Wednesday evening, attendees at the Ford School of Public Policy got an expert’s take on violence in Colombia and its government’s inability to keep the peace.

Alejandro Castillejo-Cuéllar, associate professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, stressed the need for leadership and new government strategies for understanding the country’s political conflict and its effect on Colombian communities.

Castillejo-Cuéllar emphasized both the potential and shortcomings of Colombia’s controversial 2005 Justice and Peace Law, which provides a path for former paramilitary antigovernment fighters to reintegrate into mainstream society.

Right wing paramilitary groups are said to be responsible for a significant amount of this violence, and while the Justice and Peace Law attempts to quantify the disruption and violence within communities, Castillejo-Cuéllar emphasized Colombia’s need for a strategy that is more sensitive to the individuals and communities at the heart of these conflicts. He described current methods as the “surgical extraction of testimony.”

“There exist some forms of violence that are not perceived as such,” Castillejo-Cuéllar said. “We require institutional procedures as well as direct testimonies in order to fully understand, but what happens when testimonials cannot be easily classified? Extended narratives are not investigated, officials speak in Spanish, not local languages, and we see a domestication of testimonies.”

Through anecdotal stories and personal experience, Castillejo-Cuéllar described the varying kinds of violence and poverty Colombians experience. He implored policy makers and researchers to use methods of analysis that include an understanding of individuals and the histories of their communities in a way that does not disregard the past.

To rectify what Castillejo-Cuéllar said he considers the shortcomings of the Peace and Justice Law, he wants to redesign these short and uninvolved methods of data collection so that they better reflect the experiences of Colombians.

“Imagine a different kind of investigation that includes these kinds of conceptions of harm and violence in a different way,” he said. “There is a need for historical clarification.”

Following the lecture, Castillejo-Cuéllar offered a Q&A session with students and attendees. Some of these queries pertained to his take on entering and interacting with communities like those in Colombia, as well as his opinion on the prospects for peace in Colombia. He said with new methods of research and policy-making, Colombia has an opportunity to move forward, though its past is still key in determining its future.

“When I say I am from Colombia, everyone knows this means political conflict and drug wars and all of this,” he said. “That term, ‘political conflict,’ is now somehow engraved in our identity.”

While at this point Castillejo-Cuéllar remains somewhat pessimistic about a peaceful future for Colombia, there remains some hope for his country. The Justice and Peace Law and other policies may give Colombians a sense of false security, of only aesthetic change. Castillejo-Cuéllar hopes to bring this history of violence and the victims of this violence to the forefront of policy-making moving forward.

“I think we still lack the political leadership to move the process even further forward. We lack the leadership of someone like Nelson Mandela,” he said. “You live, in my experience, there and you have this sense of everything is cool, everything is fine and moving forward, but you have this sense that underneath there is something wrong, a war going on.”

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