On January 18-19, 2017, the IPEV kick-off gathered 100 IPEV members, researchers and practicioners in Paris for the first time. During the 2 days of conferences, meetings and debates, the members met up with their working groups and started collaborating.

Find out more about the speech of Yvon Le Bot, member of IPEV steering committee

Violence: how to exit it? What we can learn from Latin America.


Latin America is seen as a continent of violence, which often takes extreme forms. It is also a region which, in recent decades, offers numerous cases of exiting violence through peace negotiations, democratic transitions, social and cultural movements, as well as processes of remembrance.

It is an abundant field, from which we shall try to extract some issues and themes useful in providing transversal analyses and, if possible, an overall perspective.

What I am offering here is not an exhaustive survey, still less a polished study.

It is merely an outline, with a few entries and topics, which have in common the approach adopted by the actors and certain guiding rationales.

Here are the “entries” (which happen to be “exits”):

  • Exiting violence by violent means
  • Exiting violence by institutional/politico-judicial means
  • Exiting violence via social movements
  • By means of cultural production
  • And lastly, the issue –that permeates all the others – of memory, History and forgetting.

A preliminary question. Metamorphosing forms of violence. Does exiting armed conflicts merely usher in other forms of violence?

From the outside, Latin America is still often perceived to be a continent of guerilla groups and dictatorships with their attendant histories of bloody repression, and sometimes of State terrorism. With a few rare exceptions, these groups and regimes have died out over the past quarter century. However, the traces and effects of the violence of the period stretching from the 60s to the 90s are still plain to be seen, and the wounds have not all healed. This is particularly true in the case of the countries that experienced “wars against society”, such as the war in Peru conducted on the one hand by the State, and by Shining Path on the other; or the genocide committed in Guatemala by the army and paramilitaries.

Furthermore, the disappearance of the guerilla groups and the dictatorships did not bring an end to violence. In certain Central American countries (Guatemala, El Salvador) the homicide rate is higher today than at the time of internal armed conflicts.

Revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence have given way to forms of violence that combine, to different degrees, political and organised crime components. In Colombia, the change began in the 1980s in the midst of the armed conflict, which is one of the reasons it has lasted until now.

In most of the region, we have entered a period characterised by close ties between organised crime, global finance and generalised political corruption. In the new forms of violence, State power is no longer the main issue. The main driver is control of drug and other forms of trafficking (including migrants), as well as flows of money. Competition is between organised crime, corrupt (and corrupting) political and economic organisations. Organised crime operates as past of transnational networks and it is poisoning the social fabric, as well as the economic and political system –  Mexican cartels, maras (gangs of ultra-violent adolescents) in Central America, and various criminal organisations in Brazil.

Prisons massacres, like the one that recently took place in Manaus and those that happen on a regular basis in Central America (Honduras in particular) fall into this category.

Latin America/Middle East: similarities and differences

The forms of extreme violence that are now seen (or have been seen) in the region can indirectly help us to understand those that are taking place in the Near and Middle East, Africa, as well as other parts of the world.

Several authors (among them, Olivier Roy) have pointed to commonalities and similarities in the areas of recruitment, operational methods and terror strategies. Like the Mexican cartels, Daesh, Boko Haram and AQMI combine paroxysmic and exhibitionist violence with trafficking of all sorts.

That said, the question of radicalisation and deradicalisation as it is treated in studies of jihadism does not appear applicable to the Latin American experience.

Between revolutionary violence and today’s terrorism – between Guevarism, for instance, and jihadism – there is a fundamental difference, clearly highlighted by Baudrillard in his text on September 2001: revolutionary violence, he explained, was aimed at transforming the world, “the energy that drives terror […] is aimed at radicalising it through sacrifice”.

The terror of the drug traffickers has yet another rationale: it is neither aimed at transforming, nor at radicalising; and it is not driven by the idea of sacrifice. And exiting mafia-type political violence involves a different approach, one which is more complicated and unreliable than that used in exiting the armed conflicts of the previous period. But negotiations are not impossible, and they sometimes take place in the open, although more often in secret; in Colombia with Pablo Escobar, and above all with the Cali cartel, in Central America with the maras, and in Mexico with certain cartels and against other.

The typology I am now intend to lay out refers in the main to violent situations which are predominantly political.

For purposes of analysis, I have identified four types. In reality, they are more often than not intertwined.


First type. The institutional exit. The politico-diplomatico-judicial route.

