Brokered rule: Militias, drugs and borderland governance in the Myanmar-China borderlands

This article in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, by Patrick Meehan and Dan Seng Lawn, focuses on the brokerage arrangements that have developed between the Myanmar Army and local militias in the conflict-affected Myanmar-China borderland region of northern Shan State since the late 1980s. It discusses how the illegal drug trade has become integral to these systems of brokered rule.

Common themes and insights

Questions of agency and voice

We have zoomed in on the lives of people whose stories and perspectives are missed or downplayed in most accounts of illicit drug economies. This is, in part, because such people often choose, borrowing from James Scott, to ‘stay outside of the archives’– remaining illegible may be key to making a living, and indeed to staying alive. If they are mentioned, it is in stereotypical terms as passive victims, or unscrupulous opportunists, unmoored from wider community value systems and norms.

Our research tells a different story, in which individuals repeatedly assert their agency, albeit in very circumscribed and contingent ways.

Of course, the spaces and opportunities for asserting agency (individually and collectively) vary significantly across the cases, as well as over the trajectory of an individual’s life. The narratives show extreme variation in terms of the degree to which people feel that they have some control over their lives and their surroundings.

Carmen and Don Tito are older civic leaders, who reflect back on the trials, tribulations and lessons drawn from their lives. They unflinchingly narrate the setbacks, the risks, the constant violence and the personal tragedies that have punctuated their lives. Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín argues elsewhere that this spiral of conflict, abuse and dispossession in Colombia is experienced by those on the margins as one of ‘institutionalised calamity’ – in other words what appear to be random events and misfortunes, can be understood as part of a broader pattern, in which frontier dwellers are systematically exposed to high levels of violence and precarity. But Carmen’s and Don Tito’s stories also powerfully capture the leadership and claim-making roles they have assumed, the lessons they take from these experiences and the small victories that have been won through social mobilisation and organised resistance. Their portrayal of the frontier is far more complex and layered than the common caricature of the margins as zones of illegality, violence and social breakdown – instead we get a picture of drugs being embedded within a wider agrarian and moral economy. Frontier communities, far from being atomised, draw on deep reserves of social capital and repertoires of mobilisation – through for example Community Action Boards – to exercise collective voice and make claims on regulatory authorities. In the words of Carmen, ‘you feel like a leaf flying in the wind, heading nowhere if you’re not doing something’. Her history of activism includes the cocalero mobilisation of 1996, the National Agrarian Strike of 2013 and then participation in the peace process. These claims are frequently unheard, and may come at a personal and collective cost – evidenced by the assassination of social leaders (itself, an attempt to supress particular forms of agency) – but these two stories are infused with what Elizabeth Wood would characterise as a ‘pleasure in agency’ and a sense of redemptive meaning being found in protecting and representing one’s community.

These examples of individual and collective agency run counter to Scott’s idea that frontier dwellers automatically seek to evade and remain illegible to the state; Carmen and Dan Tito are part of wider movements in which people seek to make themselves legible, so they can make claims on the state and assert their rights. Borderland agency may also involve making claims on, and finding ways of influencing non state authorities – such as FARC, the Taliban or the KIA – who provide alternative systems of rule and service provision at the margins.

The life histories from Myanmar appear to be at the other end of the spectrum, in terms of the spaces for individual and collective agency. In many respects the context, in the Kachin and Shan borderlands, is over-determined; linked to the presence of powerful and repressive states on both sides of the border, the specific dynamics of post-ceasefire extractive development and military pacification, and the growth of drug use within the borderland communities. The life stories are infused with a sense of contamination, helplessness, personal misfortune and self-blame. Each story tells a tale of reduced or degraded agency, with drug use being associated with a vicious spiral of impoverishment, stigmatisation and diminished life chances. In the words of Nang Khong, whose two brothers became drug users; ‘No matter how much I earned and how hard I worked, the money was never enough. We felt so embarrassed and humiliated. People would talk badly about our family’.

comic image prison cell
Illustration by Sai Kham Loen

Notwithstanding this common narrative of feeling diminished and entrapped by drugs, the individuals are far from passive victims. Sai Sarm and Nang Khong both find some consolation and solace in Dharma (Buddhist teachings). And concerns about drug use do engender collective responses, for example in the form of Pat Jasan, a community-based attempt to address drug consumption – though not without problematic consequences in terms of the constrained agency and further stigmatisation of drugs users, as we have explored elsewhere. Across the seven frontier/ borderland contexts, there are numerous examples of counter narcotics interventions that limit individual and collective agency and diminish the life chances of borderland populations – including fumigation or poorly implemented drug substitution programmes in Colombia, the impacts of border securitisation on livelihoods dependent on cross border trade in Afghanistan, or the targeting and imprisonment of vulnerable populations by counter-narcotics police in Myanmar.

Frontier dwellers assert their agency, but with major risks and costs attached. For example, Jangul’s two journeys to Moscow, smuggling drugs, are fraught with risk and almost end in personal disaster. His decision to engage in this risky behaviour is less about choice, than the absence of alternative ways to survive and to feed his own, and his sister’s family. Similarly, Aziz Khan got involved in the drugs trade because the closing of the Iranian border shut down other economic opportunities. And gaining a foothold in this business was difficult and risky as shown by the disappearance of his Iranian business partner with his entire inventory.

The life histories show that in contexts of great risk, uncertainty and precarity, borderland dwellers are constantly forced to make ‘Faustian bargains’. The bargaining power of farmers, small-scale traders and drug users is limited, in contexts marked by violence, extreme inequality and the absence of recourse to legal mechanisms to deal with disputes and conflicts. Their engagement in illicit economies provides them with a short-term solution (or form of solace) to an urgent need – including access to land, credit, food, consumer goods, or the drug itself — but it involves discounting the future; it locks them into a set of difficult and irresolvable trade-offs that constrain future prospects.

Finally, it is important to remember that drugs themselves are powerful actants – as a social lubricant, a medicine, a source of credit, a currency, a form of recreation and escape, an instrument of barter or a political bargaining chip.

Drugs shape the narrators’ lives – they change material circumstances as well as social norms, hopes and expectations, they (dis) empower individuals, forge new connections and transform landscapes.

Violence & peace

As noted in the introduction, fragile war to peace transitions in all three countries have either broken down entirely or become more unstable and violent. Each individual recounts multiple instances of violence, and their attempts to navigate chronic and episodic armed conflict – often in contexts where conflict faultlines were constantly changing and it was difficult to determine the sources of threat.

As Don Tito graphically recounts, ‘to live through war is to feel death breathing down one’s neck’. The frontier regions during the narrators’ lifetimes, have rarely experienced peace – they have been and remain disputed zones in which there are multiple wielders of violence. Frontiers and borderlands are frequently zones of confrontation, between guerrillas, paramilitaries, agents of the state, local militias and community defence groups.

There is the danger of getting caught in the crossfire – for example between government, guerrilla or paramilitary forces in Colombia; or, like Jangul’s business partner, being in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting killed by a suicide bomber; or, like Carmen’s son, being killed by the paramilitaries because of the way he was dressed. There is also the danger of being targeted by one of the armed parties because you have inadvertently stepped on, or over, a boundary, or are perceived to have the ‘wrong’ loyalties – for example Carmen being forced to escape to the Ecuadorian border because of the threat from paramilitaries, or Jangul having to move from Nangarhar to Kabul, as the mujahideen questioned his loyalties, because his father worked for the Sovietbacked government.

One way of dealing with these dangers is to join an armed group as a form of self-protection. For example, Aziz Khan joined one of the mujahideen parties during the Soviet occupation, whilst in Myanmar, Seng Raw recounted how her husband’s position in the KIA helped give her a level of status and protection: ‘as the wife of a KIA soldier, I think I became even more fearless than I was before!’ However, she also refers to the forced recruitment of women into the KIA and being afraid of being taken at a KIA checkpoint for military training.

Mixed up with wartime conflict are other forms of non-war violence, including that associated with illicit economies or attempts to combat them. César Mariño, like the other Colombian respondents, highlights the relationship between coca and violence; ‘coca generates fights and makes people jealous…. where there was coca there were always armed groups’. He goes on to say that this violence was associated with both the marijuana and coca booms; ‘There was violence all around. Everybody was armed. To be in the marimba business you had to have a gun’. And Don Tito bemoans the fact that ‘for us black people, coca has brought more sorrows than joys.’

