Cocaine Capitalisms & Social Trauma in Peruvian Amazonia

The Social Life of Trans Andean-Amazonian Coca

Having played an intimate role in local and regional systems of kinship (e.g. ayllu relations), production, exchange and consumption, the circulation[i] of coca leaves between Andean consumers and cultivators in the montaña (tropical eastern Andean foothills and Amazonian lowlands) dates back to at least the last millennium (Salisbury and Fagan 2013). Coca leaves have a veritable history of cultivation, daily use and ritualized consumption in the Andes, as well as in some regions of Amazonia: chewing coca leaves has long been known for their nutritional components, ability to assuage cold, appease hunger and counter fatigue (Seki and Yoshito 2012). Daily use of coca leaves remains pivotal to customary healing, divination, fertility rites, and elaborate shamanic practices (Allen 2002; Andrews and Solomon 1975).

Given its cultural centrality to Andean life-ways, it is not surprising that foreign tourists to Peru or Bolivia are often hawked t-shirts in souvenir markets or by street vendors embellished with the rhetorically charged phrase--‘La Hoja de Coca no es Droga!’ (‘Coca Leaf is Not a Drug!’)--underscoring the sensitive and convoluted relation coca has had for the region and the globe ever-since the Franco-Peruvian Alfredo Bignon, the 1885 inventor of coca-sulfates (equivalent to PBC)[ii] turned Peru into the epicenter of coca leaf production (Gootenberg 2007, 2009; see also Young 1996; Gagliano 1994).

The narcotic qualities of coca had come to light in Europe nearly a century before: the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was the first to botanically identify Erythroxylum coca, listing it in his 1786 botanical encyclopedia (McCoy 2004:33). Today, unabated world demand for coca-based commodities (cocaine and PBC), coupled with a chronic rural agricultural crisis, rapid rates of migration, urbanization and social pathos have generated the unprecedented spread of coca leaf (as well as poppy and marijuana) cultivation, processing and circulation in Peruvian Amazonia.

Coca Conflict in Peruvian Amazonia: 1990-2004

In contrast to their Bolivian counterparts (Webber 2011; Montellano Ponce de Leon, 2011), formal representative bodies of coca-growers (cocaleros) were relative latecomers to the Peruvian national political scene (Cabieses 2004; Durand Ochoa 2012). In Peru, the violent armed conflict (lucha armada) dating to the 1980s between subversive groups (Sendero Luminoso, SL and the Movimiento Revolucinario Tupac Amaru, MRTA), bandits, and state security forces had fractured the country. Civil upheaval, economic duress and political violence placed great risks for those involved in grass roots efforts at social mobilization around basic human needs, which in turn hindered the political maturation of the Peruvian cocalero movement. This corresponded to a brief rapprochement between the state and coca-cultivators. Guided by Fujimori's new “Doctrine on Drugs” coca eradication was suspended between 1990 and 1995, and coca farmers and their cooperatives were no longer labeled as being part of the international criminal chain of drug traders. Aimed at regularizing and subsequently licensing the informal coca sector, former president Fujimori’s “Doctrine on Drugs” was strategically designed to garner the endorsement of cocaleros, especially in the government’s “scorched-earth” counter-insurgency campaign against the Sendero Luminoso and the MRTA. Backed by the support of U.S government assistance, as well as international groups, including the United Nation's International Drug Control Program, Fujimori’s “Doctrine on Drugs” opted for a policy of crop substitution, rather than forced eradication (Cabieses 2004; see also INEI 1996; Hendrix 1993; Degregori 2000).

Yet Fujimori's dictatorial regime’s policy towards coca leaf production took a volte face in 1996 when his Minister of the Interior--Juan Briones Dávila, a retired Army General--announced a reinstatement of forced eradication of coca-fields (cocales) with the implementation of a completely U.S.-financed Coca Eradication Project in the Upper Huallaga Valley (CORAH). In response, the cocalero movement mobilized against the CORAH eradication program with demonstrations, strikes and constant roadblocks in coca-cultivating regions (Salisbury and Fagan 2013).