This is the most classic form of exit, the area that has been best explored; the one in that has been most studied.

a – The question at the centre of all peace processes, all peacemaking and peacekeeping operations (or almost all) is the following: how can we move from armed action to political action?

Over the past few decades in Latin America, certain armed conflicts have ended in the defeat – sometimes even the crushing – of one of the parties involved, without negotiation. In general, these were defeats of guerilla groups: Guevara in Bolivia, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, the Montoneros in Argentina, Shining Path in Peru, etc. etc. There are only two cases of a ruling power being defeated, and these also happened without negotiation: Cuba and Nicaragua.

The region also provides many examples of negotiated peace processes: in Colombia since the 80s up until the recent peace agreement with the FARC. In Central America during the 80s and 90s: Nicaragua, Salvador, Guatemala, but also Chiapas in Mexico.

There is general agreement that in Latin America the move from armed conflicts to politics has been successful overall. In one of the cases mentioned above does there does appear to have been a relapse.

In the view of certain analysts, this is because, unlike in other areas of the globe, the conflicts were political ones devoid of cultural, religious, ethnic or racial roots or underpinnings.

However, even when applied only to Latin America, this explanation, which is broadly useful, deserves to be nuanced:

  • Colombia, for instance, provides cases that confirm it (peace agreement with M19 and other guerilla groups in 1990-91), but also an important example that contradicts it, at least during a certain period:  The first agreement with the FARC in the 80s were undone by a wave of killings, which rekindled the armed struggle.
  • Furthermore, cultural, religious, ethnic and racial factors were very much at play in the war in Guatemala, and even lent it genocidal overtones.

And here is another observation. In highly divided societies, those in which the divisions have been heightened and embittered by conflict, the peace processes conducted from above, by institutional actors, politicians, the army, guerilla leaders and professional negotiators run the risk of being repudiated by a majority or a large proportion of the population.

The victory of the “no” vote in the 2 October 2016 referendum in Colombia was neither unprecedented nor all that surprising. Something similar occurred in Guatemala in the 1999 referendum on the 1996 peace agreement, and this had much to do with the very disappointing turn taken by that country in the post-conflict period.

b) There are a number of issues directly related to peace processes that are going to be vitally important to our work, but which, due to a lack of time, I am going to merely list:

First of all, there is the issue known as DDR: demobilisation, disarmament, reintegration.

These are questions that are of special concern to experts, international organisations and NGOs… They always have serious political, social and cultural ramifications and consequences.

Another area in which Latin America and Africa have commonalities is that of transitional justice. Humberto de la Calle, head of the Colombian government’s delegation during negotiations with the FARC has stated that this was the most thorny, difficult and hardest to negotiate point of all those on the table in Havana.

We should also mention trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity, which over the past few years have mainly dealt with the Balkans and Africa, although there are also examples in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Guatemala, etc.

Among institutional actors in peace processes, one category falls directly into the purview of our panel, i.e. international and transnational actors: State groups, United Nations organisations, international tribunals, churches, NGOs, etc. – experts of various types and with different institutional affiliations.

Finally, the highly elastic notion of post-conflict has already been mentioned. As long as we can agree on what the term refers to, it could become a field in its own right, given the fact that exiting violence can be a long, drawn-out process – extending one, two, or even three decades beyond the end of conflict.

In this connection, the following sentence uttered by an ex-guerilla from El Salvador is often quoted in Latin America: “Ganamos la paz, pero perdimos el pos-conflicto”. I suggest replacing it with the following, which seems to me more appropriate and a better fit in the majority of cases: “We have exited war, but we have not built the peace”.


Second type. Exiting violence through social conflict, through the action of social actors.

Armed conflicts are not the extension of social conflicts. They are instead the result of the impossibility of social conflicts or of their breakdown, and violence destroys social movements.

Can people emerge from violence or avoid it through social or cultural action?

In this area, Latin America offers up a variety of examples, which might be categorised according to whether they pre-dated, post-dated, or were contemporary with periods of violence.

a) Movements that openly claim to be committed to non-violence are rare, if not unheard of, in the region.

On the other hand, there are many cases of concrete collective action to prevent, avoid, evade and circumvent violence.

The best examples are the indigenous movements, which have sought to not accept the rationale of armed struggle, and have often succeeded in not doing so.

b) A second set includes mobilisations within civil society aimed at opposing, resisting, restraining, halting cycles of violence, or at sheltering from them.

