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Conflict, state and decentralisation: from social progress to an armed dispute for local control, 1974-2002

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Our objective is to determine the variables that explain the armed activity of irregular groups since the mid-1970s and to establish the possible causes of their expansion up to 2002, especially in terms of decentralisation (understood as the increased political, budgetary and administrative autonomy of local government). Over the past 30 years, Colombia has experienced profound changes at an economic, social and institutional level. Not only has the process of urbanisation been consolidated at the same time as the participation of agriculture in GDP has fallen, but the process of decentralisation has accelerated since the mid-1980s. We believe that decentralisation turned the conflict into a dispute for local power. This is manifested in the use of violence to gain control of public goods and services, to influence political and electoral results of interest to the irregular groups, and to consolidate local-level territorial control. The analysis of early guerrilla activity (1974-1982) shows socio-economic factors (poverty, inequality) to be the greatest variables. However, from the mid-1980s guerrilla activity is linked to the process of decentralisation, which created incentives for irregular groups to consolidate local power bases via the use of violence. The State’s weakness in the monopoly of force and the administration of justice facilitated the guerrilla groups’ expansion and the intensification of their armed activities, as well as those of the illegal ‘self-defence groups’. The statistical and econometric results reveal a strong connection between the intensification of armed activities and local governments’ greater political independence and fiscal strength. This study used new historical data on the conflict, and new municipal economic, fiscal, social and political information. New IEPRI municipal information on the activities and actions of the different guerrilla groups (FARC, ELN, M-19) from 1974 to 1982 was used, as were municipal databases – belonging to the Social Foundation, the National Planning Department and the President’s Office – on the actions and attacks of guerrilla, ‘self-defence’ and criminal groups between 1985 and 2002.

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