The precipitous fall of Fujimori’s government in November 2000 marked a gradual shift in the prominence of the cocalero movement.  In the context of Peru’s lingering civil war that had claimed the lives of well-over 70,000 victims by this time, the US-backed Peruvian government’s subsequent strategy reinforced the criminalization of the cocaleros, which in turn has diluted their legitimacy as a viable social movement, resulting in organizational discord, marginalization, and limited political voice (Durand Ochoa 2012). Contrary to those commentator’s animated by neo-liberal notions that the state under Fujimori had contributed significantly to “the taming of the [Amazonian] frontier” and the minimization of social conflict (Santos-Granero and Barclay 1999:297, 301; see also De Soto 1989; cf. Dean 2013a), ample evidence suggest a radically different version of events following the fall of the Fujimori dictatorship, which had effectively eroded the fundamental institutions of governability.

Following Valentín Paniagua’s brief transitional government (2000-1), Alejandro Toledo was elected President. He soon established DEVIDA (La Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo y Vida sin Drogas), which replaced the controversial Contradrogas founded in 1996 by Fujimori’s regime. Scholar and policy analysts Cabieses puts it well when he noted that Fujimori’s Contradrogas, “was a bastion of corruption and inefficiency” established with Washington D.C. backing under the command of Peru's National Intelligence Service (Servicio de Inteligencia Nacional, SIN) directed by spy master Vladimiro Ilich Montesinos (Cabises 2004; see also Degregori 2000; Dean 2002; Conaghan 2006).

By the time of the collapse of the Fujimori dictatorship and the “transition” to democracy under Toledo’s leadership, Peru's thriving cocaine industry had essentially become vertically integrated (Latin American Weekly Report 2003; Canby 2004; Economist 2005). Previously, light aircrafts shipped semi-processed coca paste (PBC) from isolated jungle fabricas (crude processing labs and camps) for additional refining in Colombia into high-grade cocaine. By the early 2000s, the illicit production and trafficking of cocaine began to alter following what Kernahagan has aptly deemed the “post-boom apogee” (1990-1995) of coca leaf cultivation and cocaine production in the Hullaga Valley (2009; Dean 2011). The measured transformation in Peru’s position in the supply chain of cocaine has been directly tied to the move towards an emphasis on cocaine powder refining (as opposed to PBC), which was assisted by “transnational organized crime” networks (TOCs), that continue to function with virtual impunity in Peru, and throughout much of the Americas (Bagley 2013).

Appreciable transformations in the global commodity-chain of coca based narcotic derivatives soon became readily apparent during Alejandro Toledo’s government (2001-2006).[iii] In 2004, for instance, Peruvian police began confiscating more refined cocaine powder than cocaine paste--or PBC (between 2003-2004, they eradicated over 1,700 clandestine fabricas). Transport of Peruvian refined cocaine started to be shipped to Mexico, Brazil or Europe on cargo ships, concealed alongside legal exports, such as lumber, food, fish products, guano and religious paraphernalia. Meanwhile, Toledo’s government publically stated in 2005 its determination to eradicate by the end of 2006 all but 10,000 hectares of coca that have been designated for traditional consumption (Economist 2005).

Toledo’s neo-liberal privatization stance towards Amazonia was advanced in concert with the promotion of crop substitution (such as coffee and cocoa) programs in coca cultivation zones. Much like nearly a decade previously, cocaleros, aided by community organizers from the country’s major coca-producing areas mounted protest, culminating in a massive demonstration in April, 2004. Characterized by the prominent role women played in these defiant political mobilizations, the cocalero movement forced the pro-U.S. Toledo government “into a veritable checkmate” (Cabieses 2004:10). Cocaleros demanded the legitimization of the coca leaf as a cash crop and a halt to the government’s U.S.-funded coca eradication and crop substitution policy. Peru’s cocalero movement was at its apex during this time.