Counter narcotics policies are themselves a form of violence against people and things.

Don Tito, recounts that ‘coca also brought fumigation to our territory’ and as well as its negative effects on people’s health it ‘killed thousands of hectares of palm’. Carmen also talks about the violence enacted by government and paramilitary forces against the coca growers’ mobilisation in Putumayo in 1996.

In Myanmar, the narrators portray the ‘slow violence’ of drug use, and how apart from violence to the self, it had spillover effects into other areas of life including criminality, domestic abuse, as well as the violence of efforts to counter drugs, by the police or the Pat Jasan movement. Sai Sarm was imprisoned for 12 years on drug offences and had to endure years of forced labour. Seng Raw’s brother died in prison, whilst Nang Khong’s youngest brother was arrested and imprisoned in 2014 and hasn’t been heard from since.

However, there are other vectors of violence besides drugs. Development processes and interventions are often the handmaidens of violence and dispossession. Carmen refers to the oil companies in Putumayo and how they threatened peasant land rights, water sources and local infrastructure. She also tells the disturbing story of how the president of their social organisation was assassinated five days after engaging in talks with the government and an oil company. The jade mines referred to by Seng Raw are associated with land grabbing, exploitative labour conditions and the diffusion of drugs, which are sometimes used as a form of payment for workers. Therefore drug economies are not uniquely violent – other sectors of the economy are shown to be associated with high levels of structural and physical violence.

The violence of the borderlands is also deeply gendered. Begam Jan recounts the violence meted out by the Taliban’s Virtue and Vice police on a woman who lifted her burka in public. Similarly, Seng Raw, whose life has been shaped by multiple forms of physical, symbolic and structural violence talks about an episode when her father attacked and stabbed her mother with a sword. This is one of a litany of different forms of violence she has either witnessed or experienced during her life.

Individuals navigate violence – its threat and deployment – by exercising a combination of ‘exit’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘voice’; they move to safer terrain, for example Begam Jan and her family migrate to Iran during the Taliban period (Exit); they keep quiet and/ or ally with powerful groups – for instance Samir Jan joins a mujahideen party (Loyalty); or they attempt to challenge their situation and assert their rights – for example Don Tito’s efforts to improve the living conditions of his community in Tumaco, as well as Carmen who ‘made the decision to follow the path of those who fight for the welfare of others. That took me away from the ordinary life of a family women. It has been a good life!’ (Voice).

comic image army carrying body bag
Illustration by Jhonatan Acosta

For everyone, the promise of peace has been a mirage. People look back with nostalgia at certain periods in their lives when there was a level of optimism and a measure of peace – for Carmen it was when she moved to Putumayo in the 1980s, for Aziz Khan it was during the first Taliban regime in the late 1990s (though for Begum Jan this was a time of oppression). But no one expresses optimism about the current situation. In Colombia, the peace process has not delivered on its promises – in the words of Don Tito: ‘peace has been a scam’. Life in the borderlands has become more unstable, not less: ‘We are working towards the substitution of illicit crops … But armed people are back in the territory willing to defend coca … peace is dying in Tumaco… it seems that black communities always lose, both in war and in peace’. And as the later part of this quote, as well as the experience of Begum Jan, suggest, the ‘costs of peace’ fall heaviest on those with the least voice. In Myanmar, similarly the Kachin and Shan populations, even prior to the military coup, did not feel the benefits of ‘peace’ – for them the years following the launching of a formal national peace process in 2011 were associated with more conflict, more extractive development and more drugs. The life histories unsurprisingly do not reveal smooth war to peace transitions, but instead protracted periods of no-war, no-peace, or violent interregnums. At the time of writing there seems to be no end in sight. Our protagonists may be hoping for peace, but they are certainly not planning for it.

Frontier histories; negotiating marginality

The frontier/borderland regions that are the homes to our nine protagonists, are agentic landscapes, places of innovation and experimentation, zones of risk, incertitude, liminality and marginality – as well as being places of opportunity, flux and ‘freedom’. These are defining features of what might be termed a ‘borderland habitus’, in which people seek to both negotiate and leverage their marginality.

These frontiers and borderscapes are ‘disturbed’ and ‘damaged’ landscapes, riven by conflict and competition. At the same time, they are places where cultural resources, social capital and collaboration are key to survival. Carmen, for example talks about the fraternity of frontier settlers ‘you could feel the warmth…. those were the times of fat cows!’

The margins never stand still. They experience cascades of change and transformation, wrought by war, drugs and development.

Development occurs in fits and spurts, boom and bust cycles – the oil and coca economies in Putumayo; in Santa Marta, the coffee, marijuana and coca booms; the new economic developments in Myanmar related to mining and infrastructure; the closing down of opportunities linked to border hardening in Afghanistan.

These moments of rupture mark individual lives in very concrete ways – Begum Jan, after the Iranian border closure, could no longer trade across the border or visit her relatives on the other side: ‘We can’t be part of each other’s happiness and sorrows’. On the other hand, Aziz Khan, was forced to get involved in drug smuggling as other economic niches closed down. In Myanmar members of Nang Khong’s family make the transition into drug use, whilst Sai Sarm manages to exit out of drug dependence.

Frontiers are also spaces of politicisation and radicalisation – as shown in Carmen’s political trajectory; her move from her liberal party background to the communists after moving to Putumayo, laid the foundations for her career in activism including her engagement with community action boards, coca growers’ mobilisation and rallies.

The risks and opportunities inherent to these marginal spaces are unevenly distributed. As noted by Don Tito: ‘Coca isn’t such a good business for small growers. The profit goes to those who trade it or grow more than 10 hectares…. the money ends up going to those who don’t even live here.’

Profits are often spent on consumption – for example, César talking about the marijuana boom says that ‘many peasants were not used to handling so much money, and since everyone believed that the bonanza would never end, they wasted it’. Similarly, Don Tito narrated that ‘coca growers saw those times were good because they could buy three crates of beer… Their dining rooms were full of bottles. But the next day they ran out of money… small coqueros spend all their money on booze. They don’t invest it or save it.’

Illicit economies, like other economic activity, are rooted in mutual obligations that arise when people exchange with each other over the course of time – moral economies emerge out of building up debt and mutual dependencies over time. These moral economies are associated with local conceptions of honour and pride and what it means to be a good person. Trust is absolutely central, since there are no formal legal mechanisms for dealing with disputes – as Aziz Khan found to his cost when his business partner in Iran disappeared.

Borders and boundaries

Frontiers and borderlands are dynamic spaces of intense ‘border work’; these involve territorial borders – between and within states – as well as social, cultural, symbolic and political boundaries.

A great deal of coercion, resources and discursive work goes into erecting, maintaining and policing borders. The border may be very sharp and clearly delineated as in the case of the border walls erected by Iran and Pakistan. Or it may be more fuzzy and fluid, for instance the discursive boundary that separates the ‘barbarous’ periphery from the ‘civilised’ centre. Narratives about drugs are entangled with these centre–periphery discourses – for example drugs are portrayed in Myanmar’s borderlands as an external force, deployed by the central state to undermine the ethno-nationalist struggle. At the same time within the borderlands there are multiple boundaries, associated with forms of othering and stigmatisation – for example in relation to the divisions between peasants, indigenous and AfroColombian communities in Colombia’s frontiers; or between drug users and non-drug users in Myanmar.

Individuals are acutely aware of which boundaries to ignore, respect, challenge or transgress. Smugglers like Aziz Khan and Jangul, need to find ways of transgressing boundaries – which involves negotiating with brokers and ‘outwitting’ state agents. People find ingenious ways of circumventing borders – for example Aziz Khan explains how smugglers catapult drugs to their business partners across the Iranian border wall.

Journeys and pathways

Stories are about personal journeys, as each individual navigates and narrates a different pathway through life. Some tend to emphasise their journey of escape, to evade conflict or fumigation efforts (moving across the border to Iran, or from Putumayo to Tumaco), or alternatively journeys in search of better futures and new economic opportunities (Carmen and Begum Jan). Others emphasise journeys of personal learning, involving new political awareness (Carmen and Don Tito) or personal redemption (Sai Sam). Still others recount journeys of impoverishment, despair and downward spirals (Nang Khong & Seng Raw).

