Militias at the margins: implications for post-war stabilisation

Armed militias are endemic features of many contested frontier regions, whether it’s turf wars in the informal settlements of Rio de Janeiro, the control of poppy fields in the steep uplands of Shan State in Myanmar, or self-defence units currently mobilizing against Russian forces in the Ukrainian war.

States turn to militias in places and moments where they cannot (or are unwilling to) govern directly. Militias are often ‘stood up’ or mobilized by state actors as a short-term measure to deal with urgent security imperatives – but in addressing one set of problems, they often create new ones which leave baleful legacies that are difficult to handle.

There is a growing awareness amongst policy makers in the security sector that Security Sector Reform (SSR) and Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) programmes need to engage politically with informal and semi-formal security actors like militias. If they do not, policies can fail to capture local, short-term outcomes (e.g., inter-militia conflict or human rights violations, as seen in the Colombian conflict) or misjudge long-term impacts (e.g., the extent of political influence of armed militias, as seen in Libya).

What role do militias play?

Our studies – of state–militia power and governance in the borderlands of Afghanistan (Koelher, Bhatia and Mosakhel, 2022), urban militias in Brazil (Pope 2022), ethnonationalist militias in Myanmar (Meehan, forthcoming), and pro-government paramilitaries (understood as ‘militias’) in Colombia (Gutiérrez Sanín 2019) – show that militias can become permanent, political features of post-war frontiers, central to how national-level states and markets function in these zones.

We also show that although militias may create short-term stability in a particular region or moment, if not managed well, they may create long-term instabilities or more violence, with unproductive, irreversible consequences for states and markets.

We understand militias as ‘coercive brokers’– actors who have access to the means of violence; a symbiotic relationship with the state; and points of connection between national and local, centre and periphery, and state and society (Gutiérrez Sanín 2019). Rather than being part of a transitional phase in state-building, they may become an enduring feature of post-war landscapes. In spite of popular representations of militias as self-serving, free-floating and predatory actors, our studies provide a more complex picture of militiamen with political ambitions and agency, and with roots in local society and a degree of domestic support from marginalised populations or those traumatised by war.

Our research also reveals that state elites share power with militias, not only to stabilise and reduce conflict, but also because militias can shape the economic marketplace, by controlling and directing illicit activities and flows – something that state actors find difficult to do, at least directly. Whilst this often involves a great deal of violence and growing inequalities, militia involvement in illicit markets may also have developmental outcomes by generating local revenues in lieu of state-funded welfare and resources.

Managing militias

Current policy options towards militias in post-war periods tend to overlook these complex dynamics in contested regions and during moments of rupture as they work towards an ideal that formal institutions should be the only source of governance. This has led to two key strategies for managing militias.

First, formal state security apparatuses understand militias as transient and temporary. They assume militias will fragment or wither away when financing or strategic direction from the state is withdrawn (e.g., state-sponsored militias), or when states no longer tolerate them (e.g., community self-defence militias).

Second, policy makers propose integration of militias into state institutions by promising them benefits, such as impunity and salaries. In theory, a successful integration strategy would mean that states benefit from militia authority in marginal regions, at the same time as strengthening the state’s armoury.

But militias rarely give up political support or their ability to make more money than they would earn on state salaries, and they rarely fragment without resistance (e.g., Ba‘thist Iraq, Voller 2021). Integration also has its problems. When states do attempt it (e.g., South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo, Strachan 2018) they lose legitimacy from segments of populations who see them legitimising human rights abuses.

Reflections for security policymakers

Our research points towards at least three reflections for security policymakers:

1. Militias are political actors

The types of stakeholder mapping typically conducted by policymakers – through a ‘state lens’ – may not fully capture the political nature of militias and there is a risk that policies and interventions – such as withdrawing finance – will generate more violence and conflict. Political economy analysis can map militia power in more nuanced ways.It can reveal from where militias generate their money, who of the population supports them and why, and what influence they have at different levels of politics.