By 2006, a few cocalero representatives were elected to a number of political positions, both at the municipal (provincial) and national levels. Notwithstanding their short-lived voice on the regional and national political stages, the subsequent impact of Peru’s cocalero movement has been relatively ineffectual. To wit, geographical barriers, cultural distinctions, and socio-political and economic divisions among coca-producing regions, like the Huallaga and the Apurímac-Ene (VRAE) Valleys, have frustrated efforts by the leadership of the cocalero movement from formulating a unified agenda regarding the issue of coca leaf cultivation, distribution and consumption (Duran Ochoa 2012). The lack of strong grass roots associations among cocaleros yielded fertile grounds for the country’s armed forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla organizations (Sendero Luminoso, MRTA) to function as brokers, intermediaries and/or drug traffickers (Bagley 2013).

The state’s ferocious counter-insurgency campaign forced Maoist guerrilla strongholds in the Andes (and the Coast) to retreat to the eastern slopes of the Andes and into Amazonia (Dean 2013a). In so doing, they wrested control of fertile areas suitable for coca-leaf production--such as the Huallaga Valley, and demanded local officials to be compliant to a new social “order”. Those who refused were tortured, executed or forced to flee. Meanwhile the guerrilla leadership--both the SL and MRTA--demanded taxing the processing and transportation of cocaine or PBC within zones it had “liberated” from State control. Moreover, intense coca eradication actions without viable economic alternatives lured many people to empathize or actually join the ranks of the insurgents (Valderrama and Cabieses, 2004:60-61; Crabtree 2003:146).

In grid-lock once again over the competing interests of various stake holders in the coca-wars, Toledo’s government had failed to effectively respond to the Gordian knot of coca, let alone address the penetration of cocaine capitalisms further into the tropical lowlands of Amazonia. Under Toledo’s leadership, the state continued to botch efforts at stemming the devastating consequences of cocaine and PBC on the nation’s public health,[iv] its political stability, and it’s environmental integrity, particularly in the tropical Andes and Amazonian forests. This has been exacerbated in Peru by the contradictory impact of decentralization and “participatory governance” mandated from “above” as described elsewhere in the provincial regions of the country (among others, see McNulty 2011).

Cocaine Politics in Peruvian Amazonia:
Another Decade On the Path to Nowhere?

Ever since Toledo left office in 2006 little has changed to essentially transfigure the complex balancing act between the forces pushing for coca-leaf eradication (who themselves are motivated by contradictory, yet at times over-lapping objectives) and those who benefit as participants in its continued role as a major global commodity. [v] This was clearly the case during the subsequent Allan García Pérez government (2006-2012) (among others, see Espinosa de Rivero 2009; Economist 2009), and appears to be so under the current Ollanta Humala’s presidency. Today, cocaleros and their advocates urge those stake holders to consider coca cultivation as a cultural, political, socio-economic and technical issue, rather than merely a criminal, national security or military problem, as framed by a slew of U.S. and Peruvian governments dating back to the illegalization of cocaine (Gagliano 1994; Gootenberg 2009).

As amply demonstrated in the extant academic literature and news media, or for those living in Peruvian Amazonia, a pattern of privatizing natural resources into marketable concessions, coupled with the Peruvian state’s historical complicity in the region’s complex shadow extractive economies, have provided ample grounds for the boom and bust cycles of coca production, while at the same time facilitating TOC trafficking of narcotics--e.g. cocaine, PBC and heroin. Despite the “post boom” hiatus in Peruvian coca leaf cultivation (1990-1995), the past decade began when the country’s internal output of refined cocaine literally began ‘flying off the hook’.[vi] Compelled by a series of intersecting factors: namely the increase in coca-leaf prices; problems associated with the marketability of economically competitive alternative cash crops; and the insufficiency of state funding for crop substitution programs, all encouraged many local campesinos--as well as flow of migrants (drawn from the Andes and elsewhere in Peru)--to become intertwined in the “post boom” shadow coca economy of coca, particularly along the Bajo Huallaga Valley, located in the geographically isolated lowland regions of San Martín and Loreto.

