Violence, Legitimacy, and Capture: Paramilitarism and the State in Caldas, Colombia 1994-2016


What is paramilitarism? They are often referred to as mercenaries, death squads, vigilantes and warlords, but paramilitaries encompass a variety of categories used to describe the activities of individuals who, despite their origins, ideological orientation and degree of coercive activity, are linked to the State. More than a general category, “paramilitarism is a system in which a State has relations with irregular armed organizations that exercise violence” (Ungor, 2020: 7). While the dictionary definition of paramilitarism is broad enough to encompass a variety of violent groups across the political spectrum, a more technical explanation tells us that paramilitary groups are not gangsters, 'mafiosi', militias, vigilantes or simple armies. private entities that carry out their own adjudication of criminal offenses. Unlike left-wing radicals who fight for social reforms or revolutions, “paramilitary groups can be conceptualized as a type of contentious politics that uses violence to protect the established order rather than overthrow it” (Mazzei, 2009:5). Paramilitaries have traditionally been associated with conservative ideology in a variety of expressions ranging from fascism, anti-communism, nationalism, right-wing libertarianism and ethno-cultural supremacist movements as seen in American paramilitary groups such as the Proud Boys and three-percenters. Historically, elites, governments and the private sector have relied on the deployment of paramilitary violence as a strategy to expand or maintain social, political and economic power. In other words, paramilitarism has been a state policy in many countries of the global south such as Uganda, Guatemala, Pakistan, Serbia, Thailand, and evidently in Colombia, where the definition, functions and structure of paramilitarism acquires unique characteristics.

Diego Aristizábal
Publication date: 
November 1, 2023
Publication type: 
Student Research