Jangul comic image family eating together
Illustration by Kruttika Susarla

Borderland journeys occur though time as well as across space. Stories cover the arc of an individual’s life, or of several lives as most narrators tell intergenerational stories. As already noted, these don’t follow a simple teleology – the journeys wind around, circle back and contain false starts, dead ends and moments of rupture.

These stories are shaped by, and deeply entangled, in their borderland contexts. On the one hand, at certain times, these are dangerous spaces that people try to escape from – often across borders to leave the violence and persecution behind, yet on the other hand, they can be places where people seek refuge and safety. Most journeys, within or outside the borderlands, are fraught with risk. For example, even at the prosaic level of transport connections, the road to Putumayo is known at ‘the trampoline of death’.

At certain times the borderlands may appear to be parochial and disconnected; but in reality, as manifest in the drug economy, they are highly connected to the outside world. They are key hubs in the circulation and flows of resources, substances, people and ideas – which are transformed, reshaped, reconstituted in the course of these journeys across borders. The management and filtering of these flows involves complex logistics and infrastructure, labour regimes, financial packages and risk management. Notwithstanding the ingenuity of these logistics operations, connectivity often works to the disadvantage of borderland communities. In many respects illicit economies represent the unequal ways in which borderland regions are integrated into the global economy and the failure of globalisation’s promise of inclusion.

Implications for researchers and policymakers

Our stories are fragmented, discordant (or polyphonic) and sometimes contradictory. They do not lend themselves to clear, generalisable policy implications and lessons. And they do not necessarily reveal much that is new to local people who usually know a great deal about the issues around drugs.

But drawing on Tsing’s ideas about the art of noticing and the art of listening these narratives do provide some questions, provocations and pointers for policy makers (and researchers) regarding how to think about and respond to borderland drug economies and how to engage with communities on the margins.

We suggest that life histories are not simply tales, they are narratives that can help motivate public action and influence policy. They provide, potentially, a vehicle for empowering marginalised voices, encouraging greater empathy, and opening up conversations on challenging and sensitive issues, as touched on below. The case studies reveal in concrete and compelling ways how people’s lives have been affected by war and illicit economies, as well as external efforts to address them.

There is a need to be more open as to what constitutes ‘data’ and ‘evidence’; rather than lionising quantitative knowledge as being rigorous and scientific, and dismissing qualitative data as anecdotal, there is a need to work more seriously with situated knowledge as evidence. This also means that drugs and development policy makers need to place a high premium on, and indeed reward, deep regional expertise within their organisations.

The ‘contextualising disciplines’ – such as history and anthropology – are critical to developing understandings about how illicit economies manifest themselves and become deeply embedded in particular settings, how they change over time, the role of individuals and collectivities within these political economies, and the ways that policies and interventions affect these processes in particular contexts and moments. This knowledge can help ensure that policies, aiming to support more inclusive war to peace transitions, work with the grain of borderland societies. Efforts to develop more humane and rights-based drugs policies, can only be effective if they are based on a fine-grained understanding of the embeddedness of illicit economies in particular contexts.

Whilst the power of mixing of methods is widely recognised in the social sciences, this has been less commonly applied, in a systematic way, to the study of illicit economies. We have tried – though incompletely – to adopt a mixed methods approach in our project, so as to develop a better understanding of drug economies, the actors within them, as well as their wider structural dimensions, and the role of policy.

Researchers, as well as developing more complex and contextualised analysis of illicit economies, need to build more cogent and persuasive stories that challenge mainstream accounts; better evidence is only part of the battle – it is about changing hearts as well as minds – and the role of life stories is key in drawing policymakers into the lifeworlds of borderland populations, to generate both empathy and understanding.

Of course it would be naïve to think that ‘more empathy’ is the key to changing policy – the political economy of policy making means that financial, institutional and political interests will always be preeminent, but it is also clear that individual narratives ‘talk’ to policymakers and wider audiences in more compelling ways than dry and disembodied data. By focusing on particular lives and contexts, we can see how different kinds of policies come together, and intersect at particular moments – from the perspective of borderland communities, on the receiving end of these interventions, the bureaucratic divisions between policies and interventions related to drugs, development or peacebuilding are irrelevant. These institutional siloes dissolve when they hit the ground and shape people’s lives for better or for worse.

Policymakers need to develop a more contextualised and integrated understanding of the world they are attempting to change. And they should be encouraged by researchers to pluralise the evidence that they draw upon, and relatedly the people they talk to and interact with. Otherwise, they will continue to suffer from ‘borderland blindness’ – a bias towards the national order of things and a worldview filtered through the eyes of national level elites.

If there is a common story to emerge from our borderland life histories it is the story of constant improvisation, ingenuity and social energy – people do make history – collectively – though not in contexts of their own choosing, and the history they are making — drawing on James Scott – tends to remain outside of the archives. Where we depart from Scott is the idea that people in the borderlands wish to remain ‘ungoverned’, beyond the state and thus ‘out of the archives’. The voices from the borderlands tell a different story from Scott’s – in which people complain about state absence, neglect or repression. Far from wanting less state, borderland dwellers ask for another kind of state based on a different kind of social contract. As Carmen’s experience shows, those living on the margins often want to be more legible to enable them to collectively make claims on the state and assert their rights.

Borderland communities across the three countries have exercised collective agency – often at great personal cost and with varied effects – to change their situations. These accounts challenge lazy stereotypes that frontier societies are atomised, and that participants in drug economies are free-floating individuals responding solely to price incentives.

Our project has challenged these stereotypes and to the extent possible engaged with, and supported different forms of borderland agency, often by initiating and building upon conversations that have emerged from our research. These conversations may provide a starting point and some clues about how to move towards more humane drug policies in conflictaffected borderlands.

In Colombia for example, our partners have worked with some of the social leaders whose life histories are shared in this report, and with their constituencies. This has involved using information generated from our research to support their legal claims in relation to their rights under the illicit crop substitution element of the 2016 peace accord. We have also developed ongoing conversations with coca farmers, pickers and processers about the health harms linked to processing and fumigation.

In contrast to Colombia, where recourse to a judiciary within a democratic state structure is an option, in Myanmar and Afghanistan this kind of work – using research to support a rights-based political engagement – has been far more challenging, and the spaces for explicitly political forms of engagement and claim making are much more limited. Notwithstanding these constraints, in Myanmar our engagement has relied on developing and deepening longstanding relationships with our research partners in civil society, leading to the research – including life history comics in Shan and Jingphaw – contributing to their ongoing engagement work with local youth groups, drug treatment centres and local authorities. It has also involved, since the coup, engaging with migrant youth across the border in Thailand on drug issues.

We have found that this kind of collaborative, extended engagement work can help marginalised voices – for example women, ethnic minorities, drug users – to be heard in local forums; such voices have been marginalised, not only in wider policy debates, but within the borderlands themselves. In Afghanistan, at the time of writing, high levels of conflict and the humanitarian crisis in borderland regions have radically closed down the space for any form of political agency amongst borderland populations. Therefore, the onus has shifted onto our international researchers to assert agency in ways that are not currently open to our partners – including promoting a grounded understanding of the role of illicit economies at the current juncture, so as to inform unfolding policies particularly in relation to the UK government.

Our experience suggests that grounded and more humane drug policies can only emerge by opening up and pluralising the spaces for such conversations. This means viewing participation less as a prescribed input into a project than as an extended process that aims to support the political agency and voice of borderland individuals and groups. Key to that political agency is the need to (re)constitute state-society relations and inter-dependencies – participation within ‘boutique’ projects will fail to address the wider structural constraints that keep people marginal.

This is not simply about extending the footprint of the state and rolling out development efforts, as an alternative to drugs, into the margins. These efforts, as we have seen, have often been associated with more exclusion and conflict, not less. There is a need to reset the terms of the conversation, and as a starting point this means recognising and promoting an understanding of violence as one of the most important constraints on the agency and voice of borderland communities – this reinforces the need for stabilisation and development policies that focus on violence reduction and management, a key message from both ‘Voices from the borderlands’ reports.

In conclusion, life histories do not, of course, provide easy answers or policy prescriptions to the challenge of addressing illicit drugs and building a sustainable peacetime economy; instead, they encourage a mind set and approach amongst both policy makers and researchers that is more contextualised and human centred.

Why life stories?

The use of life stories in research and policy engagement is challenging but comes with a number of advantages that are difficult to replicate with other approaches. These are outlined below, after first explaining what life (hi)story research is.

