Accounting for Absence

Peter Andreas of the Watson Institute for International Studies, and Kelly Greenhill of Tufts organized a workshop on the politics of numbers, resulting Sex, Drugs and Body Counts.

Accounting for Absence discusses the politics of not counting something — the material and political work that made the Colombian paramilitaries invisible in Washington debates over U.S. policy towards Colombia.

The chapter begins:

When describing his “million” trips to Bogotá as the coordinator of the Plan Colombia Interagency Task Force in the final months of 1999, Ambassador James Mack recalls the chilly meeting rooms in the colonial office buildings, and spoke at length and with pride on his role in promoting aerial fumigation. Yet when asked about paramilitary massacres in the region targeted for U.S. assistance, he replied, “What massacres? We knew [the paramilitary umbrella group] the AUC carried out massacres in other areas of the country, in the north. There were massacres in Putumayo? . . . I can’t remember any massacres in Putumayo.” Right-wing paramilitaries groups linked to local army outposts had moved into the Putumayo region, long a guerrilla stronghold, beginning with the massacre of more than twenty-six people on January 9, 1999 in the small hamlet of El Tigre and continuing throughout the area over the next several years. At the same time, the United States made the southern province of Putumayo, then the production site of the majority of the world’s coca, the centerpiece of the billion-dollar aid package known as Plan Colombia. In the subsequent years of debate over the more than six and half billion dollars in U.S. assistance to Colombia, the majority destined for the Colombia military and police forces, paramilitary forces played a minimal role. The absence of paramilitaries as a policy issue in these debates can only be explained by considering the ways in which particular narratives are deployed to explain violence statistics and drug production in the debates over foreign policy toward Colombia. This chapter contributes to discussions of how foreign policy issues are framed and the ways in which specific casual narratives are attached to statistics in order to naturalize certain policy options as “common sense” and erase others from serious discussion. What objects, people, and events count and get counted, and what remains unseen and uncounted, are critical for understanding these issues.