Thanks to the Colombians who made research in Putumayo possible:
Scholarly publications here.
My scholarly commitments originate with my experiences as an activist and advocate focused on Colombia, and my ongoing interest in the intersection of scholarly analysis and political action. I have more than 25 years of sustained engagement with these topics in Colombia, beginning with an extensive period of volunteer work and study abroad in the 1980s and another three years working with human rights NGOs (including a year in Guatemala and another year and a half in Colombia) after completing my BA. In addition, I worked for three years as the Colombia policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America before completing my doctorate at New York University. These experiences continue to inform my scholarship, as well as my efforts to ensure my research contributes human rights and conflict resolution in the region.
As a scholar, I situate my research interests within the field of political anthropology, using the techniques and insights of fine-grained ethnography to explore urgent issues of inequality, peace and conflict today. My research examines struggles for democracy, citizenship and political change that occur in the context of political violence, particularly the problems of entrenched paramilitary violence, human rights abuses and illicit economies in Latin America. My scholarship on these topics in Colombia contributes to larger debates in anthropology about how people imagine and enact political transformation.
My first book, Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia (University of California Press 2007) argues that the power of human rights emanates not from claims of universality but from its resonance with local political culture and agendas. The book examines how the idea of human rights is employed by Colombian activists and human rights professionals in non-governmental human rights organizations, state human rights agencies and military human rights offices. I examine the contradictory legacies of the Catholic and Communist institutions that dominated the early human rights movement, the production of impunity by state human rights agencies, and the weaponizing of human rights into military psychological operations. Drawing from the life stories of high-profile activists, pioneering interviews with military officials, and research at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Counting the Dead underscores the importance of analyzing and understanding human rights discourses, methodologies, and institutions within the context of broader cultural and political debates. Counting the Dead won the 2009 Bryce Wood Book Award from the Latin American Studies Association for outstanding work in the social sciences and the humanities on Latin America published in English; the 2009 Sharon Stephens Book Prize from the American Ethnological Society, awarded to a first book that speaks to contemporary social issues with relevance beyond the discipline and beyond the academy; and the 2007 Michael Jiménez Prize for outstanding work in Colombian Studies from Latin American Studies Association.
I am currently working on two book projects that draw on research I have been conducting over the past decade on paramilitarism, globalization and community resistance. These projects examine the forms, legacies, and deep histories of Colombian violence. I am particularly concerned with how this violence shapes the daily lives, practices and possibilities of residents in rural communities, the production of history about this violence, and its legacies in contemporary Colombian politics. I have been conducting fieldwork for these projects through a variety of research projects since 1995. Major funding was provided by a grant from the U.S. Institute for Peace, awarded in 2007 and used for research trips from 2008-2010, and a 2012-2013 Fellowship from the Drugs, Security and Democracy Program of the Social Science Research Council and the Open Society Foundation. I have published initial findings from both projects in two peer reviewed book chapters, “From Greed to Grievance” (2009), and “Violence and Pastoral Care in Putumayo” (2015).
The first project explores Paramilitary Politics, examining the emergence, evolution and historiography of Colombian paramilitary organizations on the north coast through fieldwork and oral histories with regional elites and community activists. I argue that contemporary forms of Colombian paramilitism emerge from settler colonialism throughout the long 20th century. I relocate the “origin stories” of paramilitary violence, from the emergence of guerrilla forces in the 1970s, to the use of violence to enforce elite economic and political interests in the region. My analysis of the entangled regional histories of kidnapping, political activism and human rights protection programs illuminates current debates over victims’ rights and land restitution programs.
The second project, tentatively titled, Making Life: Suffering and Care in Putumayo, uses the life history of a well-known community leader and regional supervisor for the public education system in southern Colombia to examine how this peripheral region exemplifies the origins, impact and community responses to the past century of violence in Colombia, as well as the central role of profound transnational entanglements in its evolution. Fatima Muriel is the daughter of an Inga indigenous woman and a gold prospector who became one of the region’s largest landholders. Her work supporting local teachers facilitated her leading role in helping communities negotiate challenges posed by the growing strength of Marxist guerrillas, the latter’s increasing criminality, and the economic boom created by coca for the international cocaine trade. As a founder of the Women’s Alliance of Putumayo, she developed protective strategies for communities reeling from escalating violence as brutal paramilitary forces came to dominate, even as the US funneled military and development assistance in the region. The Women’s Alliance now focuses on addressing the environmental and social harms of proliferating oil and mining operations, a consequence of counterinsurgency “success.” While exploring the grim legacies of these diverse forms of national and transnational interventions, I argue that Fatima’s and others’ networks of care offer lessons for alternative futures.
Thanks to Thalia Giraldo, Greg Moreno and Lina Makino for their assistance with this website.