Displacement and Community Organizing

Shifting Memories and Identities Around a Mocoa Kitchen Table

by | Sep 13, 2013

A street in Mocoa, Columbia, with homes to one side.

Photo by Julieta Lemaitre

We were having lunch at María’s house in Mocoa, Colombia, when it struck me how much the story of her past was shaped by the legal framework that defines her today as a victim, and when I first met her, in 2011, as an internally displaced woman. Over the extended year of our collaboration, I witnessed Maria’s subtle transformation to fit the shifting legal frame. However, that lunch illuminated the extent of the weight of law, and its silences, on memory and identity.

Mocoa, a town of approximately 45,000 people, nestles in the Andes as they slope down to the Amazonian basin. It is the capital of Putumayo, a frontier state of intensive coca fields and the bloody exploits of various armies. Mocoa itself, however, is relatively peaceful. Thus its population has almost doubled over the last ten years, with men, women and children fleeing the war in the south, a multitude called, since the adoption of a 1997 law, internally displaced people or IDP.


María and I first met in the context of an academic research project on internally displaced women leaders. From the start, I was intrigued by her. She constantly took notes, as we researchers did, asked us questions right back, and asked us for money and “projects.” She understood the legal framework well, moving comfortably among the dense network of regulations and Constitutional Court decisions that gave IDP special rights. She also understood NGOs and research projects, and the possibility of her benefiting from them. Her insistence on working with our project resulted in a year-long collaboration in which, with a group of graduate students, we helped the Municipal Committee for Displaced People design and conduct a survey of IDP in Mocoa.

The survey provided a way for us to better understand grassroots organizing, and for María a way to gain greater legitimacy for the committee. The Municipal Committee had started out as a government-organized network of IDP settlement organizations, but she aspired to more: she wanted the group to collect its own data and to have its own office and computer. She insisted it was the committee’s job to learn the number of internally displaced people and to understand their actual situation. She added references to women, indigenous people and Afro-Colombians, seeing that we were interested by what she, like the Constitutional Court, called “the differential approach.”

With the same persistence she had exerted to convince us to help her with the survey, she had helped construct “San Lázaro,” a model refugee settlement where each house has a large garden, shares a communal fish farm and sugar cane fields, a communal sand mine, a community house that doubles as a child-care center, running water (although not drinking water), latrines and electricity. Each of the 22 families in the settlement received first a temporary wooden house and then a two-bedroom house in brick and mortar complete with a bathroom. Noticing my admiration at the end of our first tour, María remarked: “You see we have all this, but if you look in our pantries, there is nothing.” That, it seemed, was also true: like most IDP, no one in her family had formal employment or the likelihood of finding one, and they were cash-strapped and often hungry.


Over repeated visits María went further into her complaint—the issue was not so much the present difficulties, but how much they had lost through displacement. She remarked bitterly, “We used to be somebody.” “Being somebody” went beyond a respectable domestic life: María had also been the President of the Association of Rural Community Development Boards (Juntas de Acción Comunal Veredal). She ran meetings in her home, organized long work days, marches, community meals, elections and budgets. She held her own with the 32nd Front of the FARC, which was active in the region and often applied rough justice. Well known as a Junta leader, she was one of the few women in this frontier region who held such a post.

However, her life before displacement was not part of her official identity when we first met. She was in a sense “all IDP,” and her reference to the past was of wealth lost, woven in with demands for restitution. She repeated that before the war, they had asked nothing of the government and even paid taxes; and that now, all the government offered was meager “assistance” (puros programas asistenciales). We heard from a feminist non-governmental organization that ran healing workshops in Mocoa that María had led resistance among local women to these workshops, demanding business skills training instead: “We are not crazy,” she allegedly said “all we need is work.”

María refers to herself as “almost a lawyer,” and after calling me “doctor” (the honorary title for lawyers), one day started calling me by my given name, informing me that she always called “doctor” people who needed everything done for them. The sudden surge of empathy did not hide that I was a potential source of work. Work of course meant cash changing hands, from mine to hers, underlining the unfairness of a situation where I, who needed her help, had a steady paycheck and she didn’t.


During our collaboration, Colombia adopted the Victims’ Law, Law 1448 of 2011. New institutions and new participatory spaces, and of course, new opportunities emerged. María’s story now included more of the circumstances of her displacement, a story she had told before, but which now took a new depth and moral weight.

María had not only been the President of the Juntas de Acción Comunal; she had also taken an active part in the cocalero marches in the mid-nineties. These marches, which paralyzed southern Putumayo, demanded that the government stop fumigating coca and start investing in the region. Stigmatized as FARC guerrilla collaborators, many of the cocalero leaders were murdered in the years that followed (1999 to 2006) when the paramilitaries, often in alliance with the Army, took over the towns in southern Putumayo.

