This Third World Quarterly article discusses the institutionalization of calamity – in the form of fumigation and exposure to lethal violence – and its consequences over coca peasants and workers in Colombia. It shows how this institutionalized calamity indelibly marks their life trajectories, through repeated episodes of ‘total loss’. Understanding illicit rural classes and economies in this way gives them specific characteristics that diverge from the typical identikit attributed to peasants in some agrarian studies. These peasants and workers are much more mobile and risk prone, less localistic and deferential, and have different demands with respect to markets, government and land. While they resist state sallies into their territories, and the violence, brutality and stigmatization associated with them, they also push for infrastructure and regulation, indispensable not only for coca crops, but also for any viable transit to legality.