The Colombian armed conflict and the State Formation Process: Trends and Challenges

Ingrid Bolívar, December 2009


  • State
  • state formation
  • armed conflict
  • political violence
  • Colombia

Our objective in this paper is to describe some key links between the Colombian armed conflict and the State formation process. Also, we identify two conceptual challenges the Colombian experience presents to the prevalent Western Model of the State formation process. The first one is related to what we have called “Political Scale Problems”; the second one is linked to the “Discursive Construction of the State”. We have identified these challenges while we have been conducting several research projects on Political Violence in Colombia.

In this paper, we connect the Colombian case with classical literature dealing with State formation. This choice is motivated by our rejection of the current trends that approach political violence as a political anomaly. In rethinking the foundations of the State, we take into account the classic theory and current controversies on the State. A further motivation is that the challenges introduced above highlight two claims that this publication makes, firstly, “Political Scale Problems” relate to the editors’ assertion that local and regional actors involved in State formation processes have received less analytical attention than national and international actors have; secondly, to present “Discursive Construction of the State” as a challenge means we take the expectations and needs of the population as a foundation for State transformation. We address these issues by using historical data about violence in Colombia, discussing some features of the classical State formation model and giving a brief look into a recent political scandal named parapolítica.

We have organised our paper in three sections. First, we describe some general features of Colombian political violence and we contextualise its main actors. In the second section, we present a theoretical framework that we have been developing. Following this scheme, we explain how and why some regional and historical dynamics of the Colombian armed conflict can be viewed as “structural routes” for the State formation process. In the third part, we identify the main restrictions that the “structural routes” have. By looking at the recent trial named la parapolítica, we introduce and explore our two conceptual challenges, “Political Scale Problems” and “Discursive Construction of the State”. Parapolítica is the name of the legal case that investigates the relationships among armed actors, bureaucrats and politicians in Colombia. To conclude, we insist on the importance of thinking about the process of State formation in Third World and non Western societies. We are aware of the criticism the ideas of “Third World” and non- western societies have received given their tendencies to ranking countries according to economic development or West-influence criteria. However, we use those terms for three reasons. Firstly, there is a specialised literature dealing with them. Secondly, we insist on State formation as a process with general tendencies but also with crucial specificities given international conditions. Finally, we recognise the institutional model of the State (its branches of public power, its expectations about law, and so forth) as a European political model imposed on other societies in the context of colonialism (Moore, 1976).


The full article can be found in these publications “Rethinking Foundation of the State” (forthcoming 2010)