Peacebuilding from the Grassroots: Equity Conciliation and Conflict Transformation in Colombia

March 8, 2006
This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

"María Lucía, tu crees que esto vale la pena? A veces me cuestiono..."
- Héctor Vargas Vacca
Ministry of Internal Affairs and Justice

In his extensive work in conflict transformation, John Paul Lederach proposes a set of lenses and frameworks to understand intractable conflict, with the purpose of working towards the construction of sustainable peace. In his book, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, he points out the importance of cultural traditions as primary resources for building peace.[1]

Community justice in Colombia is an interesting cultural resource for conflict transformation that can contribute to long-term peacebuilding. According to Edgar Ardila from the National University in Bogotá, "community justice" can be defined as those initiatives and mechanisms for the administration of justice based on the traditions and customs of a specific community.[2] There are different manifestations of community justice in Colombia. Some of the most important are equity conciliation (Conciliacion en Equidad), peace justice (Justicia de Paz), and indigenous jurisdiction (Jurisdiccion Indigena). Although there are differences among them, they share the following characteristics: They have constitutional and legal recognition[3]; traditions, customs and common sense[4] are at the core of the mechanisms. Especially in the case of equity conciliators and judges of the peace, they are people from the community who volunteer their time. They do not need to have a specific professional legal background. Finally, the agreements they facilitate have the same legal standing as the decision of a judge.

For Colombian scholars, jurists[5] and especially social activists[6], community justice is not only a mechanism to solve immediate conflicts but it is a mean towards the democratization of justice, the empowerment of civil society and building sustainable peace. In this context, community justice can be an invaluable resource in long term efforts towards conflict transformation.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze those elements of equity conciliation that can contribute to the transformation of conflict in Colombia towards a sustainable peace. I will highlight the capacity that community justice has to deal with interpersonal, communal and political conflicts and how this has the potential to change cultural patterns related to conflict. Finally, I will argue that for building peace, bottom-up initiatives can provide solid platforms for dealing with immediate crisis and at the same time can have long-lasting effects on peacebuilding efforts.

The paper is based on my experience with community justice processes in Colombia since 1994. The interviews presented below were collected during research I conducted for the International Development Research Center (IDRC), based in Canada. Finally, the focus of this paper is on equity conciliation because it is the most developed mechanism of community mediation. It is also the area in which I have participated more actively during my professional career.

Equity Conciliation and Its Contribution to Peacebuilding

General framework

Equity conciliation is a mechanism of community justice whereby an impartial third party, called the equity conciliator, helps his or her neighbors to solve their daily life conflicts. In this endeavor, the conciliator uses his or her knowledge of the community and its traditions. Equity conciliation has similarities with what in North America is understood as community mediation, with the important difference that the former is legally binding.[7] Currently there are 2,424 conciliators in 177 municipalities in Colombia.[8]

The mechanism has been well received by communities and institutions. For communities, it is an important tool that recognizes common practices rooted in Colombian culture. In addition, it has empowered them to actively participate in handling their own issues and in decision-making processes within their communities. In addition, institutions such as the judiciary have found these mechanisms useful to support their work, especially in those places where it is difficult for them to go for security reasons.

After 15 years of implementation, I believe that equity conciliation has the potential to change cultural patterns of conflict, mainly because of its integral vision, the types of cases conciliators have been shown to manage effectively and the procedures that have been implemented through its use. In what follows I will explore in some depth those elements.

Integral Vision

Although in its origins, equity conciliation was created as a tool to reduce the caseload of judicial offices, jurists, NGOs and conciliators developed the notion that equity conciliation had the potential to contribute to the strengthening of democracy and civil society.

The Constitutional Court, the highest court in Colombia for constitutional issues, has highlighted that equity conciliation plays an important role for democracy. In decision C-893, 2001, the court stated that equity conciliation, among other conflict resolution mechanisms, is an important participatory tool that enables civil society to actively engage in social and political processes. It points out that equity conciliation enhances democracy because it prevents conflict, strengthens the justice system, and allows people to actively participate in the solution of their own conflicts.[9] Several national and local authorities, such as Ministry of Internal Affairs and Justice and the mayor's office of Bogotá, among others, endorse this position.

