A peasant farmer shows Tate photo evidence of legal crops allegedly destroyed by fumigation in a program said to target illegal poppy fields.
A peasant farmer shows Tate photo evidence of legal crops allegedly destroyed by fumigation in a program said to target illegal poppy fields.
Photo by Winifred Tate

Where some people look for easy answers, anthropologist Winifred Tate sees complex questions. And in Colombia, complexities abound.

 

For more than 20 years, Tate, an assistant professor at Colby, has traveled to Colombia, first as a human rights researcher and advocate and now as an anthropologist. “I go and hang out with women,” she said, smiling before adding the less facile answer: that she works with women’s associations, using women’s oral histories to assemble and then consider Colombia’s often tragic story.

Tate studies the ways women there have responded to violence and displacement, guerrillas and paramilitaries, drug trafficking and corruption.

Doesn’t it sometimes seem a hopeless situation?

“That,” Tate gently admonished, “is a very American question.”

“I can’t deny the tremendously hideous things that they’ve lived through, the ongoing struggles that they have, and the poverty,” she said. “But at the same time they’re fabulous women. They’re really funny. They have a great time together. They’re raising pigs for food; they’re raising their children. They’re going to work and doing all the things that people do in their daily life.”

Colombia offers ample opportunity to think about how people struggle in morally complex and violent situations. “How,” Tate asked, “do people mobilize politically in these tremendously complicated places?”

A flyer distributed in Puerto Caicedo Putumayo threatening residents with death.
A flyer distributed in Puerto Caicedo Putumayo threatening residents with death.

She has been mulling questions like that since 1989, when she interned with a Jesuit human rights organization—at the height of the violence wrought by the Medellin and Cali drug cartels.

 

She has returned to do field studies many times since, most recently last summer. Her scrutiny has revealed human rights violations, the far-reaching effects of U.S. drug policy in Colombia, and ways the illegal drug trade and related violence have shaped the country
and culture.

But why women? “Because they are the ones who are left,” Tate said, after men leave home to join the fray.

Her fieldwork, including work with a women’s group formed by 2007 Oak Fellow Nancy Sanchez, has taken her from southern Colombia, with its pervasive guerrilla presence, to the northern part of the country, controlled by drug traffickers and their paramilitary fighters. It’s a bit of a tightrope. In the south, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) would see an American anthropologist as a valuable kidnap target. In the north, some might suspect she was an American drug agent. “You could stumble on something,” Tate said, “be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Does that worry her? 

“I’ve been doing it for a long time, so it becomes part of the parameters through which I think about my research,” she said.

Two years ago Tate spent six months in Colombia with her husband and two children, then 2 and 6. Last summer she left her family at home. After activists were killed, she was warned about venturing too far afield. She pulled back to a city, meeting Colombian women in homes, offices, and church buildings so they wouldn’t be seen speaking with her. 

None of this slowed her research, which is driven by an anthropologist’s insatiable curiosity. A recent focus, part of a study of the legacies of paramilitarism, is a land restitution program that is intended to return land to peasants after it was taken by paramilitaries. Some of that land has been turned over to agribusiness, partly to provide traffickers a way to launder drug income. Tate is studying the dynamics of the effort, which include assassination of activists and officials involved in the program and use of sexual violence against women to keep them from filing claims, she said.

So how do Colombian women work effectively in a system rife with corruption and patronage? Tate is considering that, too. Some women and community leaders have found that the best way to help their constituents is to attach themselves to powerful political patrons, Tate said. “How,” she asks, “do we understand that as a form of democratic participation?”

Of course, one question leads to another. Tate is also considering Colombia as a security success story, with U.S. intervention being touted as something to replicate elsewhere in the world. “How did that land become secure?” she asks. “Who’s benefitting from that security? Think about what that means in terms of this recent history of tremendous brutality and dispossession.”

Assistant Professor Winifred Tate, seated above, at a Women’s Alliance workshop on domestic violence in Colombia. Standing: Amanda Camila, a teacher and Alliance officer.
Assistant Professor Winifred Tate, seated above, at a Women’s Alliance workshop on domestic violence in Colombia. Standing: Amanda Camila, a teacher and Alliance officer.
Photo by Aurelie Drummond

And what does security mean, in Colombia or the United States? In the age of Trayvon Martin and stop-and-frisk policies, Tate wonders, whose security is prioritized?

 

She now has a book (about the U.S. counter-narcotics initiative Plan Colombia and its impact in southern Colombia) under contract at Stanford University Press, and Tate said these same questions have been and will be part of her teaching. In a recent class, her Colby students interviewed police, drug agents, judges, and recovering addicts as part of their study of U.S. drug policy and its effects.

After two decades in the field, there’s no indication that Tate’s exhaustive curiosity is close to being quenched. In her last visit to Colombia, she was fascinated by historical/political soap operas, which are popular there. One series focused on three brothers, all paramilitary leaders. They were portrayed as having acted for the good of the people, making sacrifices to create the new Colombia. Tate watched, not just the show, but the reaction to it on the part of the people who had lived—and often suffered—through this period.

“It was actually a very interesting fieldwork tool because it opened up a whole arena of experience to me to question people,” she said. “It was impossible to say, ‘What did you think of this paramilitary leader?’ But I could say, ‘You just watched this soap opera. What do you think about it?’”

 

The book, like all of Tate’s observation and contemplation, is a work in progress.