The aspirations of Peruvian Amazonia’s migrants continue to be formulated against the country’s backdrop of seemingly obdurate economic and social inequalities, a protracted history of political and structural violence resulting in mass internal displacement, and established and diverse patterns of internal and international migration that are only now beginning to be understood (Justice, Dean and Crawford 2012; see also Santacruz Benavides, and Flórez Holguin 2012). Accelerated pressures over land has triggered increased deforestation in rural areas now dedicated to coca-leaf cultivation (Young 1996), reducing the possibilities for further agricultural production, which in turn underwrites out-migration into erstwhile “unoccupied” areas of the forest. Given continued population growth and resource scarcity in settled areas, like Yurimaguas or Tarapoto, novel pressures have promoted further out-migration to rural destinations in the selva baja (lowland ‘jungles’ of Amazonia), and invariably unrestricted deforestation. Many associated with the coca-commodity chain have moved further into remote areas of the forest located, not only along the ever growing network of roads, but increasingly following the seemingly endless river-ways and overland paths (trochas) that form Amazonia. In the meantime, the failed war on drugs has continued to fuel localized conflicts, while coca capitalisms continue to transform the ecological and human topographies of this critically vital yet vulnerable region of the planet.

Comprehending Coca Capitalisms in the Bajo Huallaga Valley

In order to provide some insights into the impact that coca capitalisms have had on indigenous and mestizo peoples lives, I provide a few reflections on the future prospects of the region’s forests and peoples in light of ineffective coca eradication policies, and the migratory movement of cultivators and traffickers in Amazonia, namely the Bajo Huallaga Valley of northeastern Peru. A geographically consequential crossroads of migration between the tropical Andean intermontane valleys and plateaus of the selva alta (high jungle) and the lowland forests (selva baja), the Huallaga Valley is characterized by its degree of ethnic diversity among indigenous, mestizo and immigrant populations. Despite centuries of cataclysmic disruptions associated with European-inspired colonization and the concurrent policies of genocide and ethnocide in the Americas (Maybury-Lewis 1997; Dean and Levi 2003; Dean 2009), language remains an important marker of contemporary collective identity, and perhaps not surprisingly language mixing in native lowland South America is often opposed on ideological grounds (Aikhenvald 2012).[vii]

Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, migrants from throughout Peru have been drawn to the tropical northeastern Amazonian lowlands, thanks in part to the development of transport infrastructure and various extractive enterprises in the Lower Huallaga Valley (Hegen 1966). Many of the recent migrants to the urban “shanty” settlements or barriadas ringing cities like Yurimaguas--the lower Huallaga River’s primary urban settlement--are indigenous peoples displaced from their rural homes by a combination of neoliberal economic policy coupled with destructive, extractive economies, such as illicit coca leaf cultivation, processing and trafficking, as well as legitimate agricultural produce (rice, plantains, cacao, palm-oil, etc.) for the market (Dean et al.; Dean 2012). While some migrants to Yurimaguas hail from other Amazonian communities, many come from the Andean Highlands, dislocated by the ongoing conflicts in the region, resource scarcity (especially land), or motivated by the search for economic opportunity and social mobility. Migration from Andean provinces to the lowland Amazonian region (selva baja) represents a historical trend that has quickened. Both out-migration and cyclical migration has given rise to rapid, socio-economic transformations. In spite of official proclamations stating otherwise, the massive coca economies afflicting the Huallaga Valley continue apace.

For its part, the current Ollanta Humala government paints a strikingly different picture when it comes to coca-leaf cultivation in the Huallaga Valley. For example, accompanied by the Director General of Police, Raul Salazar, the head of DIRANDRO, General Walter Sanchez and the Chief of CORAH, Juan Zarate Gambini, Peru’s Minister of Interior, Wilfredo Pedraza lauded the Humala government’s fight against drug trafficking in Peru during a press conference at the end of last year. During the Dec. 20th, 2012 conference, Pedraza asserted that the annual eradication of coca leaf cultivation, the dismantling of criminal gangs, the confiscation of drugs, and the seizure of illicit proceeds had surpassed historical records ostensibly set during the Fujimori regime (Andina 2012). Similarly, at the close of 2012, Jose Vasquez Tarrillo, the head of the Department of Drug Enforcement Tactical Operations-Tarapoto (Departamento de Operaciones Tácticas Antidrogas, DEPOTAD), took stock of the government’s anti-narcotics activities conducted in the area under his jurisdiction.[viii]