This vision is also shared by most grassroots organizations. They see equity conciliation as a small part of a bigger project where community organization is essential for a long-term plan towards a culture of peace. Joselín Aranda Cano, director of a campesino NGO called El Común[10] says:

"What we want with the conciliation [program] is that they [the conciliators] find out that they can help to solve conflicts through a mechanism that is recognized in the law. But that is just a small part. The most important aspect of the community justice is the change in attitudes and behavior towards a culture of peace. However, this change is not an isolated change, it is a group change, a community change. This mechanism [equity conciliation] allows them to have a better understanding of their reality and their context. It helps them to have a more equitable life, more social and more egalitarian. But I must insist that [community] organization is essential, because if we talk about organization, that has to do with a community vision, and when we have a community vision we have community justice[11].

"We've been using equity conciliation not as a simple mechanism to solve conflicts. It goes beyond that. We can't start from zero because we have important experience from community leaders who represent different organizations; there are not solitary leaders."[12]

In this context, El Común has a policy of integrating community justice elements into other programs related with community organization and development.

Equity conciliators also have embraced this vision. They see themselves not only as conflict managers, but as active players in shaping a culture of peace for Colombia. Blanca Cañas, equity conciliator from El Común, says:

"I have a hope, I have a dream, and I hope I am not wrong. I believe that this process [equity conciliation] will generate a cultural change from the roots. When people start to solve their problems with different lenses and they start that dialogue as a way to solve conflicts, I think that domestic violence would diminish. I think that if there is an option for building peace in this country it is through this process. Maybe I won't see it, perhaps my children won't either, but probably my grandchildren or great-grand children. I embrace this hope, to start to strengthen a culture of harmonious coexistence."[13]

The fact that in Colombia, different actors from different levels of leadership embrace an integral vision of equity conciliation has important advantages. It allows them to have constant feedback and to better coordinate activities at the micro and macro levels. Thus, the Ministry and other authorities can receive input from the grassroots for more realistic long-term public policies, while at the micro level conciliators can receive technical assistance from the national and local authorities. In addition, and following Lederach's Integrated Framework for Peacebuilding[14], this common vision can guarantee that any action in the short term, for example a specific conciliation between two neighbors, relates to a long-term plan, such as the reduction of violence in that specific community.

Conflicts and Procedures

The types of conflicts that conciliators manage and the procedures they follow are perhaps the most important contribution that equity conciliation can make to peacebuilding.

Equity conciliation was designed to deal with "small" conflicts such as contracts, family issues and community problems that the judicial system did not want to or did not have time to address. Colombian law restricts the types of cases that conciliators can work on. However, on numerous occasions, conciliators have had to address political conflicts related to the armed conflict. This situation has created an intense debate between the conciliators and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Justice. However, conciliators feel that they have a stronger commitment to their communities than to the Ministry, which, they believe, has little understanding of the reality they are facing. Joselín Aranda explains the initial debate El Común had with the Ministry:

"When we met the Ministry delegation we had an interesting debate because many leaders were solving conflicts that went beyond the law. They were solving life and death conflicts. It is impossible to go before a judge when you have to walk 10 to 12 hours to the closest one. That is the reality. Everybody here understands that. The Ministry didn't accept that the conciliator could advise conflicts within the context of the armed conflict. Through conciliation they saved a lot of lives. They exposed their own lives. Some of the conflicts started because somebody stole an animal and they [the guerrilla] came to administer justice to him. But the community and the conciliators got together and faced them [the guerrilla] and they reached some agreements where the thief had to change."[15]

The absence of proper authorities in many regions in Colombia is a reality. As a consequence, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries fill the institutional gap. They solve different kinds of conflicts, from interpersonal to communal; they marry people and punish offenders, sometimes violently. In this context, the role of the conciliator became essential. They not only have the legitimacy of the community, but also the support of the state. Roberto Camacho, Peace justice from Piedecuesta Santander, describes the situation in his municipality where the guerrillas have a strong influence. He believes that equity conciliation and peace justice have the potential to balance the influence of the guerrillas. He states:

"...Today, the guerrillas come and solve one of your problems. You are pleased and invite them for lunch... Later, they come back saying, 'Brother, we don't have anything to eat,' and they take one of your piglets away... And, if unfortunately the other side in the conflict [paramilitaries] find out what you are doing...they come after you, and you have to leave your home and you lose everything. It is better if we do things like people [in a civilized way]."

