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VIO0010.1177/2633002420907790Violence: An International JournalUribe


Violence: An international journal

Violence as a symptom:
© The Author(s) 2020
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The case of Colombia sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/2633002420907790

María Victoria Uribe

Universidad del Rosario, Colombia

With a view to developing certain arguments put forward in previous works, my
intention in this article is to approach the persistence of violence in Colombia as if it
were a symptom. By symptom, I mean a traumatic impossibility, an enduring rupture
that resists symbolization, at the intersection of the social and the symbolic. Examples
of this symptomatology include the implacable antagonisms between rural supporters of
the Liberal and Conservative parties during the period known as La Violencia; between
paramilitaries and guerrilla groups, which was a constant for more than 30 years; and, more
recently, between those on either side of today’s clashes over the peace process that was
finally agreed with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) in 2016. In
each of these three cases, there appears to be an impossible dynamic between two binary
terms, each preventing the other from realizing its self-identity. In contrast to my previous
work, where I examined the notion of the symptom from a Lacanian perspective, in this
article, I will explore it through a series of metaphors or tropes that have been in common
usage in Colombia at different times, understanding them as survivors of past events,
carrying memory into the present. These tropes bear a heavy symbolic weight, as they
serve to encapsulate and articulate emotions, anxieties, and fears in relation to antagonistic
groups or political enemies. Although they belong to different periods in history, and as
such their meanings are distinct, what they share is a capacity to crystallize the content of
a conceptualization of a hated and feared other that must be eliminated. It is in this respect
that they can be described as symptoms of a hatred for which the only outlet is violence.

political metaphors, spectral violence, tropes of language, violence in Colombia

Violence, which produced the sacred, no longer produces anything but itself.

(Girard, 2010: x)

Corresponding author:
María Victoria Uribe, Carrera 4B # 26A - 40, apto. 201 Barrio Bosque Izquierdo, Bogotá D.C., Colombia.
Email: toyauribe@gmail.com
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Theoretical background
To begin, I would like to revisit the notion of the symptom that I explored in previous
works, where, drawing on Lacan, I focused my analysis on massacres that have taken
place in Colombia (Uribe, 2018a, 2018b, 2019). I referred to these massacres as reitera-
tive events, steeped in unsymbolized content that recurs and re-presents itself in the
physical manifestation of violence. Following Daniel Pécaut, I examined the period
known as La Violencia (1948–1964), and approached violence as a phenomenon that is
intrinsic to the social, as excess. At the same time, I considered the massacres, in all their
atrocity, as symptoms that, paradoxically, both express this excess and resist its
Here, I will explore this idea of the symptom by borrowing Didi-Huberman’s (2009:
249 ff., 282) concept of surviving time, which he applied to the study of images. Through
this concept, I will examine a series of tropes that have been used in Colombia to repre-
sent a feared opponent or, alternatively, to conceal the identity of those who have annihi-
lated and wished to annihilate this opponent. Here it is worth emphasizing the ambiguous
role of these tropes, which by their very nature, are capable of simultaneously represent-
ing and concealing. When we observe them together, it becomes clear that, despite their
differences, they betray a certain continuity, a shared state of latency—a desire of sorts
to bring remnants of the past into the present.

The state of exception

Although Colombia is a democratic country with robust institutions, the state has never
had full control over the national territory, nor has it ever held a monopoly on the use of
force. For most of its history, it has had to engage in perpetual power struggles with
armed groups of one kind or another. To redress this power deficit, various governments
have drawn on the legal concept of the state of siege as a way of upholding public order
at times when the situation threatened to breach the tolerable limits. As a result, Colombia
has spent much of its history as a republic mired in prolonged states of exception. By its
very nature, a state of exception dictates the boundary between normality and abnormal-
ity. It is a recourse used only in situations of abnormality, as it affords a series of provi-
sions and powers that make a return to normality more difficult to achieve. Colombia’s
relentless social and political tensions have led its governments to invoke two variants of
the state of exception: the state of internal commotion and the state of siege. It is in this
respect that we can refer to the use and abuse of a mechanism that sanctions the de facto
suspension of constitutional rights, thus making the “abnormal” “normal” (Tobón-Tobón
and Mendieta-González, 2017: 69 ff.).1 The outcome is that an instrument designed to be
a temporary expedient for use in exceptional situations became, in practice, a habitual
and normalized element of the exercise of political power (Tobón-Tobón and Mendieta-
González, 2017: 72).
For Giorgio Agamben, a state of exception is a:

[N]o-man’s land between public law and political fact, and between the juridical order and life
[ . . . ]. Only if the veil covering this ambiguous zone is lifted will we be able to approach an
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understanding of the stakes involved in the difference—or the supposed difference—between

the political and the juridical, and between law and the living being. (Agamben, 2005: 1–2)

Agamben (2005) had a particular interest in this question, and so the reader may find it
useful to refer to some of his remarks on the drawn-out debate between Walter Benjamin
and Carl Schmitt over the concept of the state of exception, in which they engaged inter-
mittently between 1925 and 1956 (p. 52 ff.).
In his essay Critique of Violence, Walter Benjamin establishes a dialectic between the
violence that imposes the rule of law and the violence that preserves it. Apart from these
two forms, he also identifies a third form of violence that he calls “pure violence.” In
Agamben’s terms, this “pure violence” has no essential nature of its own but is defined
relationally, depending on external circumstances. Based on Agamben’s argument, we
might conclude that Benjamin did not regard “pure violence” as necessarily positive or
negative, but as defined by its position in relation to the vicious cycle linking violence
and the rule of law. To Benjamin (1998), this third form is the same violence “that pre-
sent-day law is seeking in all areas of activity to deny the individual [ . . . ] [and that]
arouses even in defeat the sympathy of the masses against the law” (p. 231). Later, he
proposes that “if violence were, as first appears, merely the means to secure directly
whatever happens to be sought [ . . . ]. It would be entirely unsuitable as a basis for, or a
modification to, relatively stable conditions” (Benjamin, 1998: 240). This kind of vio-
lence, then, makes no claim to be a foundation for the rule of law, nor to contribute to its
preservation; it is an interstitial form.
The “pure violence” to which Benjamin refers is the same violence that Schmitt aims
to assimilate into the juridical concept of the state of exception. It is interesting to note
how this concept lends itself to very different interpretations. For Benjamin, it serves as
an aid to understanding the kind of violence that exists outside the law, whereas for
Schmitt it offers an opportunity to apprehend the anomie of violence, as conceived by
Benjamin, and to inscribe it into the body of the law itself (Agamben, 2005: 54–55).
Agamben (2005) proposes that “the state of exception is the device by means of which
Schmitt responds to Benjamin’s affirmation of a wholly anomic human action” (p. 54).
In making this response, Schmitt imbues this “pure violence” with a spectral character,
which is the very quality that sets it apart. Agamben (2005) argues that, for the juridical
order, it is imperative that this ambivalent space where human actions lose all grounding
in the law be reclaimed, giving it some kind of presence, even a spectral one, within the
law itself (p. 59).
Returning to the case of Colombia, and bearing in mind the proposals put forward by
Benjamin, Schmitt, and Agamben, in this article, I will focus on the kind of violence that
is meted out drop by drop, which in Colombia has proceeded in parallel with clashes
between guerrilla fighters, paramilitaries, and government agents, but which differs from
these examples by virtue of its spectral nature. I will also touch upon the “veil” that
Agamben evokes in his analysis of the concept of the state of exception, as this veil is the
locus from which the spectral violence that interests us here is exercised. The Colombian
media has construed this veil as “dark forces” in order to obscure the identities of those
responsible for targeted killings. This nebulous image has served as a screen for the vari-
ous groups who murder their opponents from the shadows. We can therefore identify a
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link between the state of exception as a mechanism for suspending the usual laws and
rights of citizens, the latent violence that operates outside of the law and emerges when-
ever the status quo is threatened, and certain tropes used to represent this violence.

