The Legacies of Armed Conflict on Lasting Peace and Development in Latin America

It has been widely documented that the relationship between armed conflict and development is circular. On the one hand, conflicts have been more frequent in less developed countries. On the other hand, in the course of conflict, conditions favorable to development tend to deteriorate, causing new conflicts to emerge and old ones to linger (Collier, and others, 2003;1 Gates, and others, 2014). Even when armed conflicts end, by military or negotiated means, the legacies of violent confrontation remain. These legacies include the atrophy of crucial social institutions, weak democratic regimes, corrupt practices in the distribution of natural resources, the ongoing circulation of weapons and the transformation or proliferation of crime. In sum, conflicts have lasting negative impacts on society.

At the same time, the peacebuilding record is not as bleak as suggested by this vicious cycle. Some countries do emerge from conflict and political instability. In fact, the number of armed conflicts at the global level is actually decreasing (Marshall and Cole, 2014; Pinker, 2011). Against the odds, some countries have managed to build imperfect, yet durable peace (i.e., the absence of armed conflict) in contexts of still faulty development. Therefore, it seems that we should attempt to better understand those cases that have neither overcome violence in their societies, despite having ceased armed conflict, nor solved pressing structural social and economic issues, yet have nonetheless managed to avoid a relapse into armed conflict.

Latin America is suited particularly well to analysing the tense relationship between armed conflict and development and the challenges this poses for lasting peace. Once marked by several active armed conflicts and civil wars in countries such as Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Peru, the region is currently on the brink of witnessing the end of the oldest and last remaining armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere. As a result of successful peace talks in Colombia, chances run high that, by the end of 2016, Latin America will be free from armed conflict for the first time in over 55 years.

The effects of armed conflict on social and political institutions, as well as many ongoing development challenges, are, however, widely visible across the region. Despite improvements in gross national income per capita, life expectancy, education, poverty rates, the size of the middle class, and economic growth (World Bank, 2015), Latin America is still one of the most unequal regions in the world. In addition, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the region has had the highest homicide rates for several years at the global level (UNODC, 2013). Organized crime is widespread. Not surprisingly, security dominates Latin American citizens' concerns. Linked to the widespread perception of insecurity, and despite the traumatic experience of many countries with authoritarian governments, Latin American citizens today distrust the efficacy of democratic regimes to solve basic problems, while authoritarian values—such as low political tolerance—are on the rise compared to 10 years ago (Carlin, Love, and Singer, 2014).

Notably, countries that have been affected by armed conflict are among those in which (in)security ranks highest among public concerns, reports of victimization are most frequent (Hinton and Montalvo, 2014), and economic perspectives are worse (Singer, Carlin, and Love, 2014). According to World Bank data, and as compared to the region's average, per capita gross domestic product is lower in these countries (World Bank, 2015). Central America—plagued by different forms of armed conflict and political violence in the 1970s and 1980s—is currently the most violent region in the world. Organized crime has turned countries such as Guatemala into a hub for the trade and distribution of illicit drugs, with the active involvement of former military personnel. El Salvador, which ended its armed conflict in 1992, witnessed an increase in homicides in the aftermath of that confrontation. Gangs and illicit drugs wreak havoc in urban areas. In Colombia, armed conflict thrived on the trade of cocaine as well as on other illicit economies (such as oil and illegal gold mining). Despite the imminent demobilization of the country's main leftist guerrilla group, Colombia faces the prospect of the perpetuation and transformation of some forms of violence due to the ongoing lure of lucrative war economies in a context of enduring state fragility. Disenfranchised youth provide a steady supply of young people willing to enlist in criminal organizations. The convoluted and conflictive nature of many social disputes, such as over the roles and rights of extractive industries, the organization and structure of modern agriculture, and the provision of health and education services, suggests that a focus on armed conflict has postponed the discussion and solution of many important development issues in these countries.

Armed conflict in these Latin American countries certainly did not cause most of these problems. In fact, social violence, insecurity and pending development are not exclusive to former conflict countries. However, years of armed conflict appear to have exacerbated these conditions as a result of inflated military budgets which diverted much needed resources from tasks such as improving health care and education; to have reduced democratic accountability in contexts in which counter-insurgent discourse prevailed and tended to "justify" swift executive action and negligent governance in relation to non-conflict-related issues, on behalf of anxious populations which often tolerated or even justified authoritarian excesses. In this sense, the legacy of armed conflict has contributed to chronic institutional weakness and unbalanced government budgets, creating a climate in which crime could flourish, civilian justice fails to take hold, and democracy does not enjoy the legitimacy it does in other countries. Clearly, the era of guerrilla insurgencies has passed; however, the conditions for ongoing violence and social and political unrest remain.

At the same time, most of these countries do not appear to be in imminent danger of relapse into armed conflict. Radical groups with a focus on overthrowing legitimate Governments have by and large demobilized and are no longer posing credible threats to the security of citizens and States. None has powerful external partners which, as in other moments of history, might have shouldered the political and economic costs of rebellion. Challenges posed by criminal gangs and drug-related mafias are of a different nature and point in the direction of an unfinished and highly complex task of delivering on the promise of development and increased state capacity.

The experience of Latin American conflict countries illustrates well the difficult relationship between peacebuilding and development. Scholarly and practitioner literature tends to endorse the need for separate agendas in order to avoid overloading peace with expectations of profound social transformations. However, with time, neat limits become increasingly difficult to uphold. Specifically, the cases discussed here point to the need to identify those intersections between peace and development that will help these previously conflict­torn countries make further progress on both fronts in order to reduce the gap between them and some of their more prosperous and socially and politically stable Latin American neighbours.

The interdependence between peace and development was acknowledged in the recently adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which states that "there can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development". As a result, Sustainable Development Goal 16 aims to "pro­ mote peaceful and inclusive societies". The experience of Latin America described here, which illustrates the challenges of societies struggling with overcoming the legacies of armed conflict on development, underscores the relevance of this goal. 


1 The authors refer to this phenomenon as the "conflict trap".


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