In this same vein, Jaime Jaramillo, one of the most prolific equity conciliators in Colombia since he began in 1996, points out the potential of equity conciliation for solving conflicts within the context of the intractable war:

"Anyway, the situation of violence that the country is facing is critical. The state has to understand that we, as community leaders, can intervene and solve those conflicts, where the public servant can not...because of fear..."[16]

Although equity conciliators see themselves as impartial, the context drags them into the political conflict. The relationship with the main actors in the conflict has not been easy. Indeed, on several occasions conciliators have faced threats that forced them to leave their towns. Camacho illustrates the difficulties in dealing with the guerrillas and paramilitaries:

"At the beginning there were a lot of disagreements with those groups [the guerrilla and paramilitaries]. One side said that we were supporters of Uribe's government; and the other claimed the opposite; that we were guerrilla spies. We had to talk with both of them as well as with the community to clarify the information? the community also supported us? they mediated on our behalf, they supported us. At the third meeting, 20 people came from the rural areas to support us. Finally the guerrillas said, 'We know you represent the people. We know you are not in favor or against the state but in favor of the are another authority'. This has been positive for the municipality. There had been several attempts to attack the town and we have had enough time to handle the situation."[17]

Conciliators from other parts of the country also support Camacho's idea that conciliation has the potential to prevent the escalation of conflict. Moreover, in some regions they believe that an organized community can successfully replace authorities in tackling criminality. Jaime Benavides, a community leader from the city of Cartagena and a newly appointed equity conciliator states:

"Initially, criminal bands ruled my community. There were robberies at any time. But, as we were creating norms the situation got better. Currently, we have security zones, frentes de seguridad, and we have monitoring systems. We haven't created a paramilitary group, no! We have monitoring groups of volunteers who want to protect the neighborhood. The weapons they have are a whistle and a phone. Currently, the community has the control. The government has not fulfilled its promises to the community. So, if the municipality comes to impose something, the community will reject it. But if they [the local authorities] look for the way to contact the leaders, people will accept. People do not believe in the government and its authorities."[18]

From a different perspective, Jorge Daza, former Mayor of the municipality of La Paz in Santander, states the importance of equity conciliation in the strengthening of local institutions. He sees equity conciliators not as a replacement for the state, but as a strategic partner.

"If I had had conciliators when I was a mayor! On Thursdays campesinos came to town to attend the local market...and I had to fix marriages and to solve labor and criminal issues. So, I had to call the people and tell them, 'Do this, do that.' Some ended up happy, some didn't... If conciliators had existed! 'You go to the conciliator and whatever he says.' So, I could focus on my job..."[19]

Finally, other conciliators believe that their job within the Colombian context should be more preventive. They think that it is important to work with youth and children to teach them to solve their conflicts in a peaceful way. This insight is important considering that almost all of the conciliators interviewed during the IDRC research stated that domestic violence is increasing very fast.

Don Guillermo Ardila, a campesino leader and conciliator from San Gil, states:

"More than having an office and waiting for people to come to solve their conflicts[20] is important to educate children and youth; as well as adults, but little by little, so they can change their old mindset for a new one. If we don't educate the children, all of our work is lost. We say, 'Why should we worry if we live in peace?' We don't have conflicts, the guerrillas don't come after us. But we don't see that domestic violence might be at the root of other types of violence. We can change that by educating children and by helping the parents in changing their behavior at home.

"This is long-term work and it is our priority. If, for example, I plant a sapling and I don't take care of it, it will twist and will go to the ground...but if I take care of it, I will have a big and strong tree that will produce what it is supposed to produce. I think that this association can be also applied to people."[21]

In light of the escalation of conflict to the point where violence seems to rule all social dynamics in Colombia, it is refreshing to find mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. The experience in Colombia has shown the importance of community support. Without it, it is very difficult for the conciliators to overcome the pressures they face when dealing with violence of whatever kind. It seems that there is mutual feedback between the conciliators and the community. The conciliators find support and validation in the community whereas the community finds in the conciliator a person and a space to vent their frustration and solve their conflicts. In the long term, this mechanism has the potential to change the language of violence to a more constructive pattern for solving conflicts.

The procedures implemented by equity conciliators are another significant element that can play an important role in the transformation of conflicts. It would de impossible to describe each of those procedures in this paper because every conciliator in Colombia has his own style for facilitating conflicts. Some of them use their knowledge of the community and its traditions; others prefer to use "common sense" or even their own understanding of the law.[22] In general, they try to invite the parties to meet face to face. Others prefer to do long preparation with each of the parties, separately, to create confianza before a meeting. Still other conciliators serve as shuttle mediators, taking messages from one party to the other.

