Nice schools, nice roads
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

We described economics and politics in Colombia in two previous posts (here and here).

Thousands of people assassinated, political parties and candidates wiped out, local politicians stealing money and deliberately impoverishing people, shouldn’t somebody be doing something about this? Shouldn’t the government act?

But perhaps we are over-generalizing. Surely not all of Colombia is like this. Compare the nice paved street below outside the newly built health clinic in the city of La Danta, Antioquia, with the mud roads of El Carmen de Bolívar (see here). Here it looks like the local politicians actually deliver the goods.

Not just paved streets and clinics, check out this new school nearby in Piedras Blancas and a neighborhood of houses built specially for poor people, all connected to La Danta by a new road.

This doesn’t look like a failed state. But who was the state in La Danta? Who is the state in Colombia?

Actually, it wasn’t the local politicians or the government who paved the streets in La Danta. It wasn’t them who built the houses for poor people and the hundreds of kilometers of roads. It wasn’t them who paid the teachers’ salaries and bought the new musical instruments for the school. It wasn’t them who built the health center — or the Bullring or the sports stadium or the new school in Piedras Blancas or the one in El Porvenir.

In fact all this and a lot more was built not by the government but by a paramilitary leader called McGuiver (real name: Luis Eduardo Zuluaga), who got his nickname (we’ll write more on nicknames among paramilitaries soon) because of his resemblance to the US TV character. McGuiver was the commander of the José Luis Zuluaga Front, named after his murdered brother, of the Autodefensas Campesinas del Magdalena Media (the peasant self-defense forces of the Middle Magdalena) (ADMM) which ran this part of Colombia for 30 years. How did he pay for it all? He taxed people of course, just like the state would, he charged all the farmers and businessmen (including the drug dealers) a monthly tax and he even had tolls on the roads. He had a “social team” in charge of determining the most pressing needs of the community. He had a bureaucracy assessing and collecting taxes. He had laws (“estatutos”) which he enforced. He even had a radio station and a song.

So who is the state in La Danta? In Colombia?

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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