Challenges of and Strategies for Conducting Research in High-Risk Settings in Transitional Colombia
by Elena Butti
“Do you see that kid over there?” a friend asks me pointing at an 11-year-old child running across the street. “He has received various death threats for having helped older members of a gang to kill someone in the rival gang. We’ve tried to take him out of the neighbourhood but he refuses. There is nothing else we can do: we’re just waiting for him to be killed.”
My friend works for a local NGO and is accompanying me on a site visit. We are walking through one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Cali. Cali is salsa’s world capital, but also, and less gloriously, the capital city of Valle del Cauca, one of the regions most affected by the Colombian conflict. Here, wearing an NGO T-shirt literally saves your life.
“A few days ago, there was an armed confrontation between two gangs just across the street,” he continues. “We can cross to the other side, because they know we are harmless. But see those guys standing at the corner? They can’t come with us. They know over there is the other gang’s territory and their life is in peril. This is an invisible frontier.”
Colombia is at a historic political moment. Its decades-long conflict, the longest in the Western hemisphere, is supposedly about to end. In essence, the Colombian conflict has seen opposition between three main actors: the various guerrilla groups, illegal armed actors historically guided by left-wing ideals about social justice and equality; the government, formally democratically elected but traditionally composed of right-wing conservative elites; and the paramilitaries, extreme right-wing illegal armed groups, which emerged with the objective of countering the guerrilla and had proven and scandalous ties with the previous president, Álvaro Uribe. While in its origins the conflict was mainly spurred by political drivers, throughout the decades it became more and more motivated by economic interests like narcotraffic, territorial control and natural resources exploitation. During his presidency, Uribe led peace negotiations with the paramilitaries which concluded with the group’s supposed demobilisation in 2005-6, although many of its members effectively reorganised in the new post-demobilisation groups that today operate with similar strategies. The current government guided by Juan Manuel Santos started peace dialogues with the main guerrilla group (FARC-EP) in 2012, which concluded in August 2016 with the public announcement of the final peace agreement. In a historic referendum on 2nd October 2016 Colombians expressed themselves against the agreement. But thanks also to the momentum given by the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to President Santos for his efforts in the peace process, at the time of writing it looks like the various political forces of Colombia are coming together to reach a new consensus on a modified version of the agreement.
Since I moved to Colombia to start my fieldwork, in August of the previous year, I have had the chance to witness several steps leading up to this historic achievement that will be remembered for years to come. Among these, first, the announcement of the future establishment of a truth commission, which will work towards constructing a comprehensive version of what happened in the conflict. Second, the agreement on justice, establishing an exceptional mechanism of attribution of responsibility for the crimes committed during the conflict, which foresees lower and alternative sentences for those who confess their crimes. Third, the agreement on the search for the disappeared, which establishes a new mechanism for identifying, exhuming and giving back to their families the remains of those who were disappeared and killed during the conflict. Fourth, the agreement on victims and transitional justice, which ties together the measures on justice, truth and reparations for victims in a comprehensive and interconnected system. Fifth, the announcement of a bilateral ceasefire agreement and of the process of demobilization and reintegration of FARC combatants. Optimistic news on the Colombian peace process is giving international readers a break from the dreadful situation in other parts of the world. And as transitional justice discussions permeate public debates in the country, politicians are proudly announcing the imminent start of a ‘post-conflict’ phase.
It was precisely this discourse that made me decide to focus on Colombia for my doctoral research. I was interested in understanding how children and adolescents who have been affected by violence experience the country’s ‘transition to peace’. Having diligently reviewed the legal framework and governmental policy documents, I left for Colombia convinced that I was set off to study the best-designed, most comprehensive and well thought-out transitional justice process that has ever existed. Twelve months in, the picture has changed quite a bit. Certainly, Colombia is implementing some historical firsts, like the massive reparations programme and the important construction of historical memory, both of which started operating when the signature of a peace agreement was nothing but a far-away hope. But this reality, which dominates the news and political debates, is only a partial one. During the past months, I witnessed the different story of many localities where violence is still ongoing.
Soon after arriving, it became clear to me that I could not possibly understand the Colombian ‘post-conflict’ scenario by sitting at my desk and reviewing, however thoroughly, the overwhelming amount of laws, agreements, and policy documents the country produces. Some say Colombia has the highest number of lawyers per inhabitant. This is certainly plausible if one looks at its beautifully crafted legislation, perfectly in line with international law, and permeated by the hopeful language of ‘peace’, ‘transition’ and ‘transformation’. After the first few weeks reviewing it, my activist side was full of hope, but my critical researcher side had lost it all. “There is nothing to criticise here, this law is perfect!” I used to tell myself. “This is transitional justice heaven.”
Seeing as I was not producing any particularly interesting data through deskwork, I decided, not without some hesitation, to get out into the “scary” field. With the help of local NGOs, I started visiting the neighbourhoods at the outskirts of big cities where the majority of the displaced population has resettled, as well as rural areas directly affected by the conflict. Through these visits, I realised that in many of these places violence is far from over. It may have changed its political name from ‘conflict’ to ‘urban delinquency’ – but to people on the ground it does not make much of a difference. When I asked locals about government measures like the massive reparations programme, they often were not aware. They would rather point out their everyday problems, revealing the dreadful picture of a conflict still alive.
One day, I was talking to a group of kids in an urban settlement around Cali.
“What are the main problems in your neighbourhood?” I asked.
