Since the 1980s, the conflation of political violence and the cocaine boom have devastated rural Colombia, fueling the displacement of some 4 million campesinos—mainly by paramilitary groups. Colombia's northwest region surrounding the Gulf of Urabá has been an unruly epicenter for this mass of dispossessed humanity. Established by narcotraffickers and agrarian elites, paramilitary groups simultaneously act as drug-trafficking private militias and counterinsurgent battalions, and they use land appropriation and agribusiness as conduits for money laundering and illicit profit.

When paramilitaries assaulted Urabá in the 1990s, thousands of campesinos fled their homes and, to this day, await government restitution of their lands. Other peasants, however, have collectively mobilized and peacefully seized back portions of their stolen farms from the armed groups. The Afro-Colombian campesinos of the Curvaradó River, for instance, have established “humanitarian zones” and “biodiversity zones” as a way of protecting themselves and inching back onto their occupied farms. Few places in Colombia exhibit all these tendencies—forced displacement, campesino militancy, and violent forms of accumulation and rule—in such abundance as Urabá.

Urabá, however, is not simply a tale of political disorder. My research argues that the region's combustible mix of narco-driven economies of violence, peasant struggles, and deeply contested forms of governance have converged into a deadly form of frontier state formation. “Frontier” is not meant in any originary sense; I deploy it critically to conjure the spatial production of places like Urabá in Colombia's historical geopolitical imaginaries as “stateless” and “savage” zones of irreconcilable alterity (Serje 2005). While all the region's social actors are implicated in producing the norms and forms of everyday governance in this frontier zone—despite evident imbalances in power relations—the violent incoherencies of this process stem from the political alignments and misalignments of the multiple, overlapping territorialities being produced.

Dominant narratives in Colombia claim the root of the problem afflicting places such as Urabá is the historical and ongoing “absence of the state”. Paramilitary commanders explicitly couch their activities as the “creation of a state in its absence”, while local residents regularly lament their “abandonment” by the state. With this in mind, my research asks, how is “the state” produced in a region where it supposedly does not exist? In other words, how does the abstraction of the state gain its everyday socio-spatial dimensionality—materially and symbolically—through the confluence of paramilitary networks, economies of violence, and peasant struggles? And how do campesinos’ territorial assertions challenge Urabá's ensembles of organized violence, accumulation, and rule?

Struggles over the state in Colombia are being expressed and conducted as territorial struggles; the various actors discussed in my research—whether peasants, narco-paramilitaries, insurgents, landowners, or government agents—are all in the “business” of producing territory (Brenner and Elden 2009). Indeed, the interconnected dynamics of frontier governance, narco-fueled economies of violence, and peasant resistance have made territory itself not only an object of political contestation, but also a collective springboard for peasants’ reclamation of stolen lands.

Even by conventional conceptions of the state, Urabá has hardly ever been “stateless”. In fact, the efficiency with which paramilitaries seized the region in the late 1990s was in part due to existing structures of government. Municipalities had recently gained new political, administrative, and fiscal power under the decentralization reforms of the 1991 Constitution, which was widely seen as a peace offering of political inclusion to guerrillas. But it was the paramilitaries who harnessed municipal structures, becoming the local handmaidens of the decentralization process (Ballvé 2012a). Following practices pioneered by rebel forces, paramilitaries not only infiltrated Juntas de Acción Comunal (Community Action Boards)—the country's most subsidiary form of local governance—they also established Juntas where these did not exist.

Commanders began implementing agribusiness projects on displaced people's lands through a complex circuitry of local institutions, narco-capital, NGOs, politicians, government grants, international aid, and private firms.1 The favored form adopted by these paramilitary-backed agribusinesses is a type of corporate-peasant contract farming dubbed “strategic alliances” that the government and aid agencies have sometimes negligently helped fund. Under Washington's antidrug and counterinsurgency program known as Plan Colombia, USAID supports “strategic alliances” with its “alternative development” programs in addition to municipally oriented decentralization projects aimed at “local development” and “institution building”.

Taking advantage of the strategic alliance structure, paramilitaries engaged in widespread “land laundering” by divvying up vast swaths of land and parceling them out to front men and sham “peasant cooperatives” (Ballvé 2012b). Discourses of local, green, participatory, and multicultural grassroots development with their attendant institutional forms and practices became utterly instrumental to how the land grab was executed and laundered in practice. Paramilitaries churned up the old spatialities of production and governance while consolidating new ones that proved well aligned with government imperatives of counterinsurgency and export agribusiness. In short, paramilitary activities are not anathema to projects of liberal governance, usually associated with tropes of the “rule of law” and “institution-building”; they are deeply tied to initiatives aimed at producing governable spaces and subjects, expanding trade, and attracting capital.