2. Militias are not transitional phenomena

Rather than being temporary features of war, militias tend to persist throughout and beyond war-to-peace transitions. State-led security policies that reconceptualise state–militia relations, and which help states ‘learn to live’ with militias, can simultaneously bring them out of their shadowy, illicit worlds and stimulate more accountable militia practices with less violent outcomes. This may also have the effect of making visible their relationships with political and business elites, and improving accountability.

3. Integrate borderland perspectives into policy-making processes

Whilst domestic security policymakers in capital cities may aspire to establish national-level benefits when designing policy to ‘deal with’ militias, policies that do not incorporate evidence and insights from the regions where militias govern may have unintended consequences. Inputs from multi-stakeholder consultations with intended beneficiaries may strengthen policies by pre-empting unintended policy impacts and outcomes.


Gutiérrez Sanín, F.G. (2019) Clientelistic Warfare: Paramilitaries and the state in Colombia (1982-2007). Peter Lang.

Koelher, J., Bhatia, J. and Mosakhel, G.R. (2022) ‘Modes of governance and the everyday lives of illicit drug producers in Afghanistan’, Third World Quarterly

Meehan, P. (forthcoming) ‘Brokered rule: Militias, drugs, and borderland governance in the Myanmar-China borderlands’, Journal of Contemporary Asia

Pope, N. (2022) ‘Militias going rogue: social dilemmas and coercive brokerage in Rio de Janeiro’s urban frontier’, Journal of International Development, 1-17.

Strachan, A.L. (2018) Integrating militias. K4D Helpdesk Report. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies

Voller, Y. (2021) ‘Militias as a tool for encouraging ethnic defection: Evidence from Iraq and Sudan’, Terrorism and Political Violence, pp.1-18.

Drugs & (dis)order Policy Lab: An experiment in sustained critical engagement between researchers and policymakers

The Drugs & (dis)order research has generated a robust evidence base on illicit drug economies and their relationship with development and war-to-peace transitions in nine borderland regions. The ambition of its policy engagement activities has been to encourage and support policies for war-to-peace transitions that address the specific challenges of countries and borderlands with illicit drug economies, as well as to showcase and share the evidence generated by the project’s research with those involved in making and implementing policy.

The idea of a ‘policy lab’ was articulated in the initial design of the project as an ongoing conversation between programme researchers and invited policy stakeholders, taking place periodically through the lifetime of the programme, devoted to policy and programme design and experimentation.

This paper outlines how we adapted, iterated and implemented the original idea in two cycles of the policy lab in February and October 2021. It also gives an overview and flavour of the conversations about drugs, development and peacebuilding policy that took place, constructed from recordings of open sessions, and notes from closed sessions. It concludes with some reflections and lessons from the process.

Crop substitution challenges in environmentally protected areas in Colombia

María Alejandra Vélez and María Juliana Rubiano-Lizarazo

In 2020, 48% of illicit crops in Colombia were in special management zones (SMZ) or areas that are important for forest and biodiversity conservation: 20% in forest reserves, 4% in national protected areas, 8% in indigenous reserves or resguardos, and 15.5% in Afro-Colombian collective lands (UNODC, 2021).  Although academic literature has shown that coca crops are not the main direct driver of deforestation in Colombia (Erasso & Vélez, 2020; Brombacher, Garzón & Vélez, 2021), coca crops are expanding in strategic environmental and conservation areas. This is problematic for illicit crop substitution efforts. Yet the design and implementation of the government’s National Illicit Crops Substitution Programme (PNIS) has given little consideration to a differential approach, in ethnic or environmental terms.

PNIS implementation started in 2017, as part of the Peace Agreement between the Colombian State and former guerrilla FARC, but it was not until 2019-2020 that there were guidelines for implementation in national protected areas and forest reserves. These guidelines include recommendations on voluntary and collective conservation or restoration agreements; conservation incentives such as bi-monthly remuneration for agreed restoration and conservation activities; sustainable production systems; and technical assistance for capacity building.

