can be measured only in simultaneously tracing its retraction from the social, political, and economic spheres, as well. This is no simple feat, since militarism, in interlocking with numerous other social and political relations, including gender and race, comes to define and shape those relations. As such, using gender relations as evidence of the pervasiveness of militarism in social and political relations, Cynthia Enloe argues, “demilitarization cannot be achieved unless women are empowered to the point that all forms of masculinized militarization are exposed and rolled back” (2007: 134). While the Colombian 2016 Peace Deal includes numerous provisions to advance women’s social, economic and political position in Colombian society, systemic barriers continue to undermine these goals, chief among them a culture of militarism. As well, the gender provisions included make no reference to the forms of militaristic hypermasculinity that have become valorized in Colombian society and will continue to vividly shape post-conflict power systems, identities, and contestations. By exploring these enduring relations between militarism, the economy, and social relations of gender and race in Colombia, and by exposing the reliance of the Colombian state’s project of neoliberalization on militarism, our article calls into question the prospects for peace in the post-2016 Peace Deal in the context of a political economy imbricated with conflict and lethal violence.

Sara Meger and Julia Saschseder
Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research draws on the intersection of critical political economy and feminist perspectives on security, with particular focus on war and armed conflict and gendered violence. She is the author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published in 2016 by Oxford University Press. Julia Sachseder is a recent PhD graduate and lecturer at the University of Vienna and a fellow of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, race and neoliberal capitalism in the production of sexual violence and displacement in Colombia's armed conflict. She specialises in decolonial and feminist theory, IR and critical political economy.

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