Published in Third World Quarterly

By Camilo Acero and Frances Thomson

For decades, Colombian governments have imposed a narrative linking illegal crops with statelessness and presenting ‘more state’ and specifically ‘more law enforcement’ as the solution to a swathe of problems in drug-producing regions.

We draw on coca growers’ own accounts of law enforcement to critique this narrative. Their accounts – specifically from Putumayo in Colombia’s Amazonian frontier – refer to persecution for many of the things they do in their everyday lives, not just those directly related to the coca economy. Their livelihoods are constantly under threat from state forces as a result of counternarcotics operations but also due to the imposition of (phyto)sanitary and environmental norms. This generates resentment towards the state, undermining its efforts to establish authority in these territories.

Thus, building on coca farmers’ accounts, we argue that state weakness in drug-producing areas is a problem of quality and not only quantity. Improving quality means transforming the way lawmakers and enforcers relate to rural citizens. If the Colombian state continues to wage war against the peasantry, it will hardly achieve effective governance of the coca frontier.