Why do armed groups fighting in civil wars establish different institutions in territories where they operate? This article tests the mechanisms of a theory that posits that different forms of wartime social order are the outcome of a process in which an aspiring ruler—an armed group—expands the scope of its rule as much as possible unless civilians push back. Instead of being always at the mercy of armed actors, civilians arguably have bargaining power if they can credibly threaten combatants with collective resistance. Such resistance, in turn, is a function of the quality of preexisting local institutions. Using a process-driven natural experiment in three villages in Central Colombia, this article traces the effects of institutional quality on wartime social order.
The FARC were everything in this village. They had the last word
on every single dispute among neighbors. They decided what
could be sold at the stores, the time when we should all go home, and
who should leave the area never to come back.... They also
managed divorces, inheritances, and conflicts over land borders.
They were the ones who ruled here, not the state.
— Local leader, village of Librea, municipality of Viotá
We [the peasant leaders] are the authority here.
People recognize us as such. [The FARC] could not take
that away from us. They didn’t rule us.
— Local leader, village of Zama, municipality of Viotá