The Memory Boom in Putumayo, Colombia

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“Colombia is a model for the region,” then-Senator John Kerry told the public during his January 2013 confirmation hearing for Secretary of State. Thanks to an aggressive counterinsurgency program, aided by billions of dollars in U.S. funding, Kerry and others in Washington argue that Colombia has been transformed. Rather than a model, however, the Women’s Alliance of Putumayo and others prove that the region is a cautionary tale, documenting those changes the thousands of human rights abuses that occurred here.

Stretching along the border with Ecuador, from 1998-2005 Putumayo produced much of the world’s supply of coca (a precursor of cocaine) and was an intense conflict zone, disputed between guerrilla forces and paramilitary groups working with local military commanders. Putumayo was also the centerpiece of Plan Colombia, which started as a US$1.2 billion dollar aid package passed in 2000, the majority of which was used to equip and train Colombian army units and carry out aerial fumigation of chemical pesticides.

Putumayo_Blog_1PHOTO CREDIT: Winifred TateWomen’s Alliance of Putumayo “Weavers of Life” coalesced in 2005 to create social support networks for women in the context of escalating political violence. As part of their work to promote women’s participation in local public life as well as press for an end to impunity, the Alliance has placed permanent memorials in the central plazas of small towns in the region to commemorate women killed by violence. The first “wall of truth” includes a mural and 170 bricks, each with the name and date of death, in one corner of the central park in the state capital; the second was recently completed in Villagarzón. The Alliance, along with other women’s groups in the region, have also organized marches and public performances to publicly mourn emblematic cases, such as the 2001 disappearance of the four Galarraga sisters by paramilitary forces in La Dorada.

As part of the 2003-2006 paramilitary demobilization processes, the government created the Historical Memory Commission, which includes some of Colombia’s most distinguished scholars, and has produced 14 book-length studies of emblematic cases of violence. This research, however, has led to only a few legal sanctions. The special prosecutorial units established to investigate paramilitary crimes, despite considerable international support, are understaffed and under-resourced to handle the vast scope of abuses. Investigations have also been hampered by the extradition of paramilitary leaders to the U.S. to face drug trafficking charges. Most have negotiated plea deals; their trials for human rights crimes in Colombia were blocked as a result. Despite paramilitary demobilization efforts, re-organized paramilitary groups continue to operate, along with the guerrilla insurgency. As a result, some reject the efforts as premature, given the fact that the Colombian conflict has not been resolved.

Colombian anthropologist Maria Clemencia Ramirez has been documenting the impact of the violence on women in Putumayo as a member of Colombia’s Historical Memory Commission. Their report, Women, Coca and War, focuses on El Placer, Putumayo, a small hamlet on the road to the border (the full text in Spanish is available at The report describes the historic control of the country’s largest and oldest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed forces of Colombia (FARC); the changes wrought by growth of the illegal coca trade, and the arrival and occupation of brutal paramilitary forces. In addition to their fieldwork with local residents, the researchers were able to analyze testimony by demobilized paramilitary commanders.

According to Ramirez, community residents, in particular schoolteachers, welcomed them. “We didn’t have to justify our presence, because the community was so interested in having the resulting book,” Ramirez told me via email. “Representing memories and the experiences that they lived, with the objective that the state recognize their status as victims of the armed conflict and thus they could participate in the reparation policies.” She was also part of a team that included two anthropologists, a political scientist, and a social worker charged with follow-up counseling for informants after their emotionally draining interviews. The team returned with a draft manuscript to discuss their findings with the subjects, to confirm details but more importantly to allow them to reflect on their decision to consent to publication.

These efforts are part of what is being called a “memory boom” in Colombia involving numerous state-sponsored and private efforts to commemorate victims of violence.

Critics point to the ways in which the process is divorced from legal sanctions, is occurring during an ongoing conflict, and has privileged particular forms of memory while marginalizing others. During a recent visit to El Placer, one schoolteacher told me she “rejected” the book “because our cases were not in there.” When the research team returned to present the book, local residents debated their findings, such as concern about the inclusion of prostitutes as full members of the community. The issue of sexual violence has been particularly controversial. The same teacher expressed doubt that any women were raped in the region, despite the official findings of widespread sexual violence.

Putumayo_Blog_2PHOTO CREDIT: Winifred TateOther examples of the memory boom in Putumayo include a local museum of the conflict. In El Placer, a local priest gathered memorabilia from the conflict and displayed it within the parish building, known as theMuseo de la Memoria. The community is currently debating how to institutionalize the collection, which includes weapons and bullet casings as well as household objects impacted by combat.

These efforts do not attempt to establish legal accountability for the crimes, a task still seen as extremely difficult and dangerous. Government prosecutors estimate that approximately 3,000 people remain “disappeared” in mass graves in the region; the full extent of the violence will likely never be known. The role of U.S. backed-Colombian military forces in these crimes will most likely never be fully illuminated. Despite these limitations, local activists continue to press for justice even as policymakers herald Plan Colombia as a model for U.S. interventions in Mexico and the ongoing occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Winifred Tate is an assistant professor of anthropology at Colby College and the author of Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia (University of California Press, 2007). She is working on a book examining the origins of Plan Colombia and its impact in Putumayo, and the legacies of paramilitarism in Colombia.  Winifred serves on the LAWGEF board.