“Drug addiction and lack of water,” one of them answered.
“Not much. Domestic violence.”
I had been previously told that the neighbourhood is under control of the post-demobilisation groups. But I was confused: why was no one in the group mentioning them? As if he was reading my mind, the NGO worker accompanying me called apart two of the kids: “Let’s go for a walk with Elena,” he said. As soon as we left the group, the kids started telling me powerful stories of threats, invisible frontiers, fear, and resilience. “You know,” they told me, “when outsiders come here, we always tell them the same story: drugs, water and domestic violence. We never talk about the real problems. Because even walls have ears here.”
In another occasion, I was visiting the rural town of Tutunendo in Chocó, arguably the poorest and most forgotten region of Colombia. I knew the area had a strong guerrilla presence, but I was reassured when I saw a police station right in the middle of town. This feeling, however, vanished when the NGO worker accompanying me explained: “Do you see these houses around the police station? They become ghost houses at night. People go to sleep somewhere else, because they are too afraid of guerrilla attacks. There was a big one just a couple of years ago. We have asked the police if they can move the station out of town, to keep civilians safe. But they do not listen.”
In yet another occasion, I was facilitating a theatre workshop with a group of children in the apparently quiet, almost-rural surroundings of Quibdó, Chocó’s capital city. I split them into groups and asked them to act out small scenes representing children’s daily reality in the neighbourhood. Although I had not mentioned any word like ‘violence’ or ‘conflict’, the scenes they acted out represented, respectively, an episode of execution of civilians by the armed actors; a scene of displacement of a family from their house; and a scene of armed violence between urban gangs. They acted them out between jokes and laughter. For them, all this was normal.
These, as well as the story of the ‘invisible frontiers’ with which I opened this piece, show that there is much to be discovered under the elegant coat of words of Colombia’s transitional legal and political rhetoric. These stories picture people who are afraid to talk, sleep in their houses and cross streets. They are stories placed in a paradoxical context, where those who should guarantee safety, the police, multiply the risk, while the feared armed actors are often those who maintain safety in the areas they control. These stories remain invisible if one limits oneself to desk research. But they are not invisible to the children and adolescents I talked to during these months. For them, this is the daily reality – the reality in which they become adults and learn how to behave. “We see this in the way our children interact,” a mother once told me. “They play violent games, speak in a loud voice, do not listen to each other. We are very worried.”
This is not the picture of a post-conflict scenario – or, if it is, it is a very hopeless one. It is a picture in which violence is not disappearing, but rather changing its face. It is a picture whose protagonists are the “children of the conflict”, as one informant called them. These kids have grown up in a context in which violence is the norm, and may well perpetuate it as the country transitions to a much-celebrated ‘peace’. This implies the risk of going down the road of Central American countries like Guatemala, which formally signed a ‘successful’ peace agreement in 1996, only to become one of the Latin American countries with the highest homicide rate today. Failing to recognise this risk is the biggest mistake Colombia can make at this stage. Recognising and acting to prevent it is an unmissable opportunity.
Over the past months of collecting these stories, I have also learnt that ‘the invisible’ does not automatically emerge just by stepping into the field. I am realising how hard the ‘obvious’ socio-legal exercise of moving beyond legal rhetoric actually is in practice. This is especially the case in a country like Colombia, fascinated by law on the one hand, and permeated by a deep lack of trust on the other. Through trial and error, I am developing techniques, strategies and methods to get to ‘the invisible’. Here are the three that have so far proven most effective.
First, good coffee is essential. What has helped me the most to become sensitive to some problematic aspects of Colombian legal and political rhetoric were chats with critical people like local academics and NGO workers. These people have known the context for long enough not to be tricked by its legal wonders. The best chats happen over coffee, though – they will never reveal certain things in their office.
Second, building good relationships with locally trusted gatekeepers is key. Several times, people have told me “I only tell you this because (s)he accompanies you.” This statement, of course, carries with it a high responsibility to handle information with great care. I always ask myself twice what I can and cannot disclose of the things I am told – a dilemma which often comes down to lowering data quality to protect my informants’ safety.
Third, it is crucial to go to the right places in the right way. The ‘right’ places are often places people think of as ‘dangerous’. But I am learning that danger and safety are more relative than what we think, and that instinct is often the best way to measure them. Over the past months, I have felt unsafe in the sunny square of a little and quiet town, just because my contact did not show up. And I have felt as safe as ever walking through one of Quibdó’s most ‘dangerous’ neighbourhoods at night, because I was with a highly respected person. As we entered the neighbourhood, one of the armed actors told her in a low tone: “You know nothing will happen to you here, because we know you do good.” Being told something like that in such a context is certainly a much better protection than a police car. All in all, safety is about learning from gatekeepers which words to use, how to behave and, quite literally, which steps to take in order to stay safe.
 Elena Butti is a DPhil candidate in Socio-Legal Studies at the Faculty of Law of the University of Oxford. Her doctoral research investigates the perspective of conflict-affected children in Colombia concerning the peace and transitional justice process ongoing in the country. She is currently undertaking long-term fieldwork in Colombia. Her research interests revolve around international crimes, transitional justice, victims’ and children’s rights, conflict studies, peacebuilding, and methods and ethics to conduct research with children and in high-risk settings. Prior to coming to Oxford, Elena studied at University College Utrecht and SciencesPo Paris. While in Colombia, she has also worked as an intern for the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). firstname.lastname@example.org.