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Coca leaf (“chewed” by indigenous Andean peoples) and cocaine (the notorious modern illicit drug trafficked from the Andes) are deeply emblematic of South America, but neither has attracted the in-depth archival research they deserve. Their two modern histories are closely linked. Coca leaf, a part of Andean indigenous lifeways for thousands of years, is the raw ingredient for the alkaloid drug cocaine, discovered in 1860, and illicit peasant coca plots in the western Amazon of Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia have been the source for the infamous illicit cocaine “cartels” since the 1970s. The two drugs’ fates have both had surprisingly shifting trajectories and meanings across the colonial, national, and modern eras. They have also distinctively linked the Andes to the outside world and national political cultures of the three chief Andean states. Bolivia has the most continuous history with coca, related to the highland geography of its indigenous majority, though coca leaf only became a “nationalist” symbol over the past fifty years or so. Peru was home to the world’s first legal cocaine industries, starting in the 1880s, and coca and illicit cocaine have interacted in complex ways ever since. Colombia had the least coca traditions, and was the last nation to develop illicit cocaine exports in the 1970s and 1980s, although with a dramatic impact on Colombia and the world. This largely unknown and changeable history underlies the present-day crossroads of coca and cocaine: will the US-abetted Andean “drug wars” against cocaine continue, despite their long failures, and will coca’s place as a symbol of cultural and national pride in the Andes be fully restored?

Article

Lina Britto

From Hollywood movies to binge-worthy TV shows, stories of Colombian narcotraficantes waging war against state agents and civilians are profitable narrative devices of our times. But beyond the screen, the history is not as clear-cut or simple. The drug wars in Colombia began years before the cocaine lords launched a crusade against extradition in the mid-1980s. Building upon a long history of military and intelligence cooperation against communism during the Cold War, the US and Colombian governments engaged in a series of diplomatic exchanges during the 1970s to define the best approach to the growing traffic in marijuana and cocaine between the two countries. By the end of the decade, this long process of political accommodation led to the first drug war in the South American nation. Since then, antinarcotics campaigns against producers of illicit crops and the criminal structures that controlled exportation and distribution to the United States and European markets have constituted essential components in the relationship between the two countries. For the last forty years, prohibitionist drug policies and militarized antinarcotics campaigns have systematically interacted with traffickers’ efforts at survival and their ruthless competition for the accumulation of capital, power, and status. As a result of this dynamic, warfare has become the norm in the functioning of the illicit business as well as in the state’s efforts at drug control and repression, making Colombia one of the main theaters of the drug wars in the world.

Article

Since 1982 there have been at least 2,000 massacres in Colombia committed by different illegal groups and by members of the Colombian army and police. The development of the conflict in Colombia has a direct relation with the causes and consequences of these crimes, perpetrated in most cases by paramilitary armies, associated to varying degrees with the cocaine trade. Paramilitary groups were a counterinsurgency force organized by the State, or independent, and supported economically by drug cartels and some landowners and businessmen. Although guerrilla armies, insurgency, and communist groups created mostly in the 1960s perpetrated several massacres, these crimes were systematically used primarily by paramilitary groups to terrorize people in places where they had a particular interest, such as drug trafficking or vying for political power. In its book ¡Basta ya!, the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica has documented that 59% of the massacres were committed by paramilitary groups and 17% by guerrillas. Rutas del Conflicto is a project created by journalists that marks the evolution of these groups through more than 30 years of war. Using mapping and timeline tools developed especially for the project, it has documented more than 700 of these crimes, displaying the degree to which the tragedy has affected the lives of millions of people in Colombia.