There are different types of life-history or life-story research. As such, there is no standard definition of this methodology and what it entails, although our approach broadly subscribes to Watson and Watson-Franke’s definition of a life history as ‘any retrospective account by the individual of his [or her] life in whole or part, in written or oral form, that has been elicited or prompted by another person’. Life stories are distinguishable from other forms of oral history and narrative research by their focus on individuals’ experiences and emotions. For example, they may be contrasted to oral testimonies, which can be highly personal but are ultimately focused upon pre-identified issues or events. Life stories typically touch upon multiple ‘bigger’ issues and events but, unlike oral testimonies, centre upon the narrator and their life.

Moreover, most forms of life-(hi)story research share a ‘common goal […] to help overlooked or disenfranchised individuals make their stories known’. In doing so, life-history projects often challenge and destabilise hegemonic discourses.

Thus, the tradition of life-story research aligns with the overall objective of our ‘Voices from the borderlands’ publications: to provide an opportunity to listen to and learn from the voices and experiences of individuals and communities living in drugs-affected borderland regions – voices and experiences that are too often unheard and unknown.

Interview fragments, narrative ethnographies and fieldwork photographs certainly help humanise and ground analysis, but life stories take this to another more profound level. Our brains process stories differently from ‘facts’. Reading or listening to life stories can be deeply transformative. Particularly compelling stories can transport the reader/listener to other places and times and also help them identify with the narrator or main character(s) and to understand the places in which they live. They have the power to elicit empathy and a form of understanding based on human connection that other forms of engagement cannot.

Stories also reveal important contradictions, nuances and ambiguities. For example, a single narrator’s experiences and perceptions of an insurgent armed group are sometimes extremely mixed, suggesting that they cannot be easily sorted into categories like ‘sympathisers’ or ‘detractors’. The same can be said about illicit drug economies, which in the borderlands where we work permeate people’s lives in positive, negative and ambivalent ways.

These stories provide a sense of the everyday lives of people affected by drug economies and the particular borderland environments of risk and opportunity that they navigate.

As such, they are both personal and spatial biographies; they unveil the complex interplay between structure and agency that shapes people’s life trajectories and wider processes of change in borderland regions. Life stories remind us that ‘it is ordinary people who make human society and that they are not merely passive subjects of abstract structures or powerful individuals.’ They draw attention to the incredible resilience, adaptability and innovation of people living in challenging environments and the role that illegal drug economies play in empowering and eroding these forms of agency.

Comic image of family in Putumayo
Illustration by Sebástian Narváez

Life stories also offer insights into the role that people play in shaping the drug environments in which they live, and go beyond portrayals of marginalised communities as ‘passive victims’ of systemic forces that dominate their lives. They offer ways to better understand how people engage with drugs as part of their efforts to exercise agency in shaping their own social worlds, and to try to navigate the multiple risks they confront. Yet, at the same time, life stories also reveal how these everyday activities and survival strategies – including engagement with drugs – often articulate and reinforce prevailing structures of power and inequality rather than empowering them or providing the impetus for change.

Working with life stories is not about separating out the study of ‘little’ politics from ‘Big’ politics, of people’s history from elite history, or of the subjective, cultural and emotional realm from material, structural and institutional forces. Rather, it offers a way to explore the entanglements and relationships between structural forces and everyday practices and how these shape people and places.

Importantly, stories help us to think about the people who participate in drug economies as real people with names, with family members they love but also quarrel with, with stories of suffering but also of kindness and perseverance.

The type of understanding that stories can provide is vital for developing truly ‘people-centred’ and ‘context-sensitive’ drug policies.

Finally, so far, we have focused on the importance of life stories for ‘outsider’ readers or listeners. But research participants can also find that narrating their own stories a powerful and meaningful experience, which helps clarify and create new understandings of events around their lives. The importance and power of constructing life stories is demonstrated by their use in settings of intense disruption and dislocation to recover lost or repressed community histories. Life histories can help people give meaning to difficult experiences or to gain a sense of control over them. The construction of meaning through personal narrative is what makes us human and represents a deep-seated need in developing individual and collective identities.

Critique of everyday narco-capitalism

This Third World Quarterly article discusses how capitalism alters life at the nexus of drug production, trade and consumption through a study of drug heartlands in Colombia, Afghanistan and Myanmar. What forms of life emerge under narco-capitalism? And how do people seek change and express agency in the exploitative conditions governed by narco-capital? It uses material collected from people’s everyday encounter with narco-capitalism in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Colombia to discuss mystification, predation and alienation.

Fighting for the welfare of others: Life as a social leader

I was born in Rio Blanco, Tolima. I arrived in Putumayo in 1986 with my family, looking for opportunities, like most people did back then. I moved around a lot during my childhood, following in my mother’s footsteps. First, we arrived in Valle del Cauca, where my grandmother lived. She was born in Antioquia, a Catholic, a member of the Liberal Party, and had settled in Valle del Cauca with her children some decades before. The family grew corn and beans, hunted in the surrounding forests, and raised chickens. They also felled trees for wood, which they transported by mule to be sold in Sevilla or Tuluá. My grandma was the soul of the family. During elections, she would tell us, again and again, the story of how she had to hide my uncles from Los Pájaros, armed groups allied with the Conservative Party who were killing liberal peasants. While my mother went out to make a living on the nearby farms, my grandmother taught my sisters and me how to read and carry out farm chores: taking care of the vegetable garden, tending the chickens and sweeping the patio.

After a few years, my mother got married, and we moved to Pradera, another village in Valle del Cauca, to a cattle farm belonging to my stepfather’s family. Those were tough years. My mum, my sisters and I were mistreated by my stepfather. He and his family were chauvinists. According to them, women are only useful for cooking and having children. They said horrible things to us, screamed at us, and made my mother cry. They would lock us up, often without any food. All this, just for being girls! I felt I had an obligation to defend my younger sisters and rebelled against my stepfather’s violence. This led me to leave home in my adolescence and to be separated from my sisters, one of who committed suicide soon after I left.

I ended up living with an aunt, in Palmira, a neighbouring city. I began to work as a babysitter during the day and to study primary school at night. Though it was hard, I managed to have a good living standard, and, most importantly, I grew confident in myself and was convinced that my stepfather was wrong and I could accomplish whatever I set out to do. This period, when I came of age, was crucial in my life. It forged my strong character and my rebellious personality in the face of those who mistreat others.

I finished primary school when I was 15 and was going to continue to high school, but I got my first boyfriend, and I got pregnant. The situation didn’t affect me emotionally that much; I embraced motherhood with full responsibility. The birth of my daughter coincided with the suicide of my sister. The feeling of being a mother, but also the feelings of guilt I had for leaving my sister alone and then losing her – those feelings led me to return to my stepfather’s, to be with my mother and my younger sisters. This helped my mother a little bit, to soothe the pain she felt after losing her daughter. I treated my stepfather with respect, but after everything that happened, we were never friends. He understood that he couldn’t control me.

Just after I went back to my mother’s place, confrontations began between the M-19 guerrillas and the government army.

We were caught in the middle of a battle. We couldn’t go anywhere for two days.

That was the first time I saw with my own eyes that there was an armed conflict between the state and some revolutionary or illegal groups in Colombia. Sadly, it wouldn’t be the last time. When the confrontation ended, we were forced to move to the village and had to stay there for several months. Although I could get a job in a restaurant there, neither my stepfather nor my mother had it easy. So, we got in touch with a relative who lived in Putumayo, who told us the situation was good there. He said there were opportunities to work, and it was a good place to live. My stepfather was the first one to travel to Putumayo to make sure the situation was OK. Two weeks later, he returned, and then my mother, my sisters, my daughter and I took the bus from Florida, Valle del Cauca, to Orito, Putumayo. We travelled through Cali, Popayán, and then on the road they call ‘the trampoline of death’ to Mocoa. It was more than 30 hours of travel.

Orito was growing at the pace of the oil and coca economies. Engineers and skilled workers, in general, worked for the oil industry. They all lived in an urbanisation, built especially for the oil company’s employees, made up of very well-made houses, with architectural design and everything. The peasants made a living from coca.

Harvesting coca crop Puerto Asis
Harvest work in a coca crop in Puerto Asis, Putumayo. Photo by Frances Thomson/SOAS & Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

The rest of the people, like me, made a living from commerce. The land behind the oil company’s urbanisation belonged to the mayor’s office and was assigned to displaced families like ours. There, we built our house with wood and other materials that people gave us. The town consisted only of the main street, the town hall, a market square, a church and the houses we were all rapidly building.