Cultivation and Contradiction in Amazonian Coca Capitalisms

Notwithstanding rosy Peruvian government assessments, a cursory review of recent local media accounts about coca-conflicts in the Huallaga illustrates that the social dread and violence associated with coca continues to proliferate. Moreover, international assessments provide a more sobering picture of the current situation “on the ground.” According to the most recent joint 2011 DEVIDA (Peruvian Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo y Vida sin Drogas)/United Nations Drug Control Programme and the Centre for International Crime Prevention (UNODC) report, the Peruvian government’s eradication program of coca leaf crops dropped from 14.5% to 10,290 hectares, declining from 12,033 hectares in 2010.  However, the total quantity of sun-dried coca leaf output was calculated at around 131,300 tons in 2011, up some 4.3% from the previous year. While 9,000 tons of coca leaves were estimated for traditional, ‘customary’ purposes, roughly 122,300 tons were apparently destined for illicit markets animated by the flow of PBC, cocaine and the power it can wield.[ix]

DEVIDA/UNODC’s 2011 report identified Peru’s largest coca producing regions as the trans-Andean-Amazonian zones--the Apurímac-Ene (VRAE) and the Huallaga Valleys--which account for roughly half of the country’s coca leaf production (and these areas also registered a modest increase of 1% in annual output during 2011). The minimal increase in cultivation in San Marín can be attributed to the extensive eradication efforts conducted in the Alto Huallaga Valley (which involved 59.1% of total eradication efforts in 2011). Nevertheless, coca-cultivation was reportedly up by an astounding increase of more than 40% in the northern Amazonian regions of country (including the Marañón, Putumayo and Bajo Amazonas), where no eradication campaigns were implemented in these regions of lowland Peruvian Amazonia (DEVIDA/UNODC 2011).

To date, empirical data on coca leaf cultivation, eradication, and trafficking in Amazonia is rampant with contradictions, inconsistencies and lack of credible information. This has been compounded by the perilous nature of field research in coca growing areas, which has limited the quantity and quality of reliable data for measuring coca related deforestation, biodiversity loss (Salisbury and Fagan 2013), not to mention the requisite qualitative information needed to assess the human and social toll that the continued production of coca leaf production has had in lowland South America. This is particularly the case for the Peruvian tropical Andes and Amazonian lowlands, which continues to suffer from a climate of fear, violence, and on-going militarization associated with coca conflicts.[x]

Studying the relationship between coca leaf capitalisms, migration, and rapid urbanization elucidates the difficulties of conducting ethnographic research in the Huallaga watershed. Clearly, qualitative ethnographic research is much needed to assess the growing coca crisis in Peruvian Amazonia. Focusing on Peru’s Marginal Highway during the height of the civil war (1980s and 1990s), Kernaghan has recently provided a persuasive entre point for assessing “the lived topographies of law in state frontiers” (2012; see also 2013). Yet qualitative, participatory field research itself generates complex ethical and moral issues associated with the ethnographic study of the social dread associated with coca capitalisms. Building the trust of producers, traffickers, consumers--not to mention their advocates, as well as individuals involved in coca eradication, is to put it at best--“dangerous territory” riddled with risk and ethical quandaries. All the more so in consideration with the professional dictates of informed consent and the moral conundrums associated with ethnographic encounters in times of humanitarian crisis (see Dean 2013b). To wit, as elsewhere in “narcostates”--from Colombia to Peru (see Ramírez 2010, García Díaz and Antesana Rivera 2010; Masterson 2010)--longitudinal, multi-sited ethnographic data is desperately needed to determine the extent to which coca capitalisms continue to refigure the socio-political, economic and moral worlds of Amazonia (Young 2004). This in turn will facilitate much needed dialogue among the numerous local, regional, national and transnational players dedicated to imagining and implementing alternative, sustainable strategies that respond effectively to the global cocaine crisis that sees no end in sight.

[i] The circulation of subsistence as well as ritualized crops formed what John Murra famously deemed “verticality” (1970); cf. Hevesi (2006).

