In Colombia the State is always late

The book describes those illegal ‘other powers’ and how they operate; how they co-opt mayors and local authorities, how they ally up with local, regional and national economic stakeholders, how they buy the favours of judges (when there are judges) and public forces (when they are present), and how citizens learn to relate to them, to navigate through that brown-coloured part of the country.

The violence of those powers as described by Lemaitre is not something of the past, before the demobilisation of the paramilitary groups over a decade ago, or to the 2016 peace treaty with the FARC. It continues to exist, just like a ghost returning to haunt those willing to rebuild their lives; it returns in the form of the ‘motorbike guys’, the sicarios, those who kill in the name of powers that operate in the shadows, those who kill social leaders and ex-guerrilla members who are mobilising their communities precisely in order to build the State on a small or medium scale.

86 social leaders and 77 former FARC combatants were killed in 2019

Since the signing of the Peace Agreement, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has verified 303 murders of activist and defenders of fundamental guarantees and social leaders, 86 of which (including 12 women) occurred in 2019.

In his last report about the Colombian peace process the UN Secretary General António Guterres indicates: ““Despite the general improvements in security registered after the Peace Agreement, communities continue to be attacked by illegal armed groups and criminal organizations in areas where the limited presence of the State has left institutional gaps and where the lack of economic opportunities has made that communities are vulnerable to illicit economies”.

A critical look from a legal perspective

Reading The State is Always Late is like delving into a novel in which the link between the various characters slowly becomes clear. The war, its stakeholders and interests; the lives of the displaced and the battle of the women who must fight and rummage to feed their families and keep up an appearance of normality in the face of chaos and lack of resources (how to purchase medicine, to obtain the first communion dress for their daughter, to pay for the coffin of the grandmother who passed away); what allies to make, what prices to pay; how, at some point in the book, (and hopefully in reality too) that process of building is connected to a State ‘that is always late’.

When the State reaches ‘the territories’ a dramatic reality takes place, which Lemaitre speaks about in her book: the meeting between government civil servants (the guys with the vests), NGOs, international organisations and victims.

The author explains how often the civil servants are young university graduates who go to the territories to ‘listen’ to the terrible life stories of the people; they have the authority to decide who constitutes a victim, who is entitled to compensation and who does not constitute a victim because they did not suffer enough or because they are usurpers. The description of this meeting between government workers and victims is daunting and leaves nobody untouched, neither the well-intentioned people working in that department nor possibly the readers of this book.

An especially relevant domain that the book broaches is Law. As an expert in this field, the author questions how this discipline, and the sector of Human Rights in general, conceives and approaches victims, equalising them as if they were all the same, robbing them of their stories and thereby also of their agency to build their own future.

In order to create ‘a good life’, a life of dignity, responsibility, citizenship, the author considers that we must learn from the women she interviewed. The women who, violently robbed of almost everything, including children, friends, homes, land, rummage to find a life for themselves and for their loved ones. But they also find dignity in the action of taking care of others, in practicing a ‘care-based lifestyle’ that they consider essential for the creation of an alternative society to that of violence.

From that starting point the author lays out a political philosophical theory of peace and suggests that the State restore or recreate its role as a service provider, guarantor of rights and safety and that it protect and care for its citizens so as to avoid them becoming victims or a part of the violent powers operating in the shadows. The aim being for the State to build itself both from the top-down and from the bottom-up, so that it stops always being late.


Translation from Spanish: Róisín Allen Meade.

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