The government has also recently developed guidelines to include ethnic communities in the programme, but these are subject to prior consultation and have not yet been implemented with former programme beneficiaries. As illustrated by our case studies in Putumayo and Guaviare, new guidelines incrementally increased mistrust and conflict as the PNIS did not consider or solve land-use overlap conflicts or land tenure disputes between communities with different ethnic backgrounds before agreements were signed.

Currently, 20% of PNIS households are in SMZ – in national protected areas or forest reserves (7.2%) and Afro-collective territories or indigenous reserves (13.6%). However, in the latter case, these are not necessarily ethnic households, which creates tensions between communities. Beyond environmental concerns, PNIS households are also poor: 56% of households in national protected areas and forest reserves, 51.1% in Afro-collective territories, and 53.4% in indigenous reserves live in multidimensional poverty. Hence, government interventions and PNIS need to consider not only environmental dimensions, but should also include productive alternatives designed to simultaneously conserve sensitive ecosystems and improve quality of life.

To explore these issues, we are studying the challenges of implementing the PNIS in indigenous or forest reserve areas in Putumayo and Guaviare in the south of Colombia (see Map 1), using social cartography workshops and semi-structured interviews.

Map 1. Putumayo and Guaviare – the sites of the research case studies

From this work we have identified three main challenges for the implementation of crop substitution programmes in SMZs.

Challenge #1: Mestizo peasant coca growers living inside indigenous reserves were suspended from PNIS without warning

In some cases, peasants signed crop substitution agreements, eradicated coca crops and received immediate food security payments, but before receiving the subsidy to implement a productive project, they were suspended from the PNIS because their plots of land were located within an indigenous reserve (see maps 2 and 3). In other cases, local indigenous authorities didn’t allow peasants living on their collective land to become involved with the programme. In either case, to remain in the programme and receive benefits, peasants had to rent a plot of land outside the indigenous reserve. Despite the costs of this (an average rent amounts to approximately 40% of a minimum wage) some peasants rented new land, but even so, never received their payments for productive projects.

PNIS did not solve (or plan to solve) old land conflicts and tensions before signing crop substitution agreements, exacerbating both mistrust of the Colombian government and land use conflicts. In some cases, peasants claim that the delimitation of indigenous reserves and forest reserves did not consider the presence of diverse communities and land uses. In other cases, peasants do not recognize the presence of indigenous people in legally constituted indigenous reserves.

Map 2. Social cartography map. Guaviare from mestizo peasants’ perspectives

Map 3. Social cartography map. Putumayo from mestizo peasants’ perspectives

Challenge # 2:  Unexpected requirements to remain in the programme for peasants living inside Forest Reserves

Years after peasants signed voluntary agreements to become involved with the PNIS, new requirements to solve land use overlaps with conservation areas were developed.  For example, mestizo peasants living in forest reserves, are now required to comply with nature conservation agreements and sign land use rights. However, peasants found this unexpected change in the rules to be unacceptable, claiming that official delimitations of the forest reserve area are not clear (See map 2). With current regulations, peasants in Type A forest reserves (areas with restricted productive uses) must replace their usual activity of cattle ranching with conservation activities, while those living in Type B Forest reserves (areas with more flexible uses) must engage in agro-sustainable cattle ranching. In any other case, peasants need to rent land outside these protected areas. Current regulations also forbid the construction of roads and infrastructure development within forest reserve areas. According to the peasants, in these conditions, cattle ranching is one of the few economic alternatives to coca since no other productive activity is economically profitable with the current roads.