[ii] Similar to crack, PBC or Pasta Básica de Cocaína (also known as paco) is an intermediary product in the manufacture of cocaine. The production of a kilo of crude coca paste (PBC) requires 115 kg. of coca leaves and an impressive amount of chemical inputs: roughly 1 kg of sodium carbonate, 5 kg of sulphuric acid, 7 gallons of kerosene, and 8 kg. of lime (Morales 1994). 

[iii] UNODC estimated that between 2000 and 2009 coca leaf cultivation in Peru increased by 38% (2010:65).

[iv] For a recent study of PBC use in Peru and its devastating public health implications, and links to corruption, political violence, internally displaced peoples, wide-spread human rights violations, environmental degradation and a protracted low-intensity “war on drug” see UNODC/DEVIDA’s (2013).

[v] The policy of participatory reform mandated from above is a problem that haunts the country today where “social conflicts” over resource management have virtually paralyzed key sectors of the country’s extractive economies (mining, petroleum, lumber)—as symbolically immortalized in Amazonia during the Bagua massacre of 2009.

[vi] The Peruvian government's anti-drug agency DEVIDA reported that by the end of 2004, the price of one kilo of coca leaves had gone to $5 from a previous low of only 50 cents. Not surprisingly, more local and migrants were drawn into planting vast cocales (coca fields). In simple economics terms this was not surprising given coca’s lucrative returns: a hectare of coca leaf yielded $7,500 annually, compared to about $1,000 from cocoa, or a mere $600 from coffee production (See Canby 2004).

[vii] Many indigenous societies reside in the selva baja region surrounding Yurimaguas, a principal lowland city, including: Quechua-speaking populations (Kichwa Lamista [Llakwash Runa], Kichwa del Pastaza [Inga Runa]); Jivaroan speakers (Achuar, Awajún, Wampis, and Shiwiar); Kandoshi speakers (Shapra and Kandoshi are dialects -linguistic isolates); Tupi- Guaranían speakers (Kukama-Kukamira); Cahuapanan speakers (Shawi [Kampu Piyapi] and Shiwilu); Arawakan speakers (Chamicuro); and the Urarina ([Kachá], a linguistic isolate, see Olawsky 2006; Dean 2013a).

[viii] The commander of DEPOTAD reported that his agents managed to confiscate more than two thousand kilos of cocaine base (PBC), seized roughly five tons of chemical inputs and eradicated 350 hectares dedicated to coca leaf production. The estimated international black market value of the seized goods and PBC was almost  $111 million, not including the value of 14 confiscated vehicles. Thirty-nine reportadores (traffickers) were also arrested and reportedly incarcerated (Anteparra 2012).

[ix] The joint 2011 DEVIDA/UNODC report noted that cocaine fetched wholesale prices of about $1,025 per kg. in coca-cultivating areas of the country (representing an increase of 8.2% relative to the prior year--$947 per kg). Meanwhile, in Lima, the wholesale price of cocaine rose by 50%, while along the northern, eastern and southern borders of Peru prices reportedly skyrocketed by more than 300%.

[x] While not defunct as an organization, the leader of Sendero Luminoso’s presence in the Alto Huallaga--Florindo Eleuterio Flores Hala (AKA ‘Comrade Artemio’) was captured in February 2012, striking a major blow to insurgents who still rely on taxing the lucrative cocaine and PBC markets of the region, as well as garner funds associated with illicit logging and other contraband.


This Panoramas essay will appear in a revised form in Dean’s current book project examining Social Trauma & Political Violence in the Lower Huallaga Valley.


Bartholomew Dean
Bartholomew Dean is an Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Kansas and the Director of Anthropology at the Museo Regional-Universidad Nacional de San Martín Tarapoto, Perú. Dean has been a Contributing Editor for the Ethnology Section of Lowland South America for the U.S. Library of Congress' HLAS. Dean is the co-editor of At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights, and Postcolonial States (2003), the author of the critically acclaimed ethnography Urarina Society, Cosmology and History in Peruvian Amazonia (2009/2013), most recently Anthropological Illuminations of the Varieties of Human Experience (2012).

Facebook Comments Box

Panoramas is published by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) at the University of Pittsburgh
4200 Posvar Hall, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Telephone: 412-648-7393 | Fax: 412-648-2199

Related sites: Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) - Vanderbilt University