“The basilisk” and “independent republics”: Two tropes

from La Violencia
According to Pécaut, violence in Colombia is conceived not as the underside of order
but as the inassimilable hinterland of the social, which must be brought under the aegis
of the rule of law. In this respect, insurgents and marginalized individuals represent the
limit of socialization and pose an obstacle to the unity of the social. Pécaut understands
the limits of the social in Colombia as not only fragmented and heterogeneous, but as
precarious, arguing that representations of the social are inextricably linked with the
anxiety provoked when the social is encroached upon by an external force that resists
any process of socialization. This external force is violence, which Pécaut defines as
an inherent defect or excess of the social, which deprives it of any kind of internal
unity (Pécaut, 1987).
Before addressing the first two tropes that interest me here, it is first necessary to
outline the social and political context in which they arose. Following the 1948 riots
known as the Bogotazo, fighting between Liberals and Conservatives spread across
large areas of the country, shaping the contours of what is now referred to as La
Violencia (1948–1964) (González, 2012: introduction). The main protagonists were
rural Liberals, Conservatives, and communists and the Chulavitas, a political police
force in league with the Conservative regime. The confrontation between these groups
was characterized by brutal and inhuman procedures which, based on a peculiar ana-
tomical conception of the human body, turned the bodies of supposed enemies into
emblems of terror (see Uribe, 2018a, 2018b). This practice involved the use of a
machete to cut the body in various ways, causing a profound alteration of human
anatomy. These confrontations left behind severely mutilated bodies, burnt-out rural
properties, stolen land and livestock, ruined towns and villages, and a mass exodus of
peasants. What images have survived from La Violencia, this conflict that took the
lives of at least 200,000 people? Photographs from the time show heaps of bodies,
dismembered and decapitated corpses, castrated men, and disemboweled women. At
a symbolic level, this abject carnage left an imprint of senselessness in the imaginary
of the Colombian people.
“The basilisk” and “independent republics” are two tropes that emerged at the time of
La Violencia. They highlight the fear and apprehension inspired in the Bogotá elite and
other powerful groups by the uprising of the liberal masses during the Bogotazo, and by
the liberal and communist guerrilla fighters who began to organize in rural areas in the
1950s and 1960s.
The term “basilisk” was first used in this context in 1949, when Conservative presi-
dent Laureano Gómez, a fervent admirer of Francisco Franco, used it as a metaphor for
the Liberal Party, which he despised. A basilisk is a mythical animal, half reptile, half
cockerel, which the newspaper Voz Proletaria, from the Communist Party, soon dubbed
Uribe 5

“Laureano’s anti-communist chimera” (Semanario Voz, 2014). This trope was born when
Laureano Gómez addressed the crowd of Conservative demonstrators that met him on
his arrival into Medellín airport with the following words:

Our basilisk walks on feet of confusion and naiveté,

on legs of abuse and violence,
with an immense oligarchic stomach,
with a chest of rage,
with Masonic arms
and with a tiny communist head.

He went on to declare that

[T]he little communist head isn’t yet visible, [it] moves darkly along in the same way Colombia
is moving, until the moment arrives when the Curtain falls definitively and one nation after
another succumbs to the most terrible destruction. (Quoted in Henderson, 1984: 135)

The trope of “the basilisk” allowed Laureano Gómez to caricature the Liberal Party in
a way that channeled the hatred, apprehension, and scorn that he felt toward his political
rival. It is a trope that both expresses and elicits hatred, and Gómez chose it because the
basilisk, being made up of body parts belonging to different animals, enabled him to
ascribe different meanings to each of these parts, building up a composite portrayal of the
Liberal Party. But why did he allocate it a “tiny communist head”? We must bear in mind
that this was the time of the Cold War—the age of the enemy within, who, according to
the United States, threatened to seize control of the entire continent. The trope of the
“basilisk” encapsulates this atavistic fear of communism that had Colombia’s elites and
political class in its grip. The same fear that raised the specter of the basilisk also engen-
dered the second trope that I will examine—a metaphor that conjured up a Manichaean
vision of the political arena that allowed the two opposing political parties to be con-
strued as antagonistic and irreconcilable communities.
In the mid-1960s, hostilities between Liberals and Conservatives began to fizzle out.
There was now a new focus for civil unrest: clashes between nascent revolutionary
groups (the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia [FARC] [“Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia Army”], the Ejército de Liberación Nacional [ELN]
[“National Liberation Army”], and the Ejército Popular de Liberación [ELP] [“Popular
Liberation Army”], among others) and the military (see the report Basta Ya! Colombia:
Memories of War and Dignity, National Center for Historical Memory [NCHM], 2013:
chapter 1). The backdrop to these new tensions was the National Security Doctrine, a
concept that shaped the United States’s foreign policy decisions in relation to the per-
ceived role of Latin American armed forces in the context of the Cold War. This role was
to uphold civil order and to quell any ideologies, organizations, or movements that might
be inclined toward furthering or supporting communism.
6 Violence: An international journal 00(0)

