Book review: paramilitarism and neoliberalism in Colombia

Neoliberalism and extreme violence go hand in hand in Colombia – Olivia Arigho Stiles reviews an important contribution to debates about Latin America.

Photo: Rudy Lara, flickr
Photo: Rudy Lara, flickr

Jasmin Hristov
Paramilitarism and Neoliberalism: Violent Systems of Capital Accumulation in Colombia and Beyond
Pluto Press, 2014

In recent years Latin America has formed the locus of debates over neoliberalism, while also witnessing the emergence of dynamic social movements and anti-globalisation resistances. In Colombia, neoliberalism has developed in tandem with paramilitary activities against the political backdrop of the peace process which has sought to reconcile the Colombian state with the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) after decades of civil war.

Jasmin Hristov’s Paramilitarism and Neoliberalism: Violent Systems of Capital Accumulation in Colombia and Beyond represents an attempt to shift the scholarly focus of Colombia’s paramilitaries within the parameters of contemporary debates over neoliberal restructuring across the region. In lucid and enlivened prose, Hristov argues that paramilitarism is a central component of the neoliberal paradigm in Colombia and that it remains inextricably tied to violent processes of capital accumulation. She injects a compelling dimension of class into discussion on paramilitary violence, which has of course been challenged in a human rights context, but has been less consistently linked to neoliberal ideology. This book builds on her previous work Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarisation of Colombia which detailed the human rights violations committed against social activists, students, progressive intellectuals, indigenous peoples, and the urban poor by the paramilitary and explored paramilitary penetration into the state’s apparatus.

As Hristov outlines, violence has been integral to Colombia’s history and it continues to serve a hyper-political function in repressing indigenous social movements, labour unions and political dissenters. Paramilitary violence has been a crucial tool in enforcing the wide range of neoliberal reforms which have been enacted between 2002 and 2010 under pressure from the IMF, including the privatisation of public resources and service providers. At the same time, tens of thousands of union workers have lost jobs and public sector staff laid off.  The statistics on this front are bleak – 45.5% of Colombia’s population live in poverty, 20% are homeless and it ranks as the world’s most dangerous place to be a member of a labour union. Hristov cites figures which show that on average, over the last twenty four years, every three days one trade unionist has been murdered. Unionised workers comprised 12% of the workforce in 1988 but just 4% in 2009. Poignantly, in a speech to the EU in 2010, the Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba declared “Colombia is a mass grave, it is the largest cemetery of Latin America”.

hristovThe paramilitary proliferated in Colombia from the 1960s, and are defined as armed groups funded by wealthy elites with military and logistical support provided by state institutions. They employ extreme violence to eliminate social activists, guerrillas and anyone who is deemed an obstacle to those wielding politico-economic power and their multi-institutional influence crystallised under the former president Álvaro Uribe.  A central tenet to Hristov’s argument asserts the undeniably current nature of paramilitarism against the Colombian state’s efforts to present the illusion of rupture between the paramilitary past and the post-paramilitary  (parapolitica) present. This is reflected in that 77% of Congress members elected for the period between 2002 and 2006 had links to paramilitary groups for example.

A second key theme is the idea that paramilitary violence is not simply criminal – as implied by the state’s term BACRIM (bandas criminales) or criminal gangs, which elide paramilitaries with criminal drug gangs – but is deeply political in nature. Operating at the intersection of state and non-state, paramilitarism is a concerted strategy of the state-capital alliance and cannot be detached from the capitalist social relations it serves to sustain. Hristov is not the first to make this argument, but she is perhaps more original in placing her argument squarely within a Marxist political economy framework.  For example, in an influential article from 2009 Lesley Gill explored the alliances between paramilitarism and the state in the working class area of Barrancabermeja, where “paramilitaries targeted labour leaders particular ferocity, especially during moments of labour conflict that intensified with the initiation of neoliberal reforms”, cultivating an acute environment of terror and fear in the process.

Hristov tackles head on the weak-state thesis which posits that paramilitarism arises out of the breakdown of the state and its loss of a monopoly of violence. Rather, the Colombian state “claims its legitimacy not from a monopoly over the means of violence, but from its lack of such a monopoly”. It is in the ultimate neoliberal fashion, then, that paramilitarism represents the state’s “outsourcing” of violence.

Here Hristov’s argument echoes the work of other Latin American scholars such as Jenny Pearce who have argued that violence across the continent has often be treated as “state failure”, when instead it should be conceived as a more determined and aggressive preservation of elite dominance.

The paramilitary’s brutality is hard to stomach at times. Victims are frequently cremated in mass graves to avoid being identified, a trait which has clear parallels with the recent massacre of the forty three “disappeared” students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, whose remains were found incinerated in a municipal dump in November 2014. A more extensive comparison between these forms of violence in Colombia and Mexico would be interesting in light of this. Hristov cites testimony of a person forcibly displaced by paramilitaries interviewed by Amnesty International in 2003:

A stick was pushed into the private parts of an 18 year old pregnant girl and it appeared through [the abdomen]. She was torn apart… They [army-backed paramilitaries] stripped the women and made them dance in front of their husbands. Several were raped. You could hear the screams coming from a ranch near El Salado.

Yet, remarkably, the social movement landscape in Colombia remains diverse and vibrant in spite of pervasive paramilitary terror. In 2013 the National Popular Agrarian Strike lasted 21 days uniting agricultural workers, the landless and students in a broad movement demanding a range of economic protections and democratic reforms.

Nevertheless paramilitary forces are inextricably bound to capitalist elites at national and local levels and this is underpinned by their complicity in the violent displacement of land workers on behalf of extractive industries and large agribusiness.  It is here that a greater focus on localised case studies would arguably be beneficial to Hristov’s argument. Recognition of local divergences would enrich an argument which remains resolutely national in nature. Likewise, while it is without doubt that neoliberal restructuring in Colombia has been achieved through the violence inflicted by state and by the paramilitary, the title of the book implies an exploration of other contexts in which the paramilitary has played this role but there is little analysis in the book to support this.  Moreover, as Hristov mentions herself, there is a huge scope for a gendered analysis of paramilitarism which would expand study in this area.

Ultimately however, Hristov’s work is highly illuminating, impassioned and accessible in its emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between the paramilitary and the neoliberal Colombian state. Drawing on previous scholarship, she provides an invaluable contribution to contemporary debates over neoliberalism and the centrality of the paramilitary to processes of violent capital accumulation across Latin America.


Lesley Gill, ‘The Parastate in Colombia: Political Violence and the Restructuring of Barrancabermeja’ Anthropologica, Vol. 51, No. 2 (2009) , pp. 313-325



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