Puente on Idler, 'Borderland Battles: Violence, Crime, and Governance at the Edges of Colombia's War'

Annette Idler. Borderland Battles: Violence, Crime, and Governance at the Edges of Colombia's War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Tables, figures, maps. 496 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-084915-3; $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-084914-6.

Reviewed by Javier Puente (Smith College)
Published on H-Borderlands (January, 2020)
Commissioned by Maria de los Angeles Picone (Boston College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53841

Despite recent valuable peace efforts, the endurance of the Colombian conflict—largely the result of the prevalence of a sabotaging Uribista agenda—continues to spur a multidisciplinary conversation about the origins, characteristics, dynamics, and consequences of decades (if not more than a century) of sociopolitical violence. Among the topics that receive most scholarly attention, the internal geopolitics of the Colombian territory stands out as one of the primary matters of inquiry. As many seasoned and unseasoned observers have contended, there is an internal spatial arrangement of the Colombian state and civil society that seems to both reflect and continue to nourish conflict developments. Throughout the center of its territory, placed in Andean plateaus and valleys, an archipelago of core cities with Bogotá at the center is home to the backbone of the institutional strength of the state and civil society. Beyond the margins, along isolated coastal areas and in vast lowlands, guerrilla groups, paramilitary organizations, and drug cartels challenge the hegemony of the state and dispute fundamental principles of power, authority, and sovereignty.

Annette Idler’s Borderland Battles provides an intriguing combination of political science analysis and ethnographic research, merging multisite participative observation and theoretically informed models of sociopolitical governance, and mobilizing an impressive deal of documental, archival, statistical, and oral information. Focusing on the Ecuadorian-Colombian and Colombian-Venezuelan borderlands—Esmeraldas and Sucumbíos in Ecuador; Zulia, Táchira, and Apure in Venezuela; and Nariño, Putumayo, La Guajira, Cesar, Norte de Santander, and Arauca in Colombia—Idler builds on a long-standing traditional view of the internal geopolitics of Colombia to offer a detailed account of “state” and “non-state” governance in “peripheral” areas. In the first few pages, most readers will be confronted with two foundational claims: on the one hand, both state and non-state legitimacies alike rely on the provision of security for those who live under their jurisdictions; on the other hand, borderlands are ideal areas for exploring the reach, extent, and intertwinement of state and non-state actors and the everyday senses of security and insecurity. Both major topics, and a number of the questions contained within, should be of enough interest for any scholar interested in Colombia, violence, borders, and conflict-driven geopolitics. Unfortunately, the book is riddled with disciplinary jargon and other editorial flaws that make it a lot less accessible for unseasoned readers.

Borderland Battles walks readers through the different elements of these two larger claims. The first chapter addresses the question of “non-state orders,” putting forward a tripartite model of arrangements that lead to a cluster of irregular governance (pp. 37-39). In explaining the “lens” capacity of borders, the second chapter outlines how these areas “magnify challenges of violence, crime, and governance,” allowing observers to have a better grasp of the state and non-state capacities of security procurement (p. 66). The middle chapters—4, 5, and 6—present the bulk of the ethnographic research, dealing with questions of everyday experiences of violence, crime, and state and non-state governance. Chapter 7 returns to a modeling endeavor, describing the “border effect” as facilitator, deterrent, magnet, and disguise of violence, distrust, and social control (p. 252). Chapter 8 inserts the Colombian case, and potentially other Andean cases, in a larger global landscape of porous borderlines and transnational processes of security provision and enduring endangerments. The epilogue recounts the challenges of researching conflictive borderlands. At times, however, this is done without fully unpacking such terms as “subcontractual relationships” (chapter 5) or the Hobbesian notion of omnium contra omnes. Still, the best passages of Borderland Battles do convey many compelling arguments. Important for readers of H-Borderlands, Idler’s emphasis on power clashes in regions often considered as marginal or peripheral for understanding the renewed and limited centralizing capacities of the Colombian state, and others elsewhere in the world, may inform a parallel transdisciplinary reevaluation of past and present borders and frontiers. Similarly, the prevalence of non-state orders in such regions may lead to further holistic reevaluations of statehood beyond institutionalist appraisals.

While no contribution should be judged on the basis of what remains unaddressed, there is an important absence, a shortcoming, and a silence worth mentioning in Idler’s narrative of the Colombian conflict. In this otherwise fine-grained recount of the Colombian conflict, the environmental component of state governance, non-state disputes and challenges, and borderland social suffering is almost completely absent. Many of the Ecuadorian, Colombian, and Venezuelan borderland provinces Idler studies are also home to manifold environmental conflicts that intersect and underscore sociopolitical violence. In an equally rich human account of everyday experiences of violence, there is limited centrality of questions of race and ethnicity embedded in conflict dynamics. Having conducted an in-depth ethnography of regions crucial for understanding how the Colombian conflict is also, primarily, an indigenous and racial conflict, and having interviewed several indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, it is surprising to see race and ethnicity limited to minor references and a handful of endnotes. Finally, given the almost microscopic detail provided in describing everyday experiences of feeling violence in the borders, it is baffling to read another genderless chronicle of human conflict. In particular, some readers might be concerned with Idler’s scarce treatment of women as mere objects of the conflict, whether as subjects for kidnappers and human smugglers, prostitutes in Putumayo brothels, or passive victims of men’s violence.

Idler’s intellectual contribution is undisputable. Borderland Battles should be commended for the vast amount of material and the multidisciplinary strategies pursued in amassing a vivid image of borderland regions and, despite the label, their centrality for understanding core dynamics and developments. Idler’s personal experience of vulnerability as a researcher further attests to the magnitude of this achievement. Despite an entangled prose, scholars of Latin American conflicts, frontiers, borders, state formation, and sociopolitical violence will find enough captivating passages and data for making Borderland Battles more than a worthwhile read. Some historians of the Colombian conflict might be disappointed with the less-than-occasional references to their own contributions, given the recent revival of violence and peace studies both in the United States and in Colombia. While undergraduate students might feel troubled reading this book in whole, given the heavy disciplinary prose, graduate classrooms could potentially benefit from a thorough dissection of Borderland Battles as an important scholarly achievement tarnished by editorial issues.

Citation: Javier Puente. Review of Idler, Annette, Borderland Battles: Violence, Crime, and Governance at the Edges of Colombia's War. H-Borderlands, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53841

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.