Published in the International Journal of Drug Policy

Many discussions of mafia and criminal entrepreneurs typically focus on violence and illegality, and less on their possible roles in rural transformation, even when they are located in borderland economies linking the subsistence cultivators of illicit crops to regional and global markets.

This paper assesses the life stories of drug lords, the Castaño brothers of Colombia and Roberto Suárez Gomez of Bolivia, to draw inferences into how such rural elites in the illicit drugs trade are not only specialists in crime but are also actors who regulate and manipulate, often coercively, access to land and resources, mobilise labour and shape its divisions, and promote certain forms of capital accumulation.

The paper contends that a better understanding of the roles of these rural elites as pioneers for capital, intermediaries in commodity chains, and arbitrageurs between state and borderlands may provide ways of unpacking key challenges to peacebuilding and economic transformation in borderlands where illicit economies thrive.