Common themes and insights

Making sense of the life stories with common themes around agency and voice, violence and peace, and borders and boundaries.

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

Life stories raise questions, provocations and pointers for researchers and policymakers.

Why life stories?

Challenges and unique benefits of using life stories in research and policy engagement