Challenge #3: Differential ethnic approach

Some ethnic communities enrolled in the PNIS have not received any of the benefits due to the absence of a differential ethnic approach. This is the case of Nukak indigenous groups in Guaviare. Forced into new sedentary livelihoods due to displacement by armed conflict and territorial disputes, they have adopted coca harvesting as their main livelihood activity. The implementation of PNIS with a differential approach requires prior consultation with indigenous communities, but it is unclear at what level this prior consultation should occur: settlement, ethnic group or ethnic associations. Other important obstacles – including language barriers, and varying political and social organization within each ethnic group – lead to many unanswered questions. Should substitution agreements be developed collectively or individually? How should technical assistance or productive projects be developed? For example, for Nasa communities in Putumayo, productive projects should be aligned with their own productive calendar and with organic and local seeds, and technical assistance must be provided by trained members of their community.

Future crop substitution programmes in SMZs

These challenges highlight the lack of a structural and comprehensive approach in the design of the PNIS. The initial focus was to eradicate coca and substitute it with another product but without solving underlying land use tensions.

The current substitution programme needs to recover the trust of former beneficiaries by implementing all the promised components. Further, environmental requirements need to be socialized with local communities.  In Putumayo and Guaviare, for example, conservation activities are not embedded in the culture of peasant coca growers. In their case, they signed voluntary agreements thinking that they would receive support for cattle ranching. As one peasant put it: “if we grow coca, it’s bad, and now if we work in cattle ranching, that is bad too.  What are we supposed to do?” The PNIS needs to provide effective technical assistance to shift preferences for more sustainable activities, while also allowing peasants access to new markets. This implies better institutional coordination with other government organizations in the environmental and agricultural sector to implement programmes in each area, and to develop sustainable alternatives for peasants and ethnic communities. Alternative development programmes need to clarify land property rights and solve land use conflicts as a first step, before signing substitution agreements with communities. The requirements for each SMZ should be designed and socialized at the beginning of the programmes. Otherwise, new interventions can bring more tensions, rather than provide tailor-made solutions for each specific context.


Brombacher, D., Garzón, J.C., & Vélez, M.A. (2021). Introduction Special Issue: Environmental Impacts of Illicit Economies. Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, 3(1).

Erasso, C. & Vélez, M.A. (2020). ¿Los cultivos de coca causan deforestación en Colombia? Documento Temático #5. Centro de Estudios sobre Seguridad y Drogas (CESED).

Resolución 056 de 2020. [Dirección de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito]. Por medio de la cual se adopta un documento técnico de soporte para el “desarrollo de los componentes de procesos de sustitución voluntaria de cultivos ilícitos y desarrollo alternativo de hogares beneficiarios que estén ubicados en áreas ambientalmente estratégicas o de importancia ecológica”. October 26, 2020.


We thank Lucas Marin and Juan José Quintero for their help in the implementation of the workshops and conducting interviews; and VisoMutop, especially Pedro Arenas, for support on developing the field work of this project.

Credits to Juan José Quintero for all the maps in this blog.

Colombian state reactions to peace: The legacies of the narcoguerrilla-narcoterrorist discourses

For years, the Colombian state maintained its position about how guerrillas’ involvement with drug trafficking made them lose their political and/or ideological nature. Political and military sectors supported this approach and used the term narco-guerrilla or narco-terrorists. The peace process initiated in 2012 seemed to alter this narrative.

This article analyses how Colombia’s peace process had a contradictory effect on the ‘narco-terrorist’ characterization of the FARC-EP: it opened windows of opportunity both for more peace-prone discourses, and for an even more virulent version of the criminalisation of the guerrillas.

‘Everything peasants do is illegal’: Colombian coca growers’ everyday experiences of law enforcement and its impacts on state legitimacy

Published in Third World Quarterly

By Camilo Acero and Frances Thomson

For decades, Colombian governments have imposed a narrative linking illegal crops with statelessness and presenting ‘more state’ and specifically ‘more law enforcement’ as the solution to a swathe of problems in drug-producing regions.