A striking example: the massive mobilisation in Mexico City in 1994 calling for an end to hostilities after the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. It was a major factor in the halting of repression and in redirecting the energies of the armed insurrection into a social movement.

c) The cases in Latin American where armed conflict was followed by the re-emergence of social conflicts shows just how difficult this process is.

Where extreme violence and terror have been unleashed, social movements have a very hard time re-emerging. Scorched earth policies have had long-lasting effects. Guatemala and Peru are the best (or rather the worst) examples.

Sometimes it takes one, two, or even several generations for new conflicts and new social actors to emerge.

This was what happened in the “Chilean spring” of 2011-2012.

Chile is a good illustration of what is a recurring alternative or dilemma: between political transition and social conflict.

For the proponents of an exclusively political exit, the rebirth of social conflicts threatens to endanger the democratic transition and to precipitate a relapse into violence.

A significant swathe of the leadership classes and of Chilean society has absorbed the Pinochet narrative, which holds that the coup d’état was a response to the movements of the Allende period, and that the price for maintaining democracy and social peace is the containment, and even the repression, of social movements.

Laws and decrees promulgated under the dictatorship have thus been used during the democratic period against social actors, the Mapuche Indians for instance. It was against this state of affairs and the rationale underpinning it that Chilean youth rose up in 2011-2012.

Third type. Exiting violence through cultural activity.

Social approaches to exiting violence often involve cultural production. These two dimensions are intertwined. But there are also cases where cultural production is relatively separate from social action, or outweighs it. These are movements better described as cultural due to the people involved, their means of expression and the works they produce, etc.

A few days ago, Andrea Grieder presented her work in Rwanda, a processing of genocide trauma through poetry: workshops and performances putting to use the cathartic and sublimating possibilities of poetic creation – finding words to say the unspeakable and to try to keep horror at bay.

Conversely, after the assassination of his son and some of his friends, the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia took the decision to give up poetry and to devote himself to action, to the struggle against the spiral of violence in Mexico through the “Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity”.

However, in Mexico, like in Chile and Colombia, cultural production is also an active part of the struggle against violence and against forgetting.


Processes of remembrance.

There is one issue that deserves special attention: that of memory, History and forgetting, to echo the title of a book by Paul Ricœur.

All the types and forms of exiting violence are traversed and permeated by this theme.

But particular attention should be paid to those cases that specifically place processes of remembrance at their centre.

  • Truth and reconciliation processes, centres of historical memory, of which there are many in Africa (the most well known being in South Africa) and South America: Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia.
  • Museums of memory, which are more random in their approach (Chile, Peru, as well as one which is planned in Colombia).
  • The trials for crimes against humanity already mentioned. They are also worthy of our attention since, as Sophie Daviaud has stated, one of their principal objectives is to make a narrative out of individual memories, and to produce a collective memory of violence.
  • The exhumation of mass graves. Valérie Robin and Anne-Marie Losonczy have just devoted a book to this phenomenon in Latin America and Spain. “The goals of these exhumations, they write, are threefold: to give back dignity to the dead, to comfort their families and to allow national reconciliation”.

I cannot conclude without saying a few words about the movements for the disappeared, for memory, against forgetting, which are particularly important in Latin America.

Movements and organisations of this type emerged in countries that have experienced dictatorships and guerilla groups, as well as in those affected by mafia-type political violence, i.e. in pretty much all of the countries in the region.

Women play a central role in these movements.

Everyone has heard of the associations of mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires.

Associations of victims or relatives of victims, often independent, sometimes linked to NGOs or to churches began to be established in the wake the Pinochet coup d’état in September 1973, and have continued down to the movements for the disappeared of Ayotzinapa, students who were victims of the massacre that took place in September 2014 in the state of Guerrero in Mexico; and along the way, there have been others in Peru, Colombia, and Central America.

The very notions of “disappeared”, “desaparecidos”, “detained-disappeared”, “enforced disappearances”, when not actually invented, were at the very least developed and refined in the context of these struggles (in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay), in partnership with NGOs (like Amnesty International), legal scholars and international bodies.

A question.

This text is a rough outline, so it does not really require a conclusion.

I will limit myself to a single observation, which is in fact a question that is between the lines throughout my presentation.

Exiting violence means exiting victimhood, going from having the status of a victim to having that of an actor. How is it possible to become an actor when one is faced with extreme forms of violence, and with forces that destroy all possibilities for action, the foundations of social life, and the idea of humanity itself?