Those were the times of fat cows! My family was doing well economically. My stepfather worked on a coca crop, my mother enrolled my sisters in school and took care of my daughter, and I worked selling lottery tickets in the town.

Little by little, we bought everything we lacked in the new house and settled down in our new life.

I spent that first year working, building the house and adapting to my new life. But before long, I was bitten by the political activity bug. Back in Valle del Cauca, I didn’t know anything about politics. I spent all my time struggling to solve my own personal problems. I only started to learn about politics – what it is and how it’s done – in Putumayo. I got in touch with the Liberal Party, and thanks to my relatives’ credentials as long-time liberals, I started working with them. That’s how I got the job at Orito’s lottery house. Later, I founded our neighbourhood Community Action Board. I was very young, I was only 21 years old, and nobody knew me well, but still, the neighbours voted to appoint me as secretary of the board. At that time, very few women participated in the boards. Most of the members were men. And that’s how my life in politics began.

The Community Action Board brought neighbours together to demand the paving of the roads, the construction of an aqueduct and access to other public services. One of my first tasks as secretary of the board was to conduct a census of the families participating in a government programme to build and improve homes. I remember going from house to house, talking with the neighbours. That’s how people got to know me. I was not very good at writing and made many spelling mistakes. Luckily, that was not a problem because I have never liked working alone and have always got help from more experienced people. In this case, I formed a good team with some social leaders who advised me. They taught me how to use a typewriter and write documents and even corrected my spelling. Apart from teaching me many technical skills and how to interact with government functionaries, one of them also became my ‘political father’.

As I said before, when I lived in Valle del Cauca, I didn’t even know what politics were. For example, in the restaurants where I worked, homeless people came to ask for food from time to time. Some people helped them, and others didn’t. I didn’t understand why there had to be people living in such miserable conditions.

Later, in Putumayo, I understood that poverty is a consequence of politics and economics.

I owe this understanding to someone I consider my first political guide: a member of the Communist Party who had arrived in the region years before me and who was assassinated by the paramilitaries in 2004. I owe him my taste for politics and the knowledge I have on the matter. I remember he lent me books and taught me about the political history of the country, ideologies in the world, and the differences between the traditional parties and the left-wing. I liked everything he taught me so much that I felt the need to go back to school and I began studying at night.

Later, I quit the Liberal Party because I didn’t have time to work, study and care for my family. But, mostly, my resignation was a decision of conscience. Discussions with my friend, the communist leader, made me reflect on the shortcomings of the traditional parties. As a member of the Liberal Party, I fought for people’s rights, but the party only helped those on its membership lists. Those who were not part of its networks were not even considered. When I realised the barriers traditional parties put up between people, I left the Liberal Party and began working in the Communist Party.

Rapidly, I went from being the secretary of our local Community Action Board to being the secretary of the association of all the Orito Boards. When they elected me, I was the only woman in a directive position. I was the only one because, unlike the rest of the women living in the rural area, I knew how to read and write, a requisite for the position. The role of the secretary is fundamental because she or he has the responsibility of keeping up with correspondence, files and public relations. It’s like a ministry. This new position suited my qualities very well because I’ve always been very organised, and in this kind of position you need to learn quickly and be eager to be taught.

I was the secretary of the Boards Association until 1996. In those years, I divided my time between my work as a community organiser and social leader, my job selling lottery tickets, and my family. I had no time for vacations or parties or anything like that. By then, I had a partner who, fortunately, was not a traditional male chauvinist who wanted his wife at home all the time. He always supported me. He was a radio host, and I fell in love with his social sensitivity and desire to help the needy. We had three children and built a house in the town. And it was then that the famous coca rallies began in the south of the country. Although I didn’t know it at the time, they would end up changing my life.

In the ‘90s, the state began to fumigate coca crops in Putumayo and other departments in southern Colombia.

The peasants’ response was to organise rallies to demand an end to the fumigations and a dialogue to seek alternatives to illicit crops involving social investment.

These protests first took place in 1992, but the coca growers’ mobilisations became stronger in the years that followed. Community Action Boards were key protagonists, calling for and organising the demonstrations.

The big rallies started when I was pregnant with my third daughter. I didn’t take on tasks that would be a risk to my health but rather dedicated myself to gathering support for those participating in the protest. The peasants left their hamlets and villages for the nearby towns.

A rural farmhouse in Putumayo
A rural farmhouse in Putumayo. Photo by Frances Thomson/SOAS & Universidad Nacional

They set up tents in parks and on the streets to interrupt the traffic as a form of protest. The Community Action Boards and peasant organisations had already decided that it was essential to work on political, logistical, health and security matters and create a commission for each topic. The Political Commission had to negotiate with the government. The Health Commission was in charge of verifying everyone was in good health and of speaking with the hospital to take care of the sick. The Safety Commission was in charge of blocking the roads. And so on with each commission. I led a group for the Logistics Commission in town. We were in charge of going to the shops, the marketplace, and the neighbourhoods to collect food and other things people staying in the tents needed. We distributed everything with the help of friends in the transportation business. At that moment, I didn’t realise the importance of the rallies. I just felt I was doing my bit.

When the government said that the guerrillas were behind the rally, my heart and soul were in pain. It had been a challenging process, with a lot of effort, and it was legitimate.

Maybe some protesters were members of the FARC. It wouldn’t be unusual in Putumayo, where there have been guerrillas for years, and considering that it’s a political and military organisation, but claiming that the guerrillas organised the mobilisations was outrageous. Peasants were completely aware of their struggles; they were not being manipulated. And the worst part was that stigmatisation came together with murder.

A month passed, and protesters hadn’t been able to come to an agreement with the government when, one night, at around nine o’clock, we heard explosions. Usually, during the rally, there were cultural events at night. People played string music and told jokes and bedtime stories. That night, when people were leaving for their tents, some guys threw explosives into the crowd! Three people died, and more than 80 were wounded. The same happened in several towns in Putumayo. Back then, we thought it was a coordinated attack organised by the government army to spread fear and bring the protest to an end. It’s still not clear what happened. We just don’t know. Anyway, violence against coca growers and their leaders would get even worse in the years to come.

Protesters returned to their homes after agreeing on a work plan with the government to discuss social investment, access to services and infrastructure, and economic alternatives to coca. Mainly, the Community Action Boards participated in this negotiation process. Several social leaders realised that we also needed a regional peasant organisation to voice the needs of people in Putumayo. So we had the idea of creating a peasant union. Due to my experience in the Boards Association, and perhaps to the inexperience of our rural comrades in organising files, correspondence and the like, I was elected secretary of the Putumayo Peasant Union. It was my leap from local social organisation to broader peasant organisation platforms.

That was a time of intense social activism. While we were negotiating with the government, we were building the union municipality by municipality. It was a very enriching experience because I got in touch with peasant leaders from different parts of the country. We realised that the problems we had in Putumayo were very similar to the issues elsewhere. Therefore, joining a broader platform to fight for land and peasants’ social and political rights made sense. In April 1997, we created a local branch of the union in Orito, and we were doing the same in the rest of the towns when the paramilitaries came to Putumayo.

The violent operations of the paramilitaries had a clear objective: not to let the peasants’ organisation advance. And, in that selective hunt, the first ones to fall were those who led the coca rallies.

First, they killed a leader in the neighbouring town of San Miguel. Then, they attacked a leader from Puerto Caicedo, who was miraculously saved. Some colleagues travelled to Bogotá to file complaints, while others – myself included – stayed to participate in a forum with the Minister of the Interior to talk about human rights violations. We took a break to have lunch during that forum, and when we returned, we found threatening pamphlets on the chairs. It was a terrible period. Later, they killed the mayor of Puerto Asís, who had been elected with the support of the peasant organisation, and a leader from Orito, whose tongue was cut off. Those who weren’t displaced had to stop all political activity, forced by the circumstances. Others joined the guerrillas to save their lives.

I resisted a couple of years, but in 2000 we were displaced. We had to find a place to live elsewhere because I could no longer bear the permanent surveillance of the paramilitaries. By then, I had already left my partner, so, forced by necessity, I sold my house in the town for a low price and travelled with my four children to the rural area of Puerto Asís, on the border with Ecuador. There, another stage of my life began.