The impact of these policies at the local level became apparent in 1964, when the
Colombian military launched air strikes on the peasant community of Marquetalia, pre-
tending to eliminate what was perceived as a dangerous threat for the Establishment.
Survivors of the attack fled the region and took possession of large areas of jungle land,
together with thousands of others who had been displaced by the violence. They were
joined by agrarian leaders and communist peasants who had declined to demobilize dur-
ing the amnesty declared by President Rojas Pinilla in 1953.2 The Bogotá elite, through
Álvaro Gómez, the son of former Conservative president Laureano Gómez, dubbed these
peasant communities “independent republics”; willing to fight to defend their new terri-
tories, they were seen as a threat to the stability of the nation (see González Arias, 1991).
This notion of “independent republics,” used by Álvaro Gómez to describe peasant
communities in remote areas, had such tremendous evocative power that, 50 years later,
former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez and a group of retired military officers would resur-
rect it to refer to the rural camps where former FARC combatants went to demobilize and
disarm following the signing of the peace agreement in Havana in 2016. A letter signed
by 28 former army officers warned that the secluded locations where the demobilized
FARC combatants congregated could become permanently entrenched as “independent
republics.” They maintained that “these could give rise to a dangerous situation, just as
in the past, when they caused so much damage to our nation’s territorial integrity.”3 Here,
it is worth revisiting the idea expressed by both Agamben and Didi-Huberman that the
past does not die or remain neatly cloistered in discrete periods. Rather, it lives on in the
present in a diluted or “phantasmal” form, expressing itself through tropes that drift
around like phantasms, waiting to be awakened by a new iteration of history.
So, we can read this trope of “independent republics” in two mutually contradictory
ways. First, there is the meaning invoked by powerful groups during La Violencia, who
used it to refer to the rural bands of armed peasants operating outside the limits of the
rule of law. The second reading strikes us as paradoxical in that it was used by former
military officers who opposed the Havana peace agreement to portray the spaces occu-
pied by demobilized FARC members. Those critics maintained that bringing these ex-
combatants into the legal order in accordance with the peace agreement, which took
material form in the temporary camps set up for precisely this purpose, was tantamount
to creating stateless spaces outside the scope of the rule of law.

Targeted killings: The shadow side of violence in Colombia

As briefly approached earlier on, over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, the Manichaean
division between Liberals and Conservatives, which was a central motif of La Violencia,
began to blur, and the social and political landscape was transformed as drug trafficking
boomed and new paramilitary groups entered the fray. These two factors would funda-
mentally alter the dynamics of armed conflict in the country (González, 2012). Colombia
was fated to remain in the grip of what Pécaut calls the coexistence of order and vio-
lence,4 an oscillating pattern that, he argues, appears to be an inherent part of the fabric
of the nation, since it persisted despite all of the peace talks, amnesties, and other efforts
to reinforce democracy and heal division. The growth in drug trafficking and paramili-
tary activity, as well as the expansion of the FARC, subjected the Colombian people to
Uribe 7

an unprecedented level of violence. According to the Basta Ya report (NCHM, 2013),

