Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Mark Ungar

Committee Members

Leonard C. Feldman

Susan L. Woodward

Subject Categories

Comparative Politics | Latin American Studies | Political Science | Political Theory | Urban Studies and Planning


Social Cleansing, Colombia, Latin America, Violence, Discourse, Cleanliness, Belonging


This dissertation examines the relationship between purity and order, and the ways this relationship informs and reproduces exclusionary forms of governance. The starting point for this analysis is the puzzling use of the language of limpieza social [social cleansing] as a justification for violence in Latin America. Such language is publicly disseminated by vigilantes, criminal organizations, paramilitaries, and other extralegal armed actors as a frame for violence against those presumed to be criminals, drug users, sex workers, unhoused, LGBTQ, or mentally ill. Much has been written on criminal and political violence in the region, but there has been less emphasis on the discourses that attend such violence, and almost no systematic analysis of social cleansing. The project addresses this deficit through the examination of the way limpieza—which can mean both cleansing and cleaning upis used in Colombia. I ask why the language of limpieza gets attached to certain violent practices and what sort of work is done in framing these practices as clean(s)ing.

Drawing on archival research, an original dataset of over 3,000 incidents of cleansing violence, and fieldwork conducted in Colombia, the project identifies practices that have been thusly framed, examines the logic of this framing, and traces the multiple manifestations of this logic in the Colombian context. Chapters 1 and 2 examine social cleansing, situating the practice in relation to the entangled development of the armed conflict and the illicit political economy. These chapters develop the argument that limpieza is best understood as a discourse legitimizing exclusionary forms of order provision. Through an analysis of the symbolic politics of limpieza, Chapter 3 develops the argument that the appeal of limpieza as a legitimating discourse lies in the simultaneously strategic and affective character of its animating logic—a logic I refer to as purification. Specifically, I suggest that purification is a political rationality that operates through displacement—or, put otherwise, it is a logic of governance predicated on the removal of subjects from the public sphere, subjects onto whom structural sources of disorder have been discursively displaced. The removal of these subjects who have become symbolic embodiments of disorder legitimizes the structure of rule through a performed restoration.

Having made the argument that purification is a more general logic of order provision, the dissertation then traces the operation of this political rationality in the Colombian context through an analysis of limpieza across three registers: limpieza social (social cleansing), limpieza urbana (urban clean-up), and limpieza de sangre (blood purity). Chapters 4 and 5 grounds the analysis of contemporary cleansing discourse in a historical examination of the ways purity has historically informed exclusionary conceptions of the body politic and public space in the Colombian context. Chapter 6 brings together the disparate manifestations of limpieza through a case study of Bogotá, illustrating how, despite their differences, the extralegal violence of social cleansing as well as efforts to clean-up the city through urban renewal and tough-on-crime policing have been grounded in a common logic of exclusionary order provision.

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