I planned to leave behind my social work to protect our lives. I wanted to go where I could be safe, and my children could study. It was painful for them because they had their friends in Orito, and the oldest one had a boyfriend. Still, fortunately, we were able to establish in an area where the guerrillas were strong, so I was protected from the paramilitaries who were chasing me. There was a good school, and there were good conditions for commerce. With the money from the sale of our house and savings from my work, I bought a new home and set up a restaurant.

Our new home was in a hamlet by a large river and with stunning landscapes. There were many coca crops around, but also chontaduro, pineapple, sugarcane and subsistence crops. I estimate that 40{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of farm production was coca, and the rest was other products. There were also many indigenous people with solid organisations. People in this area were organised in Community Action Boards, producer associations, and, in the case of the indigenous people, in Cabildos. As a result of their collective efforts and the agreements of the coca grower strikes of the ‘90s, they had managed to get the government to build a rural school, the only one in the surrounding area. My children went to primary and secondary school there. Even though my decision to move to the area was forced, I believe it was the best decision I made in my life. The territory welcomed me in a tough time, and my children grew up and happily came of age there.

Putumayo river
A journey on the Putumayo river. Photo by Frances Thomson

However, not everything was a rose garden. I couldn’t go to the town. I had to stay in the rural area because the paramilitaries controlled the urban area. To get to the town, you had to cross a river, and the paramilitaries would go to where peasants disembarked from the ferry, list in hand. Those on the list were killed right away and thrown in the river. Therefore, I had to buy groceries in Ecuador or send my oldest daughter to the town to get supplies for my restaurant.

In 2002, when I was working at my restaurant and focused on supporting my children, the paramilitaries, with the support of the government army, assassinated the Putumayo Peasant Union’s president. Because I kept the organisation’s archives, his relatives and the International Red Cross contacted me to help in the search for the body. We found him buried in a cemetery as an NN (‘no-name’) eight days later. I had distanced myself from everything related to social work until that moment, but I felt I had to return to it under the circumstances. When you are a leader and fight to achieve better conditions for people, you feel like a leaf flying in the wind, heading nowhere, if you are not doing something. It’s impossible to sit still. I tried it for my children’s safety, but after the murder of our colleague, I began thinking about their future and what could happen to them. These reflections, which I shared with fellow peasant leaders, led us to reactivate our social work.

At that time, we believed that we couldn’t stand still in the face of violence because, if we did, the death of all our colleagues would have been in vain.

The first thing we did was reactivate the organisations in every municipality. The plan consisted of holding assemblies with Community Action Boards and Indigenous Councils to inquire about the communities’ opinions. Although many were afraid, many others welcomed the idea of organising again. We created a new peasant organisation, and I was elected vice president. We discussed a Life Plan for the area, defining the population’s needs and priorities. A company had started to exploit the oil wells in the area, and so, our idea was to get them and the local and national authorities to support our Life Plan. The plan included, among other things, legal recognition of peasants’ land rights and the protection of water sources, both of which were threatened by the oil company, and the maintenance of the roads we had built ourselves and which the oil company deteriorated without compensating us.

We spent a couple of years organising our Life Plan and then approached the oil company and the governor of Putumayo to help us implement it. However, the violence did not stop. In 2004, we met with the mayor, the governor and the company. We told them that they couldn’t continue exploiting oil in the area if the national government didn’t participate in the meetings and help us with the plan. The oil company wasn’t interested in agreements and refused to invite the national government to have a dialogue. Instead, they complained about all the problems the guerrillas caused to their operations. Anyway, we left the meeting feeling happy because, although we couldn’t come to an agreement, we showed them our political strength and presented our proposals. But, five days later, the president of the newly created organisation was brutally assassinated with several shots in the back.

As I was the organisation’s vice president, I was supposed to take over his post. However, the paramilitaries were still in town, so I couldn’t go there to do everything that the leader of an organisation has to do. We had to temporarily suspend our Life Plan project and dedicate ourselves to denouncing human rights violations My financial situation was not good because I had left my restaurant unattended to devote myself to social work. Besides, one of my sons became seriously ill. Fortunately, by then, I already had the support of my current partner. He was the president of a Community Action Board and had come to Putumayo to work on coca farms until, with his savings, he was able to buy a piece of land. Being with him is a blessing because he’s a hardworking man, humble, and patient. It’s not easy to find a man who accepts his wife leaving home all the time, participating in meetings, and not being there for cooking or washing. He was always understanding of my leadership and took on those duties in the house. So, to solve our economic situation, I worked with him on the farm. I never worked in the coca crop itself, but I cooked for the workers, supervised them, and created and looked after coca seedbeds. The farm gave us enough to support my children.

The partial demobilisation of the paramilitaries in 2006 gave a second wind to the social movement in Putumayo. That was the moment to reactivate our Life Plan project, protest against the environmental and social damage caused by the oil companies, denounce human rights violations and oppose aerial spraying.

At that point, the demands were very similar to those of coca growers in the ‘90s; for example, to stop the fumigations, but the social movement was stronger and better trained. By then, we had solid proposals to negotiate with the government, and there were new peasant organisations that we didn’t have before.

Despite the demobilisation, paramilitary violence didn’t stop, and in 2007 I suffered the misfortune of losing one of my children. He was 19 and worked as an assistant in the chivas [a particular type of bus that transports merchandise and passengers in rural areas]. One morning, he was on his way from the hamlet to Puerto Asís, and the paramilitaries took him off the bus, carried him away in a truck, and killed him. My son didn’t mess with anybody. He wasn’t involved in political activity either. His only ‘crime’ was to wear a black t-shirt and trousers and rubber boots [wellies]. That was enough for the paramilitaries to kill him. According to them, anyone dressing like that was a member of the guerrillas. That was the most brutal blow I’ve ever received. But instead of falling apart, which was what people might have expected of me, I decided to continue with my political activity.

Navigating between personal tragedies and the threat of violence, little by little, I approached peasant organisations at the national level. I left local leadership behind and became part of movements with broader – countrywide – aims. It was a beautiful experience that taught me other lessons in life.

Before then, I never had the opportunity to meet leaders from different parts of the country. I was always focused on Putumayo. I remember that a peasant leader I knew always told me that I should leave the region to work at the national and international levels because local problems result from policies formed at these levels. The first time I participated in a meeting with peasants from different parts of the country, I realised his message was true. Despite the differences between the regions, the problems were very similar.

Time passed, and not only did they invite me to the meetings, but they appointed me as the Women’s Secretary of the peasant organisation where I was working. I was in charge of all the participation and education policies for women within the organisation. An essential experience I had in that position was traveling to the south of Colombia to organise local leadership workshops with peasant women, later replicated at the national level. The idea was to place women in high positions to ensure they started taking on roles traditionally given to men. The process led me to participate in the Vía Campesina World Assembly in Africa. It was a very long journey, more than 24 hours! I met people with different cultures and languages for the first time, and I learned about the continent’s history. I discovered that, despite being a region with a lot of inequality, its people have strong dignity because they have fought for their rights all their lives.

Later I became treasurer and general secretary of the organisation, among other posts. These responsibilities forced me to leave Putumayo and go to Bogotá, the organisation’s headquarters. It was tough because it involved moving away from my family, leaving behind my work in the region, and coming to a big city. Although it was hard at first, and I even got sick, I managed to do the job entrusted to me.

I was fortunate to participate closely in some of the most important political events in recent years in Colombia. First, I helped with the 2013 National Agrarian Strike, which mobilised thousands of peasants throughout the country to demand better living conditions, access to services and rights, and a change in economic policies. This strike positioned agrarian problems back at the centre of the national debate. Additionally, I participated with my organisation in the peace process with the FARC guerrillas. We wanted to contribute to building peace in our country. As several points on the agrarian problem were included in the conversations with the guerrillas, we were committed to promoting compliance with the Peace Agreement.

Today, I feel very uncertain about what may happen with peace and the social movement in Colombia. We believed that peace would bring the changes we had fought for, for years, but that has not happened yet.

If I look back at my life, I can say that I am proud of who I’ve been and what I’ve done, despite all the difficulties and suffering due to having lost my loved ones. I made the decision to follow the path of those who fight for the welfare of others. That took me away from the ordinary life of a family woman. It has been a good life!