Context is another important factor that shapes the conciliator's style. Those conciliators from the capital cities such as Bogotá, Medellín and Bucaramanga are similar to public servants. They receive hundreds of petitions and don't have enough time, so the process is very impersonal and straight forward. In contrast, conciliators from the rural areas spend a lot of time creating confianza.

Regardless of the style, it is important to highlight the educative potential of the mechanism. Equity conciliation can teach us, Colombians, that dialogue is possible. Although this may seem obvious in other parts of the world, those parts may not be fractured by conflict. For this reason, I would like to share a little story that can illustrate the point. In 2001, I was assisting as a translator in a mediation session in Toronto, Canada. The conflict was between a Colombian couple and a Jamaican woman. They were neighbors, and they had a severe argument on the street. The police arrived and sent them to community mediation. The mediation was intense, mainly because each party blamed the other. The mediators were very skillful in helping the parties to see each other's points of view. At one point, the Jamaican woman stood up, offered her hand to the Colombian woman and apologized. The Colombians looked at her as if she were a Martian arrived from outer space. They did not know what to do. They accepted the apology but did not return it. They did not think they had to. The mediator had to ask them for an apology. They did not really apologize but mumbled some explanation in self defense.

This experience was a revealing moment for me. I could see the power of dialogue in mediation but also how poorly equipped we as Colombians are for dialogue. In this sense, I believe that space generated by the conciliation is like a school, not only to help us to resolve a specific conflict but also to teach us that there are options besides violence to deal with conflict.

After 50 years of intractable violence in Colombia, the challenge for conciliators is enormous. They not only have to face physical violence but also overcome the skepticism of a society whose mindset privileges force over dialogue. I believe that if the mechanism has survived for 15 years, it is because of the creativity of the conciliators and the risks they have taken. As Lederach mentions, "Violence is known; peace is the mystery. By its very nature, therefore, peacebuilding requires a journey guided by the imagination of the risk."[23]


Despite the potential of equity conciliation, it also has several challenges to overcome. First of all, it does not have enough support from the state. This is a common feature of many social projects in Colombia. At the beginning, there is a lot of enthusiasm and funding. After a while, the government changes its priorities, and the project is forgotten. In this context, some of the most successful processes start to decay until they finally disappear. However, the case of the conciliators of Puerto Salgar, Cundinamarca is interesting. They did not receive a visit or even a call from the Ministry of Justice for 10 years. After this time, an employee went to town to supervise them and found out that they were working very hard with excellent results in the community. This is really an exceptional case in Colombia; usually the initiative disappears.

Even though the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Justice has a department of professionals to supervise equity conciliation and other conflict resolution mechanisms, they do not have the resources for careful support.

Violence is a significant challenge. Some of the conciliators have been killed; others had been displaced. In addition, the main actors in the conflict want to influence their decisions because they see the power that the conciliators can have.

The type of training and support they receive is another obstacle that is eroding the mechanism. Unfortunately, Colombians have not yet designed proper training in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Most of the training materials follow North American models that do not reflect Colombian contexts and cultural traditions. Moreover, some conciliators reject their previous experience because "it is not like the model we learned."

The profile of the conciliator rise important questions. Conciliators do not come from the vacuum. They are also coming from a context marked by violence. It would be na‹ve to assume that their methods and approaches are perfect, but at least they see the need for change and are taking the steps towards it.

Finally, although many conciliators are committed to their communities, some of them use the position for future personal benefits. This de-legitimates the mechanisms in the eyes of the community.[24]

These challenges show that the endeavor to implement equity conciliation in Colombia takes more than the good will of a few volunteers. It requires the constant support of the state, committed NGOs and strong social organizations. Equity conciliation has the potential to support initiatives for long-lasting peace. However, for it to succeed, it has to be in accordance with other projects and programs.


Equity Conciliation is a community justice mechanism created to manage daily conflicts in Colombian communities. Although it has limited influence, Colombian scholars, jurists and conciliators have developed a notion that goes beyond conflict resolution. They see the mechanism as a means towards the democratization of justice, the empowerment of civil society and the building of sustainable peace.

