A Review of Borderland Battles

Post-Peace, Fragile Borderlands

by | Aug 6, 2020


Annette Idler. Borderland Battles: Violence, Crime, and Governance at the Edges of Colombia’s War, Oxford University Press, 2019.

When then-President Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace accord with one of the Western Hemisphere’s oldest guerrillas in 2016 (the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), optimism ran high that an end to decades-long violence in Colombia had been reached.

Four years later, caution dominates, even pessimism. Significant progress has been made, most importantly the conversion of the former guerrilla group into a political party and the development of an ambitious transitional justice system that is promoting accountability by all actors for human rights violations committed during the long  conflict. However, illicit economies across the country continue to cause violence and several regions throughout the country have witnessed high numbers of killings of social leaders. Thus, while it has gained capacity over the past decades, the Colombian state faces daily challenges to protect the lives and livelihoods of millions of Colombians. Flows of migrants from Venezuela and the pervasive effects of the pandemic on Colombian society and economy add to the predicament.

Annette Idler’s book on Colombia’s borderlands, Borderland Battles: Violence, Crime, and Governance at the Edges of Colombia’s War, skillfully contributes to our understanding of the significant distance between formal peacemaking and the actual building of sustainable peace. The author analyzes the shared borderlands of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela with a focus on how “the myriad and dynamic interactions among rebels, paramilitaries, drug cartels, and other violent non-state groups engender violence, erode the social fabric of communities, and challenge the empirical legitimacy of governments by facilitating alternative forms of governance.” Weak state governance systems and lack of integration into the national economy further undergird these areas in which “shadow citizenship,” or “a social contract-like relationship in which armed actors provide public goods and services and define the rules of appropriate behavior while citizens socially recognize their illicit authority,”  develops and upholds many of the grey areas in which illegal actors and economies thrive. These relationships continue to undermine formal institutions on both sides of the border, she tells us. This is a crucial element in my discussions with my students, and helps explain why negotiations with illegal actors are necessary but insufficient to build lasting peace, which is a decade-long endeavor involving state and social organizations and, in the cases depicted by Idler, cooperation across borders.

The practical implications of Idler’s analysis are manifold: The existence of these borderland limbos affect an already strenuous bilateral relationship between Colombia and Venezuela (less so—although also not harmonious—in the case of Colombia and Ecuador). They impede a coordinated response to joint problems such as the flow of migrants, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the development of informal mining activities, the drug trade, and the threat to all sides’ stability represented by the ongoing operations of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), Colombia’s remaining guerrilla group.

The book is of importance to scholars in many fields of academia, including those studying borders, the social basis of organized crime and illicit economies and the perils of state-building after war. The refreshing style in which the book is written and the personal tone the author shares with her audience—including citations from her fieldnotes—contributes to an understanding not just of the topic but of the challenges involved in conducting fieldwork in such volatile and often dangerous contexts. Idler, who spent several years working in and on Colombia, traveling around the places she reports on, also includes extensive citations from her interviews and full dialogues, amplifying the voice of people in the regions she studies. This quality comes out well in the book, as readers will be attracted by her engaging narrative of the complex matters she examines.

In sum, this is a very timely book which shows that peace agreements are a necessary step towards putting an end to violence, but for peace to hold and develop roots, the uncertainties and fractures of violence in borderlands needs to be understood and addressed.

Spring/Summer 2020, Volume XIX, Number 3

Angelika Rettberg is a professor of Political Science at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá (Colombia). She is also the co-director of the Transformation and Empowerment Stream of the London School of Economics-led hub on Gender, Security, and Justice. In 2018 she served as a negotiator for the Colombian government in the peace talks with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN).

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