In war and peace, we black people always lose

Most people who came to Tumaco came to grow coca. Those who arrived after 2000 cleared the forest to plant that bush. Bundles of people came from Putumayo and also from Samaniego and Caquetá. It’s so funny! Before, it was the other way around: people from Tumaco moved to Putumayo to make a living from coca. They worked as raspachines. 36 That’s how people from Putumayo and Tumaco became friends and even relatives.

Settlers came to Tumaco for many reasons. Some were displaced by the Plan Colombia fumigations. Others arrived with the guerrillas: the FARC groups from different places in Putumayo came here and brought their people with them. And how did it work? People came, displaced by violence or following the guerrillas, and then would tell their family members or friends who were also starving in Putumayo because of the fumigations or the war. ‘Come, there’s enough land here … There’s land for coca, to cultivate, land for this and for that.’ Then the relative or friend would come with his son, sometimes with the oldest one, and even with his woman. Later, they would send for the niece, uncle, cousin. That’s how these lands, even those of the Community Councils, were populated. People came packed into trucks and crossed the river on a ferry.

Many of those who came to plant coca went missing. We don’t know if they disappeared or were killed. I honestly don’t believe they are still alive. Too many people are missing in Tumaco. Those people came here looking for opportunities, but they had no IDs and because of the difficult situation in the area, some suspected they were members of the guerrilla groups and others suspected they were paramilitaries. Coca generates fights and makes folks jealous. For many people, the river became their grave. For me, 2002 was the worst period. Rafts full of bodies came floating down the river frequently.

Coca is not only for peasants. Coca is a chain that ties everything together.

For example, I’m not a coca grower. I never grew coca, and not because I didn’t feel like it, but because of the problems it brought. Where there was coca, there were always armed groups. But, for example, my wife had a shop, and she sold things on credit to the coqueros.  Others sell gasoline to those who process the leaves or transport the coca. It’s a long, long chain!

Although I never grew coca, I know how the business works. Some people planted it next to my palm crop. There was a guy who had around five hectares; he was a small coquero. He worked hard to get the land to produce, but it seemed that the profit was never enough because, when he finally sold the coca, he already owed money to everybody, and he couldn’t pay. He harvested every three months. But between harvest and harvest, he had to work an awful lot. He had to add many chemicals to the soil, fertilise the crop and then fumigate it, and he had to do this almost every day. On top of everything, the guy went to sleep at ten or eleven because he had to go with a flashlight at dusk to check that the ants weren’t eating his crop. He was working all the time. So, if I were to put a price on all the hours he worked, I don’t think he was making a lot of money from coca. Coca isn’t such good business for small growers. The profit goes to those who buy it or grow more than ten hectares, those who make the base paste and crystallise it, to the large laboratories, the industrialists. The money ends up going to those who don’t even live here.

coca bushes
Coca bush. Photo by Diego Lagos/Universidad Nacional

Some say there was a coca bonanza, in the same area where I had my palm crop. Growers say those times were good because they could buy three crates of beer, which they piled up in their homes. Their dining rooms were full of bottles. But the next day they ran out of money, and once again, they had to go and pick coca leaves. This has been a big issue: small coqueros spend all their money on booze. They don’t invest it or save it. Coca has only improved the lives of a few people, at least in the area where I live. I visited some villages on the border where people who grew the bush don’t even have a house and are just surviving. I’d love to ask them what they did with the coca money, if they ever had it, although I don’t believe they ever had it.

For us, black people, coca has brought more sorrows than joys. It broke down our culture.

The hamlets in the Community Councils were filled with bars where all one could hear were forbidden corridos. Coca and its armed groups and settlers displaced many native communities. At one point, so many people moved from Tumaco to San Lorenzo, an Ecuadorian municipality close to the border, that they formed whole neighbourhoods over there. Settlers say they bought the land from the natives, but the land here cannot be sold! Our territories are collective property. Black people from these areas were very welcoming. There was always an extra dish for unexpected guests. But this custom is being lost, and one day it’ll disappear completely. Coca has caused enormous damage to our black culture!

Coca also brought fumigations to our territory. In 2003, the government began spraying in Tumaco. Everyone knew: whenever they shouted ‘the planes!’, we started running like hell. One could always see a guy in the plane aiming a machine gun at the people. Once, a boy aimed his rifle at the plane to make a joke. It came down after him, almost to the ground. The boy ran fast and, luckily, he lost them. Those people sprayed everything, even the mangroves. Apparently, they were paid to dump tons of glyphosate. Later, the palm crops got a disease called bud rot. That was devastating; it killed thousands of hectares of palm. We were sure the fumigations made the palms sick because both things happened around the same time: first the spraying and then the bud rot disease.

They almost got tired of fumigating here; nothing could get rid of the coca crops. The peasants learned tricks to save their bushes. They used panela41 and some other stuff. They washed the plants that had just been fumigated. Others cut them near the base, before the poison went from the leaves, down the branches, and into the roots. They curbed the damage in this way. They would lose that harvest, but in three months they were harvesting again.

Coca is just one of the problems that torments us here in Tumaco. The dispute over the land is broader. It has been going on for years, for decades.

And, to be fair, it didn’t start with the Putumayo settlers. Before the coca crops, other people from different parts of the country – pastusos, rolos, caleños, and paisas –42 took over our land to grow palm trees.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, businessmen from other parts of Colombia, even foreigners, came to Tumaco to set up plantations and palm oil refineries. Some of them were funded by the mafia. It was then that the exploitation began. Our concern was that we were going to be left with no land. In 1979, local people created some associations and they told the palm misters:

‘This cannot continue like this! Stop accumulating land, don’t be greedy!’

The rules of the game changed in 1993 with Law 70. This law recognised our territorial rights and created the Community Councils, the way we black communities organise to exercise authority and autonomy over our territories. Thanks to this law, black people began to come together and organise, to investigate what tasks we needed to complete to get legal rights over our lands. Most of these titles were granted in the 2000s. For us, the land is communal, and Law 70 states clearly that it’s inalienable, unattachable and imprescriptible. No one can take the land from us.

Tumaco farmer walks up a muddy path
Muddy footpaths are part of everyday life in rural Tumaco. Photo by Diego Lagos (@dalagossph)/ Universidad Nacional Photo by Diego Lagos/Universidad Nacional

The struggle for our lands has cost us dearly. Many legal representatives of the Community Councils have been assassinated. One never knows who it was: the palm growers, the armed groups, or both. Collective titling didn’t bring these conflicts to an end. Some palm companies still say that areas within the council’s lands belong to them, and they continue invading our territories. The same happens with settlers and coqueros. They insist on having individual property titles in the council’s areas. As soon as the issue is mentioned, an endless discussion begins. Our land cannot be sold! Instead of solving the situation, all the authorities do is let us negotiate by ourselves. Frankly, I wonder if the state wants us to continue fighting over the land. We have tried to coexist peacefully, but for us the council’s territory is not up for discussion.

The struggle to defend our lands has kept us in conflict with palm growers, settlers, coqueros, and as if this weren’t enough, with the FARC guerrillas.

Making them understand Law 70 was very complicated. It depended on the character of the commander. But since the FARC rotated or changed commanders frequently, just like what happens with the army, what the community explained to one commander was immediately lost, and they had to start from scratch with the new one. And, it’s one thing to argue with the palm company people or with the settlers, but quite another thing to tell it straight to someone who’s armed. When people didn’t obey the FARC’s instructions, complete an activity or whatever they said needed to be done, they were given three days to comply, or they had to leave, or they were killed. It’s pretty traumatic for people who have lived through these situations. People in Bogotá, for example, have other kinds of problems. Maybe it’s mobility, catching a bus, common crime or theft. For us, the main issue is securing peace in the territory, peace with the armed groups, with the FARC, the dissidents, with everyone. I insist that it’s traumatic to live with an armed group, under their command – and in a country where legality supposedly prevails.

So we tried to explain the role of the councils and Law 70 to the FARC. Some commanders allowed us to remain in the territory. Others threatened us when they arrived. I remember once in a meeting, the commander had already spoken a lot, and I asked him, ‘Comandante, may I speak?’ He replied, ‘What do you want? Shut up!’ And he kept on talking. He talked about their military strategy. He said they killed, that they did everything. And then he pointed at me and yelled, ‘What were you going to say?’ Then, our secretary, the council’s secretary, a really calm boy – I don’t know where he got the nerve from – took out a Law 70 brochure and handed it to the commander saying, ‘Comandante, when you have time, read it!’ The meeting was over, and we went home. In the next meeting, the man had a completely different attitude. He said: ‘Who is going to explain this shit about Law 70 to me?’ I even took it as a good joke. A knowledgeable young man told him, ‘You see, Law 70 is about this and that. That’s why we are telling you that these are collective territories.’ And well, at least he listened to us.