this violence peaked between 1996 and 2002, at least in quantitative terms: around seven
million people were internally displaced, 83,000 fell victim to forced disappearance, and
more than 200,000 were killed. Colombia became notorious for its mass killings, 60% of
which were carried out by paramilitaries, but there were also thousands of disappear-
ances, abductions, attacks on villages, urban terrorism, and other manifestations of
In the 1980s and 1990s, as open warfare raged between guerrilla groups, paramilitar-
ies, and armed government agents, large numbers of civilians were murdered as part of
the same outpouring of violence. In Colombia, targeted killings tend to happen in a quiet,
perfunctory, and isolated way, in places far removed from major towns and cities, going
unnoticed by the vast majority of the population (NCHM, 2013). These killings came to
be attributed in the media to “dark forces.” This two words were essentially a media
trope that circulated during this period as a mask for the retired army officers, paramili-
taries, landowners, and right-wing politicians who, from the shadows, engaged in the
assassination of intellectuals, members of the Patriotic Union party, opposition leaders,
and human rights activists.6 “Dark forces” is a euphemism that reveals as much as it
conceals, simultaneously obscuring the masterminds of the killings and highlighting the
opaque and sinister side of this spectral violence that threatened, displaced, and terror-
ized the population (NCHM, 2018). Over these two decades, the NCHM (2013) recorded
the murders of 1227 community leaders, 1495 left-wing political activists, and numerous
trade union leaders. Shielded by their anonymity, these “dark forces” sent thousands of
threatening pamphlets and letters to anyone who was openly sympathetic to the left or
had any sort of connection to rebel groups.
A symbolic threshold, marking the eruption of this spectral violence that, one by one,
would claim the lives of thousands, was breached in April 1984 when two hit men on a
motorcycle, members of the Medellín cartel, murdered Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, then
Minister of Justice. This was the period of what is now called “narcoterrorism,” a term
that reflects the way in which the government and the country’s elite portrayed this mael-
strom of violence that left behind thousands of victims, including government ministers,
public prosecutors, high court judges, magistrates, police officers, lawyers who defended
political prisoners, journalists, politicians of all hues, university professors, and many
more citizens. Over this harrowing period, no fewer than four presidential candidates
from left-wing parties were shot dead. Between 1996 and 2005, guerrilla groups and
paramilitaries engaged in bloody gunfights over territory, while regional struggles over
military and political control gave rise to the worst slaughter the country had ever known
and the breakdown of all moral codes of warfare (NCHM, 2013: 34).

The death threats of the “Black Eagles”

In 2016, following 4 years of dialogue in Havana, the government finally struck a peace
agreement with the FARC, the oldest and most powerful of Colombia’s guerrilla groups.
The decision to hold the peace talks outside of the country was an important factor in this
success. However, as soon as the parties returned to Colombia, a series of obstacles
appeared: the deal was rejected in a confirmatory referendum; supporters of the politics
8 Violence: An international journal 00(0)

of former president Álvaro Uribe were fiercely opposed to the measures agreed, and
Colombian society in general looked on the process with an apathetic indifference.
Once the FARC had left the battlefield, what was once a structured, hierarchical, and
organized conflict splintered into a fragmented, selective violence embodied by both
old and new actors who swept in to seize the territories abandoned by the FARC. Today,
a number of regions remain in the hands of paramilitary forces, remnants of the now-
defunct United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and other criminal groups,
who have successfully tapped into the drug trafficking and illegal mining economies
(NCHM, 2016). According to the NCHM, today’s criminal groups are an expression of
a historical process that dates back many years and that has to do with the very configu-
ration of the Colombian state and the way that the private use of force has been encour-
aged and incentivized. This situation has been compounded by the unprecedented
expansion of the illegal economies on which impoverished communities in various
regions depend (NCHM, 2016: 2013).
Since the peace agreement was signed, Colombia has been caught in a contradiction.
On one hand, there has been a reduction in the recorded number of violent deaths linked
to armed conflict; on the other, there has been a clear increase in violations of the right
to life of civil society leaders and demobilized FARC members (Verdad Abierta, 2018a).
Removing the FARC from the equation has led to a decline in direct, conspicuous
clashes and to an overall drop in the number of victims. However, as has always been
the case in Colombia, it is during periods of dialogue between guerrilla groups and the
state, or in the midst of efforts to broaden political participation among movements
whose vision deviates from the hegemonic model, that these spectral figures appear,
acting from the shadows to kill off demobilized guerrilla fighters and political activists
(Orozco Tascón, 2019).
This is exactly what happened in the aftermath of the peace agreement. What sets
apart this latest expression of violence is that its aim, although it appears obscure and
incomprehensible, corresponds to a premeditated strategy of extermination. Its targets
include civil society leaders,7 those who speak out against the usurpation of their lands,
indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders trying to defend their territories, and environ-
mental activists and others who oppose the exploitative practices of multinational mining
companies.8 Post-agreement violence has killed women and men who show leadership in
their communities, African-descendent and indigenous land activists, and peasants
asserting their land rights. To assume a position of civil society leadership in Colombia
today, to attempt to resist or challenge the status quo in the hope of bringing about
change, is to place one’s life in jeopardy. As a delegate of the International Committee of
the Red Cross, Christoph Harnisch, observes:

The significant shift in Colombia in recent years is that armed conflict is no longer a national
situation but a patchwork of microregional struggles, each with its own distinct dynamic. This
is a much more complex picture that demands careful consideration of how best to protect
civilian populations and dismantle illegal economies. This is the great challenge facing the
Colombian state, regardless of who is in power. From an analytical perspective, the violence of
the past was easier to grasp, since the FARC’s fronts, blocs, and commanders were all very well
known. With the fragmentation we have seen in recent years, the groups involved are now much
harder to classify. Very often, the civilian population will say that they have no idea who they
Uribe 9

are. This is a significant departure from the past. We are now moving into a very different kind
of conflict (Oquendo, 2019).