The ongoing social, spatial, and historical production of the state as a “realized abstraction” (Lefebvre 1991) in Urabá emerges from these intersecting and contradictory forces operating at multiple scales—from campesino mobilization and armed left vanguards, to narco-capitalist agribusiness and global geopolitics. Through the situated struggles of these intersections, distinct territorialities align and, fatefully, collide.

After the violent displacements of the late 1990s, the peasants of the Curvaradó River began trickling back to portions of their lands, establishing small “humanitarian zones” and “biodiversity zones”. Despite constitutionally protected status as collectively titled Afro-Colombian property, most of the land remains controlled by paramilitaries. Nonetheless, the campesinos have slowly expanded the zones, incrementally encroaching onto their farms and forests. Marked by subsistence and mixed agro-ecological practices, the motley landscapes of the reclaimed lands stand in stark contrast to the grid-patterned plantations surrounding them.

Under siege by Urabá's violent regimes of accumulation and rule, the Curvaradó's campesinos have articulated “global” discourses of humanitarianism, environmental conservation, and ethnic rights with localized political cultures in defense of their collective property, which they insistently call “territory”. While the discourses help peasants gain a modicum of protection through transnational advocacy networks, the state remains a central node of their political demands in so far as it is constantly hailed as the principle arbiter—and violator—of their rights.

Despite being embedded in state-centric contemporary liberal praxis, the ethical-political registers of these discourses are being repurposed by peasants in ways that exceed liberal pretensions. Humanitarianism, environmental conservation, and ethnic rights have become springboards toward more inventive and affirmative political horizons that insist on the mutually constitutive integrity of life, land, and livelihood—in shorthand, a politics of vitalism. Territory, as they conceive and enact it, is the centerpiece of this political project. By trying to turn the tide against paramilitary dominion through the production of territory, Curvaradó's politics of vitalism is a lived critique of the necropolitical “spaces of death” surrounding them (Taussig 1984; Mbembe 2003). Indeed, when asked to define what “territory” means, they simply respond, “Territorio es vida” (“Territory is life”).

This project emerged from 4 years in Colombia as a researcher and investigative journalist covering similar issues. Before that, I worked for 5 years as an editor and writer for the NACLA Report on the Americas, an independent left-wing journal on Latin American affairs based in New York City. It was at NACLA that my interests in research, writing, and politics first converged professionally; and it was with this same hope of convergence that I returned to academia in 2009.

I am deeply honored and grateful to have received this generous award. It has already helped me organize a panel at the 2012 Latin American Studies Association conference. With perspectives from anthropology, geography, journalism, and literary criticism, we discussed the theoretical, methodological, and narrative challenges posed by the recent explosion of Latin America's drug wars. The award is also helping finance travel for interviews with jailed paramilitary commanders. Thank you, Antipode.


  1. Top of page
  2. Acknowledgements
  3. References

A heartfelt thanks also to my advisors and fellow graduate students at Berkeley for their camaraderie and their imprint on this project.

  • 1

    See my investigative reports: “The dark side of Plan Colombia” (Ballvé 2009); “La telaraña de los ‘paras’ en Urabá” (Ballvé 2011).


  1. Top of page
  2. Acknowledgements
  3. References
  • Ballvé T (2009) The dark side of Plan Colombia. The Nation 15 June
  • Ballvé T (2011) La telaraña de los “paras” en Urabá. Verdad Abierta 14 June
  • Ballvé T (2012a) Everyday state formation: territory, decentralization, and the narco land-grab in Colombia. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30(4):603622
  • Ballvé T (2012b) “Grassroots Masquerades: Paramilitary Violence, Development, and Land-Laundering.” Global Land Grabbing II conference, LDPI and Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University, 17–19 October
  • Brenner N and Elden S (2009) Henri Lefebvre on state, space, and territory. International Political Sociology 3(4):353377
  • Lefebvre H (1991) Critique of Everyday Life: Volume 1, Introduction . New York : Verso
  • Mbembe A (2003) Necropolitics. Public Culture 15(1):1140
  • Serje M (2005) El revés de la nación: Territorios salvajes, fronteras y tierras de nadie . Bogotá : Ediciones Universidad de Los Andes
  • Taussig M (1984) Culture of terror—space of death: Roger Casement's Putumayo Report and the explanation of torture. Comparative Studies in Society and History 26(3):467497