Because María and her husband had participated in the marches, when the paramilitaries arrived to her municipality, which we’ll call Puerto X, she was signaled as a guerrillera. In a context of brutal massacres, she faced up to Mario, the local commander. The story of her resistance in the months she stayed on became the hallmark of her new identity, one that gives her legitimacy both in the new Municipal Victim’s Committee and in other transitional justice spaces.


After the survey was over, I hired Maria as a field assistant for another project. Overtly, the project concerned low-intensity coca cultivation, but it was really to finance a way for me to go back to fieldwork in Mocoa, where I still had unanswered questions. She gladly assumed the (paid) task, and organized a series of interviews and a lunch in her house with five cocalero leaders.

However, when I got to “San Lázaro,” I found out that only one cocalero leader, Martín, and his college-educated new wife, had accepted the invitation. Once Martín told me his own story of the marches, and the repression that followed, María filled an uncomfortable silence saying she wanted to tell him what had happened in Puerto X after he fled. As she related them, her memories of paramilitary control seemed aimed at establishing her own political credentials, namely, that she had not been a collaborator. In fact María, like some of the other women we worked with, managed to negotiate with the warlords not only for her life, but her work as a leader, using gender as a shield. As a woman in her forties, and a mother, María insisted on the distance between her and the war, adopting the apolitical, and hence legitimate, role of caretaker of her family and her community.

As told by María, the paramilitaries in their first encounter threatened her with death because “people” had told Mario that she was a guerrillera. She faced her death to her full five-foot stature, and convinced Mario to hear her out alone in her kitchen while she made coffee for him, leaving his weapons outside. She explained the nature of her leadership, convinced him of her non-partisanship, and got him to promise her not to massacre local peasants.

It seems Mario grew to like her or respect her, refusing to believe the many rumors which “gave him a constant headache.” Trust came with a price. Once she was asked to identify whether or not a man belonged to one of the Juntas, and the man, tied up and tortured, was placed before her. The local priest murmured the man’s name and address, and María lied and said she knew him, saving his life, endangering her own. Mario placed her thus in the ambiguous role of caretaker, trusting her and threatening her at the same time. She tells of the horror of retrieving mangled corpses after Mario told her where they were; of returning the bodies to grieving families. The final encounter, and reason for her displacement, is also framed by her role as mother/caretaker. In her telling, the real reason Mario expelled her from Puerto X was that he had not been invited to her eldest daughter’s fifteenth birthday party (quinceañero).

I had heard this story before, but Martín’s presence gave it a new weight, grounded in María’s family disgrace. María’s youngest child, now in his twenties, was in jail, condemned for kidnapping in collaboration with paramilitaries. The family had varying versions of this, and it was unclear to me whether he was recruited or forced to collaborate. In any case her son was in jail, and María called this situation being “dead in life” (muerta en vida).

This central fact of her past troubles her victim identity, and memory. There is no corresponding structure to give collective social, and moral, meaning to the civilian collaboration which is an ordinary part of war. Both identification as an IDP and as a victim assume that, as so many human rights NGOs insist, for ordinary people the war is “not our war.” Hence, the available legal identities erase the grey zone where victims become informants and collaborators, as well as the existence of political sympathy with paramilitaries and guerrillas.


Near the end of the lunch Martín admonished María to give up community organizing and concentrate on her family, as he had done. “You need to look out for yourself,” he insisted. “Community organizing is ungrateful work (muy desagradecida.) It’s like women’s work (como el trabajo de las mujeres),” he adds. “You are always starting over. And no one thanks you for it.”

María nods to this. I think of all the trouble I know she’s had with the families of “San Lázaro,” including the almost violent confrontation with the man who runs the fish farm. Her constant community work is not only “like women’s work,” it is in fact “women’s work,” woven around a deeply gendered identity of mother, non-combatant and caretaker, resonant in those of displaced woman and victim.

However, in her self-presentation within the categories of the law, María insists that the circumstances that make her a person deserving of special state attention do not destroy her pride and her sense of self, of competency. Her identity is deeply rooted in her past and her various community leaderships. Whatever identity laws ask her to assume, whatever memories middle-class professionals now want to hear, she remains in charge of the performance of her past, guarding the secret of her son’s, and possibly her own, political identity. She remains in charge, taking on the state as yet another guest in the kitchen where she has asked so many people for lunch or coffee in the years before—and after—Mario showed up at her door; before, and after, I and other “doctoras” did the same.

Spring 2013Volume XIII, Number 1

Julieta Lemaitre (M.A., SJD 07) is Associate Professor at Universidad de los Andes’ Law School. This text is based on research funded by the Norwegian Research Council, in collaboration with PRIO at Oslo, and by the CESED (Center for Security and Drug Policy) at Los Andes. Names and identifying information have been modified to protect María and Martín’s privacy.

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