Protecting Civilians in Civil War: The institution of the ATCC in Colombia

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Journal of Peace Research 50(3), 351–367

Can local organizations give civilians the capacity to protect themselves from civil war violence? Civilians have traditionally been considered powerless when facing armed groups but new research suggests organized communities may promote security through nonviolent strategies such as resolving disputes between neighbors and managing relations with macro-armed actors. This article analyzes whether and how these ‘mechanisms’ designed to retain community autonomy functioned in the community-case of the Peasant Worker Association of the Carare River (ATCC) in Colombia. The Carare civilians developed a local institutional process to investigate threats against suspected armed group collaborators to clarify the ‘fog of war’ and reform civilian preferences to participate in the conflict. This process is evaluated in reference to existing hypotheses about violence in civil wars such as the balance of territorial control using qualitative evidence from original field research. A unique within-case database created through focus group sessions with community ‘conciliators’ is used to analyze not only acts of violence, but also threats that were defused. Despite the prevalence of conditions that would predict persistent violence against civilians, the local institution itself proved to be a critical factor for both explaining and limiting levels of violence. The results suggest civilian choices and their consequences did not merely result from the capabilities or choices of armed actors.