Against this backdrop, the trope of the “Black Eagles” begins to take shape, a euphe-
mism shrouding an assortment of extreme-right groups who, through pamphlets and
anonymous letters, issue death threats to civil society leaders, journalists, land rights
activists, and peasants pressing for the voluntary eradication of coca crops, some of
whom have been murdered. To the “Black Eagles,” their victims are identified as “allies
of the FARC.” While these kinds of targeted killings have always taken place in
Colombia, their frequency greatly increased following the signing of the Havana agree-
ment between the FARC and representatives of the Santos government. The “Black
Eagles” is a trope that harks back to old aliases used by marauding criminal gangs during
La Violencia (Uribe, 2018a, 2018b, 2019).
Newspapers speak of the phantasm behind the “Black Eagles,” giving them a spectral
character, and maintaining that they have no clearly defined leaders, in the same sense as
the paramilitary groups active during the darkest days of Colombia’s history (El
Espectador, 2019). They are said to have no clear purpose and no unified purpose; as a
result, they can be likened to a kind of phantasm that spreads fear in order to gain the
upper hand in a particular struggle or to assert control over territories (Bolaños, 2018).
To give some idea of the nature of these threats, I will briefly describe a few individ-
ual cases, starting with the Afro-Colombian leader Francia Márquez. The “Black Eagles”
gave her 72 hours to leave her land and cease her fierce campaign against illegal mining.
Two months after being attacked by a group armed with grenades and other weapons,
Márquez and her fellow leaders on the Community Council of La Toma received new
threats declaring them military targets and demanding that they leave the area (Las2orillas,
2019). Another well-known case involves Gustavo Petro, a former left-wing candidate
for the presidency, who made the following statement via his Twitter account:

The Black Eagles don’t threaten me, because the Black Eagles don’t exist. The death threats I
receive, signed in the name of the Black Eagles, are the work of an extreme right embroiled in
Uribismo,9 both within the government and outside of it.10

Claudia López, the Green Alliance senator, and recently elected mayor of Bogotá, ech-
oed this sentiment: “[This is] the third time that I’ve received a death threat from the
Black Eagles, who are a front for the extreme right.”11
Between 2010 and the end of June 2019, there were at least 3434 documented death
threats. Commissioners at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have reported on
the most frequently used methods to intimidate civil society leaders and human rights
activists: telephone calls, obituaries, bouquets of flowers, notes left under doors, text and
voice messages, and warnings delivered via third parties, among others. The spectral
character of this violence is also reflected in statements made by government officials,
who have insisted that the crimes perpetrated against civil society leaders are down to
“extramarital affairs,” “drug problems,” or “boundary disputes.” Meanwhile, the main-
stream press—in the hands of the country’s most powerful business conglomerates—
simply repeats the statements made by military officers, further discrediting civil society
leaders. According to Camilo Bonilla, the coordinator of the research branch of the
10 Violence: An international journal 00(0)

Colombian Jurists’ Commission: “This kind of violence is however repetitive, continued,

and unvarying. It is perpetrated methodically, one victim at a time”, (Orozco Tascón,
2019). and is not, therefore, the random phenomenon that the government of President
Iván Duque would have us believe. “This violence is neither arbitrary nor accidental, but
is dealt out selectively, with precision” (Orozco Tascón, 2019).

