Memory of violence and conflict in Cabrera, Colombia

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Political science scholarship on civil war has long pursued explanations of conflict dynamics on a national level. However, causes and processes of violence and conflict are often extremely localised and deeply rooted in the beliefs and habits of individual communities. To appreciate these local dynamics, we have been conducting fieldwork in Cabrera, Colombia, seeking to understand conflict dynamics in the region of Sumapaz through the inhabitants’ memories and experiences of violence, and the historical relations between the civilian population and the insurgency of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). In numerous interviews, we learned about their lives and the lucha campesina (the struggle of and for the peasantry). While inhabitants reported a marked improvement of their lives with the 2016 peace treaty between the Colombian state and the FARC, many problems underpinning the conflict since its early days persist.

The municipality of Cabrera lies in the very centre of Colombia, in the department of Cundinamarca that surrounds the country’s capital Bogotá. It is part of the region of Sumapaz, which includes the páramo de Sumapaz, one of the world’s largest marshlands, at an altitude of up to 4000 metres. Cabrera is called the ‘door to Sumapaz’ because a road leads from Cabrera to the páramo and its unique highland ecosystem. It is a rural municipality, marked by small farms and ranches owned by peasants who make their living off the land.

People in Cabrera have been in the middle of violent conflict for almost a century. During Colombia’s La Violencía, the infamous decade of 1948–1958, conservative military and paramilitary groups were hunting and killing liberals in Sumapaz. Not least in response to this burst of violence, Juan de la Cruz Varela, a peasant originally from north of Bogotá, organised the self-defence groups among the peasantry which made his reputation as the country’s first guerrilla fighter. Varela organised a peasant resistance across the whole of Sumapaz and witnessed two amnesties with the Colombian state before retiring to Cabrera, where he served as counsellor until his death in 1984.

La Violencía was not the only violence to affect Cabrera. Subsequently, Cabrera became stigmatised as a zona roja (red zone), a host to communist thinking and the nascent FARC guerrilla, with every peasant viewed as a potential guerrilla fighter. The region thus suffered both under a weak state presence and under heavy attacks by the National Army of Colombia.

In the 1970s, the FARC gradually expanded its presence in Colombia and in Cabrera. The sight of guerrillas passing through was nothing unusual for our interviewees. Many emphasised the common roots between the FARC, the peasantry in the region (indeed, the first FARC members were themselves peasants) and the strong communist party, all three demanding – above all else – an agrarian reform in Colombia.

From a political to a military force

In the 1980s, however, the FARC changed their approach from a political presence to an increasingly strong military presence across the whole region of Sumapaz, when they stepped up their ambitions and demands during their transformation into the FARC-EP (FARC-People’s Army). Especially from the 1990s onwards, after the destruction of the historic guerrilla camp Casa Verde, Sumapaz saw an increase of the conflict, not least due to the strategic importance the territory held as a corridor between major departments of Colombia, and its proximity to the country’s capital Bogota. By the 2000s, the FARC had ousted the police from Cabrera and were the de-facto authority in the municipality, although heavy fighting with the Colombian army continued.

People’s memories of this time come in many shades. On the one hand, our respondents reported many positive aspects of the FARC presence in Cabrera. For example, an older campesino leader emphasised the political opening through the establishment by the FARC of the Unión Patriótica, which gave voice to perspectives other than the two traditional parties of liberals and conservatives. Other respondents pointed out the FARC’s role in service provision, from financing the construction of roads and communication lines, to maintaining social order. For example, they mediated in civil arguments and prosecuted crimes such as theft and drug trafficking.

On the other hand, memories of the FARC are deeply coloured by the violence they perpetrated. Some of our interviewees criticise the FARC’s means and methods, despite its shared ambitions with the peasant movement. “Their biggest error”, one campesino leader told us, “was the introduction of the militias into Cabrera.” Militiamen were young locals, paid by the guerrilla to act as informants in the municipality’s towns and villages. However, unlike the guerrilla fighters, these youths lacked political training and often turned into armed rogues, mistreating the population, extorting money, or even killing civilians. One woman told us she feared sending her children to school unaccompanied, because of the constant danger of kidnapping or voluntary recruitment by the FARC. What is more, people reported what they perceived as arbitrary killings and threats, often of local leaders.

Community cohesion undermined

Research on civil conflicts has shown that they are never just between one armed actor and the population, but are situations of multi-level governance. In that sense, the population of Cabrera was caught in a triangular relationship with the FARC and Colombia’s army, both of them fighting over and among the civilian population. Many interviewees emphasised this situation as giving rise to the greatest evil of the conflict: it broke down the sense of community, which was historically very strong in Cabrera, as people started to mistrust and even fear one another. That your neighbour could turn out to be an informant for either the FARC or the army made any utterance potentially dangerous.

What is more, several interviewees reported an effect of the violence that was observed by Stathis Kalyvas in his study of Greece’s civil war: people would denounce their neighbours or rivals, for their own strategic benefit, often based on false information. As both the guerrilla and the army depended on local people for information, the result was often the killing or displacement of many civilians.

It would be incorrect to say that the Cabrera’s community completely dissolved during the war. Indeed, respondents also mentioned a rise in solidarity based on the shared goal of survival. This effect has been observed in violent conflicts elsewhere.

With the peace accords between the Colombian government and the FARC, Cabrera’s situation changed again. “The best thing”, a woman reported, “has been the calm”. At the same time, people seem to understand the current peace negatively – as the absence of violence rather than a resolution of its root problems. They remain stigmatised, they told us, and the state does little to address this stigmatisation or to invest in the region’s socioeconomic development, a goal the community has fought for for so long. Moreover, new problems have emerged, such as the micro trafficking of drugs to Cabrera, which we attribute to both the absence of violent conflict and the presence of only a weak or corrupt state.

Yes, the armed conflict is over. But, as people in Cabrera seem to concur, the deeper conflict – a political fight for rights, equality, and opportunity – rages on.


Wolfgang Minatti is a PhD researcher in the EUI’s Department of Political and Social Sciences. His research focuses on civil war and armed groups, including rebel governance, processes of legitimacy and military strategy. Read his latest article on Concepts of Legitimacy in the journal Civil Wars.

Laura Ramírez Rodríguez is a PhD researcher in the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona’s Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Her research focuses on migration, community and embodiment of religious communities in Latin America and Western Europe from a qualitative and ethnographic approach.