To live through war is to feel death breathing down one’s neck, especially for those of us defending the welfare of our communities and the land that we black people would like everybody to respect.

Here in Tumaco, black people were not born with these clarities. So much work is needed for people to understand that we have to fight for what belongs to us, for our rights. Fortunately, there’s been progress: Law 70, leaders emerging in the councils and in the hamlets.

Before, it was different. Black people believed that they had to be poor. When I was a boy, I saw people living in the mud, almost grateful for their misfortune. I like to believe that I helped raise consciousness among the black population of Tumaco. They started to understand that we could demand things from local authorities. I think that I inherited the desire to be free from my maternal grandparents. I never met them, but I learned that they came here searching for the sea or wanting to return to Africa. They escaped from the mines in Barbacoas, another municipality on the Pacific coast. I was told that they reached the sea and went up the river on a canoe – there were no roads back then. My grandparents examined the land to see if it was suitable for sowing, and eventually found somewhere to settle.

I owe my education to my father. He took me to the priest’s school and then brought me to the urban area of Tumaco to finish high school. I had the best of relationships with the priests, even though I was a rebel – I’ve always been a rebel – and I didn’t accept them imposing things on me. I liked to defend people who could not protect themselves, and I would fight for them. I went on strike over the food they gave us at the boarding school and, thanks to the protest, they didn’t give us rotten fish ever again.

In 1975, they appointed me as a teacher at a small school in Tumaco. Beto Escrucería, Tumaco’s great political chief, appointed me. Tumaco changed completely when the Escrucerías came to power. They are white, they have Spanish ancestry, but they also grew up here, in the territory, together with the black people. Beto was a committed politician, but with him and his people, politics were closed. They were the lords and masters of Tumaco. The municipality was like their hacienda, and they managed it as such. They helped their friends, everyone who was a Betista, but no one else. Beto was my father’s preferred politician, but not mine.

In fact, I was almost his opponent. Anyway, he gave me the position at the school, and I spoke to him several times. I don’t know if he realised the problems I was causing him. Once, when I was a juror at a voting table for mayoral elections, I didn’t allow a Betista to vote because the photograph on his ID was not clear enough. It all became a huge thing, the police even came. I stood up and told everyone, ‘Sorry, but he won’t vote here, not at this table. As long as I’m here, he won’t vote.’ Nobody uttered a word, and the guy didn’t vote. I was never a juror again.

Back in the ‘70s, we learned about what was going on in communist China. We studied booklets by Mao and Fidel – I have no idea where those booklets came from. We championed that cause.

People from a party called MOIR, the Revolutionary Independent Workers Movement, came to visit. There was a lawyer named López, who had been to China and Russia. He was from the University of Nariño and came here to give us classes and lectures. Later on, they killed him.

In Tumaco, we started talking about social change. We compared Beto to Somoza – that dictator from Nicaragua. During political campaigns, they’d cover the walls of some houses with Beto’s propaganda. At night we would tear down all his posters, even if we had to stay up until dawn. I never liked Beto’s governing style, even though he appointed me as a teacher.

The fishermen’s’ children attended the school where I worked. At that time, Tumaco fishermen were considered evil, challenging to deal with. I remember I had a meeting with a father, a wicked guy, who was a fisherman. I asked him why he had sent his son to school, and he replied, ‘so that he can learn, so that he doesn’t grow up to be like me.’ I said he was not helping him much and that if he wanted to help him, he should do this and that, and I gave him some tips. The man looked at me and asked: ‘And what’s your name?’ I said, ‘I’m so-and-so.’ Then he said: ‘This is the first time somebody tells me that, the very first time,’ and he shook my hand. He said, ‘Let’s be friends.’ The man considered me his friend until the day he died.

I believe I fostered changes in the consciousness of the young people in that school. They still remember me. Sometimes I walk through the neighbourhood, and I meet the boys who studied with me. Some of them are already technicians and they call me ‘teacher’, and they even bow to me.

I was a teacher until the ‘80s. Then I went back to my hamlet and saw that things weren’t working. Many things were lacking. People were not living well. The first thing I did was to insist that we all needed to improve our houses. I started to build my house and then other people copied my idea. They became aware that houses are part of our environment and that we had to protect ourselves from the weather and the rain. You see, before, the houses were made of cardboard. In 1986, I did a census of the hamlet, which was already a large village, and everyone had houses with cardboard roofs. In other places, the roofs were made of straw, a local material. It was good because it absorbed heat, but rats destroyed those roofs in 15 days. I told everyone that houses should be comfortable and last for a lifetime.

Rainy day in rural Tumaco
A rainy day in a rural hamlet of Tumaco. Photo by Diego Lagos (@dalagossph)/Universidad Nacional

After nagging people about their houses, I got into another struggle. The hamlet didn’t have water or electricity. We bought a power plant – me and a paisa friend – for our houses, but people were suspicious and jealous. So I said to my friend, ‘let’s do something so everyone can have electricity. Elections are coming, and you know who the candidate is? Beto Escrucería’. We brought together more than 180 families. We shared our idea with them. We said that we wanted a power plant for the hamlet and that we could ask Beto for it while we were in election season. As soon as Beto was aware of the possible revolt, he told us not to continue with it, that an oil palm company would give us the plant. That promise, unlike most politicians’ promises, was kept. The community obtained the plant. It arrived from Bogotá before the elections. Then, we needed the power lines. I spoke to someone and asked him to donate the cables and transformers. The community made the poles. We cut the trees for them with a chainsaw and an axe. A technical guy from a company helped us with the installation. And so, lights came to my hamlet for the first time, with poles made from guayacán trees.

Fighting for black people’s rights has never been easy. That’s why I was excited about the Havana Peace Agreement. With peace, access to electricity, water, health and education would improve.

Maybe we wouldn’t get them for free, but at least projects could be requested and implemented, and the community would benefit from them. That’s what makes the difference. But no, peace has been a scam. The council and its members joined the illicit crop substitution programme believing things were going to change. And things have indeed changed: the FARC guerrillas are gone, but now there are dissidents, those who did not lay down their arms or who rearmed. We are working towards the substitution of illicit crops, on voluntary coca eradication, in exchange for an alternative, a feasible productive project, in exchange for roads, for help with marketing. But armed people are back in the territory willing to defend coca. It’s so tricky!

Substitution has been jeopardised. I believe the programme was poorly designed from the beginning. Say one used to live from coca, and six or eight months ago, uprooted their crop, but the state only comes up with two million pesos out of the twelve million they promised. That was what they gave them as payment for eradicating their crops: money! But money comes and goes. That’s not sustainable! I think about it and say, ‘Why don’t we sit down first and plan the programme together? You, Mr. Peasant, what do you want to grow, and how will we commercialise it? Let’s not provide more cocoa to Luker44 for them to pay whatever they want for it.’ Suppose we produce a lot of cocoa, then they lower the price to 3,000 or 4,000 pesos per kilo. Someone must tie up this chain with a sustainable price! Let’s fix the price of cocoa at 10,000 pesos a kilo. If this were the price, everybody would hurry to plant cocoa, leaving coca behind, and the government wouldn’t have to pay them two million, that’s for sure! Because cocoa, when well taken care of, can be profitable if prices are good. But none of this has been done. Nothing has happened. They took away coca from the people, and now they no longer have the means to live.

Substitution has been a hot potato for the council leaders who took the programme on their shoulders and believed in the government. We have been singled out and stigmatised in our territories. The programme has failed, and we’ve had to face the people who sacrificed their livelihood, their coca, to comply with the government’s demands. That’s why they’re killing leaders, because when things go wrong – and with substitution, everything is going terribly wrong – it is us who are blamed.

Peace is dying in Tumaco. New groups arrive every day. There are so many that one no longer know who’s who. Building peace in these territories, with no guarantees from the government, isn’t possible.

The state lost the opportunity to do things differently. Or maybe the state never loses, and it’s in their interest that things fail. Meanwhile, for us, the failure of this process is at another price: we pay with our lives. It seems black communities always lose, both in war and in peace.