Concluding remarks
Colombia, one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, has never experienced the
kind of agrarian reform that might have led to a more equitable distribution of land, nor has
it seen any serious attempts to bring about profound social change. Such attempts would
pose a threat to the role and hegemonic position of the most powerful groups, who have no
intention of losing their privileges (Uribe, 2019). In this article, I have argued that the vio-
lence afflicting Colombia has fallen into two main categories. The first is what we refer to
as internal armed conflict. This kind of violence is clearly associated with certain periods
in history; it is both quantifiable and verifiable and has left figures and statistics in its wake.
The second kind of violence operates outside of the law, in Benjamin’s sense, which gives
it a phantasmal character. This is the violence employed by powerful groups that work in
the shadows, formed by retired military officers, landowners, land usurpers, and corrupt
politicians. Its aim is to use direct means to secure a discretionary desire: that the Other
should disappear. For this reason, not only is this residual, anomic violence entirely useless
as a basis for constructing or modifying circumstances in a relatively stable manner, as
Benjamin observes, but it has only ever reinforced the status quo. In Colombia, we see the
fullest expression of Agamben’s argument that the juridical order has a need to reclaim this
ambivalent space, where human actions lose their grounding in the law, giving it some kind
of presence, even a spectral one, within the law itself.
For over 70 years, violence has been an almost permanent fact of life in Colombia, the
corollary of an animosity that certain segments of society have found no other way to
express. It might be conceived as a malaise that prevents the social sphere from achiev-
ing any kind of internal unity, presenting itself as a symptom of a deep-seated intolerance
that is manifested through visual and aesthetic tropes charged with memory. The four
tropes examined here represent some of the forms that this symptom can take, flaring and
remitting like a chronic and incurable disease. As I have argued here, throughout
Colombia’s recent history, there have been powerful groups working in the shadows who
have used violence as a tool to neutralize any attempts to bring about social change.
These groups have constructed spectral bodies as a means of concealing their true identi-
ties, allowing them to continue in their abominable mission: the cold-blooded murder of
anyone who questions their privileges.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/
or publication of this article.

The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
Uribe 11

  1. Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign-language material
in this article are our own.
  2. Military president Gustavo Rojas Pinilla came into power in 1953 seeking to pacify the coun-
try and fight the communist guerrillas that were expanding. Following his coup d’état, he
declared a general amnesty.
 3. Available at: https://www.elpais.com.co/proceso-de-paz/zonas-veredales-no-pueden-con-
  4. See González (2012). Indeed, Daniel Pécaut argues that the kind of democracy that exists in
Colombia is predicated on an alternating pattern of order and violence.
  5. See hearing before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, February 15, 2019 (Colectivo
de Abogados “José Alvear Restrepo,” 2019).
  6. The political party Patriotic Union was formed as part of the agreement that came out of the
failed peace talks between the FARC and Belisario Betancur’s government held in La Uribe
in the Meta Department of Colombia in 1984. Around three thousand of its members were
murdered in periodic assassinations over the years that followed.
  7. What patterns emerge from the roll call of civil society leaders murdered in the post-agree-
ment period? By way of a sample, let us take the 257 murders that took place between
24 November 2015 and 31 July 2016. The victims were campaigners in support of the peace
process, protesters against mining projects on their lands, whistleblowers and opposition
political activists, advocates for peasant reserve zones, land activists, defenders of lesbian,
gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights, and a number of Afro-Colombian
and indigenous leaders. See Verdad Abierta (2018a).
  8. Two nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the European Center for Constitutional and
Human Rights (ECCHR) and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR),
submitted a letter to the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC)
detailing what they describe as “repression against human rights activists in Colombia”
and requesting an investigation into a number of individuals, among them former president
Álvaro Uribe Vélez. See Verdad Abierta (2018b).
  9. Uribismo is the name given to the followers of former president Álvaro Uribe, an extreme-
right-wing conglomerate opposed to the peace accord of Havana.
10. Tweet of Gustavo Petro: @petrogustavo, 08:25 31 January 2019.
11. Tweet of Claudia López: @claudialopez, 08:30 31 January 2019.

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Author biography
María Victoria Uribe is an anthropologist and historian native to Bogotá. She earned her MA and
PhD in History at Universidad Nacional de Colombia. She used to be Director of the Colombian
Institute of Anthropology and History (1994–2005), Associate Professor at the PENSAR Institute
Uribe 13

for Social and Cultural Research at Javeriana University (2005–2007), and member of the
Historical Memory Group (2007–2011). Since 2011, she has been an Associate Professor at the
Faculty of Law at the Universidad del Rosario. She was awarded a Wissenschaftskolleg Fellowship
by the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin (2014–2015) and is an Emeritus Scholar of
Colombia’s National System of Researchers at the Administrative Department of Science,
Technology, and Innovation (Colciencias) (2016).