Electing Displacement: Political Cleansing in Apartadó, Colombia

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Journal of Conflict Resolution 55(3), 423-445

This article highlights a nefarious effect of elections during civil wars by demonstrating that they can facilitate the displacement of civilians. In contrast to the perception of displacement as haphazard, the author argues that armed groups displace strategically when they attempt to gain control over a territory, and where they have information about civilians’ loyalties. Although inferring preferences is difficult in the context of civil wars, elections conducted before or during a violent conflict are one way that armed groups can identify local cleavages and ‘‘disloyal’’ residents. The author tests implications of the argument with original, microlevel quantitative and qualitative data from northwest Colombia. Using voter files and disaggregated electoral returns, the author shows that residents in urban neighborhoods that supported the insurgent-backed political party, the Patriotic Union (UP), were more likely to leave the city of Apartadó than were neighbors in other districts. However, residents of the nearby rural communities that supported the UP were the least likely to leave. The author traces the patterns of violence across the communities using local archival materials and interviews to assess how well the argument accounts for the variation observed, and to explore the unexpected outcome in the rural area. While the author finds that counterinsurgents attempted strategic displacement in both the city and the mountains, they only succeeded in the urban areas because residents of the rural hamlets were uniquely able to overcome the collective action problem that strategic displacement generates. The findings demonstrate that political identities are relevant for patterns of violence, and that cleansing occurs even in nonethnic civil wars.