This paper argued that equity conciliation is a mechanism with the potential to change cultural patterns of conflict. Its integral vision, the types of cases conciliators have been shown to manage effectively and the procedures that have been implemented through its use are some of the elements that support this assertion.

Although it has a lot of challenges to overcome, this experience can provide the necessary platform that can feed and support additional peace initiatives. Peace in Colombia requires a lot of ingenuity and risks. Equity conciliators will not be the most important actors in whole the process. However, they can be a school that in the long term not only will solve conflicts but will educate future generations in peaceful coexistence.


An answer to Mr. Héctor Vargas, from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Justice would be: "Yes, this is worthwhile. It is not easy and it won't be; but at this moment, it is one of the only tools that we have to start with."

[1] John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, ed. United States Institute for Peace, 1st ed. (Washington: 1997).

[2] Edgar Ardila, Justicia Comunitaria En Equidad Y Restauración: Elementos Para Estudiar La Experiencia Colombiana ed. To be published (Bogotá: 2006).

[3] Article 116. Nacional Constitution "Los particulares pueden ser investidos transitoriamente de la función de administrar justicia en la condición de conciliadores o en la de árbitros habilitados por las partes para proferir fallos en derecho o en equidad, en los términos que determine la ley".

[4] For equity conciliators and judges of the peace, common sense is what they consider to be fair, according to their context and their communities.

[5] The Constitutional Court has developed numerous statements where it points out the importance of equity conciliation.

[6] A number of NGOs gather on the Network for Community Justice (Red de Justicia Comunitaria) are the main supporters of this opinion. For more information, see

[7] For more information about the legal framework about equity conciliation in Colombia, see

[8] Cristina Eneyda Ramos, Mario Cordoba Ordoñez, and Héctor Vargas Vaca, "Informe Del Compenente De Justicia En Equidad," (Bogotá Ministerio del Interior y de Justicia, 2005).

[9] Corte-Constitucional.Sala-Plena, "Sentencia C-893 De 2001," Constitutional Court (Bogotá: 2001).

[10] El Común is a community NGO that gathers 35 campesino organizations from the department of Santander. Its main mission is the development of rural communities through the implementation of organizational processes. One of their working areas is the implementation of community justice for the development of a culture of peace. They base their work in the respect of human rights, conciliation, community justice and the use of alternative dispute resolution tools.

[11] Interview with Joselín Aranda Cano. Director of El Común. 2004.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Interview with Blanca Cañas. Equity conciliator from San Gil. 2004.

[14] Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies.

[15] Interview Joselín Aranda Cano. 2004.

[16] Interview Jaime Jaramillo. Cartagena 2004.

[17] Interview with Roberto Camacho. Piedecuesta, Santander 2004.

[18] Interview with Jaime Benavides. Community leader. Cartagena 2004

[19] Interview with Jorge Daza. San Gil 2004.

[20] I found this comment very interesting because Don Guillermo is a very humble and poor campesino. Although he hardly knows how to read and write, he is the kind of person that one can consider wise. He has a clear understanding of the conflicts that surround him and has long-term proposals to tackle them.

[21] Interview with Don Guillermo Ardila. 2004.

[22] There has been an increase interest among equity conciliators and peace justice in studying law.

[23] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, ed. Oxford University Press, 1st ed. (New York: 2005).

[24] Interview with Jorge Daza. 2004.


Ardila, Edgar. Justicia Comunitaria En Equidad Y Restauración: Elementos Para Estudiar La Experiencia Colombiana Edited by To be published. Bogotá, 2006.

Corte-Constitucional.Sala-Plena. "Sentencia C-893 De 2001." Bogotá, 2001.

Lederach, John Paul. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Edited by United States Institute for Peace. 1st ed. Washington, 1997.

Lederach, John Paul. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Edited by Oxford University Press. 1st ed. New York, 2005.

Ramos, Cristina Eneyda, Mario Cordoba Ordoñez, and Héctor Vargas Vaca. "Informe Del Compenente De Justicia En Equidad." 22. Bogot&accute; Ministerio del Interior y de Justicia, 2005.


Joselín Aranda Cano. San Gil, Santander 2004.

Blana Cañas San Gil, Santander 2004.

Roberto Camacho. Piedecuesta, Santander 2004.

Guillermo Ardila. San Gil, Santander 2004.

Jorge Daza San Gil, Santander 2004.