We draw on coca growers’ own accounts of law enforcement to critique this narrative. Their accounts – specifically from Putumayo in Colombia’s Amazonian frontier – refer to persecution for many of the things they do in their everyday lives, not just those directly related to the coca economy. Their livelihoods are constantly under threat from state forces as a result of counternarcotics operations but also due to the imposition of (phyto)sanitary and environmental norms. This generates resentment towards the state, undermining its efforts to establish authority in these territories.

Thus, building on coca farmers’ accounts, we argue that state weakness in drug-producing areas is a problem of quality and not only quantity. Improving quality means transforming the way lawmakers and enforcers relate to rural citizens. If the Colombian state continues to wage war against the peasantry, it will hardly achieve effective governance of the coca frontier.

‘Erradicamos la coca, ¿y ahora qué?’ La sustitución desde las voces de los usuarios del PNIS en Tumaco

Este año, el país conmemora los cinco años de la firma del Acuerdo de Paz entre el estado colombiano y las FARC. Son casi cinco años también los que llevan esperando las familias inscritas al PNIS (el programa de sustitución derivado del Acuerdo de Paz) a que el Estado les cumpla lo que les prometió luego de que arrancaran voluntariamente sus matas de coca. Este sistemático incumplimiento ha sido retratado ya en diversos informes, incluidos algunos reportes del Observatorio de Tierras ( PNIS en TerrenoErradicación una política que mata).

Con este especial, queremos ir más allá de los datos y cifras del incumplimiento, que por supuesto son necesarios para el debate público y político sobre la paz (ver reciente informe del Observatorio del PNIS), y resaltar la experiencia personal de las y los “sustituidos”, aquellas personas que creyeron en la paz, que dejaron sus cultivos ilícitos y que hoy en día padecen el incumplimiento del Estado. Narrar estas historias tiene varios propósitos. En primer lugar, denunciar la falta de compromiso del estado frente al PNIS. En sus relatos, las personas reclaman que “han sido engañados por el estado”. En segundo lugar, evidenciar los costos del incumplimiento. La precaria implementación del PNIS ha reanudado la desconfianza de estas familias hacia el estado. Por último, y contradictoriamente, estas historias nos muestran la voluntad y el compromiso con la sustitución que siguen teniendo las familias inscritas al PNIS. Los y las protagonistas de nuestras historias anhelan un futuro lejos de los cultivos ilícitos, tienen una voluntad real de salir de la economía ilegal siempre y cuando el estado ofrezca alternativas efectivas y sustentables.

‘La Paz con hambre y bala está muy difícil.’ Informe de seguimiento a la implementación del PNIS

En este informe hacemos una evaluación a la implementación del Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de cultivos de uso ilícito (PNIS). Para ello, presentamos los resultados de la encuesta aplicada a usuarios del PNIS en el año 2019 y 2021. A partir de las percepciones de los usuarios, de la información recolectada en salidas de campo y en entrevistas realizadas por el equipo del Observatorio de Tierras a líderes de distintos territorios, planteamos en el reporte el sistemático incumplimiento a los compromisos del Acuerdo Final de Paz respecto de la sustitución voluntaria y concertada.

Resaltamos seis planteamientos que dan cuentan de este escenario de incumplimientos:

  1. El PNIS no ha sido la estrategia priorizada para enfrentar los cultivos ilícitos según los compromisos del Acuerdo.
  2. Los incumplimientos han reducido sustancialmente los ingresos de las familias inscritas.
  3. El programa ha generado prácticas excluyentes con el retiro injustificado de las familias inscritas al PNIS y la falta de cobertura.
  4. La sustitución ha puesto en riesgo a los líderes sociales.
  5. Los retrasos en la Reforma Rural Integral afectan negativamente la implementación del PNIS.
  6. El PNIS es un programa desfinanciado.

De la mano de este reporte creamos un especial web titulado Erradicamos la coca, ¿y ahora qué?’ La sustitución desde las voces de los usuarios del PNIS en Tumaco donde retratamos 4 historias de usuarios que se inscribieron al PNIS desde las voces de los mismos.