Between the Guerrillas and the State: The Cocalero Movement, Citizenship, and Identity in the Colombian Amazon

Between the Guerrillas and the State: The Cocalero Movement, Citizenship, and Identity in the Colombian Amazon

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Responding to pressure from the United States, the Colombian government in 1996 intensified aerial fumigation of coca plantations in the western Amazon region. This crackdown on illicit drug cultivation sparked an uprising among the region’s cocaleros, small-scale coca producers and harvest workers. More than 200,000 campesinos marched that summer to protest the heightened threat to their livelihoods. Between the Guerrillas and the State is an ethnographic analysis of the cocalero social movement that emerged from the uprising. María Clemencia Ramírez focuses on how the movement unfolded in the department (state) of Putumayo, which has long been subject to the de facto rule of guerrilla and paramilitary armies. The national government portrayed the area as uncivilized and disorderly and refused to see the coca growers as anything but criminals. Ramírez chronicles how the cocaleros demanded that the state recognize campesinos as citizens, provide basic services, and help them to transition from coca growing to legal and sustainable livelihoods.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822350156
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 07/01/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

María Clemencia Ramírez is a Senior Research Associate and a former Director (2005–2007) of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History in Bogotá.

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Between the Guerrillas and the State

The Cocalero Movement, Citizenship, and Identity in the Colombian Amazon
By María Clemencia Ramírez

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5000-2

Chapter One

History of Colonization, Marginalization, and the State

Guerrillas, Drug Trafficking, and Paramilitarism in the Colombian Amazon

The Amazon region has been seen by the central government both as a solution to land pressures elsewhere in the country and as a national security buffer zone to protect the country's sovereignty on its southern border. These views of the region have defined state policy toward the Colombian Amazon and fueled the sense of abandonment that drives the region's discourse regarding the central state. This chapter reviews the geographical origins and migration timeline of colonos of Putumayo and the Baja Bota. We will see connections between this process of colonization and other events in the region's history, the popular perception of the state and state formation in the Amazon over the last century.

Several colono identities emerged as a result of colonization. This chapter examines how these identities were constructed both within the Amazon region and in relation to the central government, thus ascribing meanings to the region and its inhabitants that the colonos have simultaneously resisted and reinforced.

The chapter also describes the arrival of FARC in western Amazonia as a result of the violence that swept central Colombia between 1946 and 1966, their arrival in Putumayo in 1984, and their transformation into the authority in the region. It relates the history of coca cultivation in western Amazonia from its beginnings in the 1970s through its expansion into the dominant crop of the 1980s, and the ensuing war between FARC and drug traffickers for control over coca production and marketing. A grasp of the role of both these forces in the region is crucial to understanding how the cocalero movement emerged and operated.

Finally, I track two waves of the paramilitary phenomenon in Putumayo: their arrival at the end of the 1980s, which was linked to narcotrafficking, and their second appearance in 1997 after they had come together under the name United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), a political and military group that declared war against FARC. Paramilitarism not only increased political violence in Putumayo but also changed the way its residents related to FARC.

Colonization of the Colombian Amazon: The Construction of an Empty Territory as a Receptor for Displaced People

The central government, in the hands of the dominant elites that have historically owned and run the state in Colombia, has traditionally classified Amazonia as baldío (terra nullius, legally vacant and unowned land), implicitly denying the existence of those who lived there and re-designating it as a receptor for people displaced from other parts of Colombia. The colonization of the Colombian Amazon began thus in the late nineteenth century and has continued ever since, mainly by residents of the Andean highlands who left their homes in response to waves of social, political, and economic upheaval in central Colombia. Landless campesinos began to leave the highlands in the 1930s in search of a more stable livelihood on the open frontier. Deprived of their small plots by large landowners, these campesinos migrated to the marginal areas outside the agrarian frontier throughout the twentieth century, allowing elites to sidestep agrarian reform and legitimize the highly concentrated ownership of land that has characterized Colombia's rural property structure.

This migration accelerated in the 1950s due to confrontations between the dominant Liberal and Conservative political parties in the interior of the country, a period known as La Violencia or the Violence. These traditional political parties fostered a bloody, vicious partisan rivalry in the countryside through institutionalized patron-client relationships, pushing affected campesinos further and further away from the center. Colonization in the "margins" was later formalized by government settlement programs that implicitly recognized Colombia's structural land tenure problems.

The colonization of Colombia's western Amazon has been so consistent that mechanisms have been established for newly arriving colonos to integrate into the area's social, political, and economic structures. Putumayo's case is one of dynamic frontier expansion in which the state moved into new productive areas while reproducing its institutions and the class structure upon which it was based (Moran 1988). The Colombian political culture also reproduced intense political rivalries, the exclusion of third parties, the dependence of local authorities and political bosses on the central elites, and widespread administrative corruption. However, the state presence was felt only intermittently, and the frontier had "its own simultaneous autonomy, resistance, acquiescence, change, and persistence" (Whitten 1985, 47), as will be discussed.

Colonos have been defined as a contingent population, as people who arrive and leave along with an evolving cycle of commodity booms (rubber, pelts, gold, and most recently, coca) that had little lasting effect on their lives and culture. This construction represents the culture and identity of the migrant population as a cipher: non-native and present in Amazonia only to extract wealth. Coca may seem to be just one more commodity of this kind, but it has had long lasting effects that distinguish it from the others.

The western portion of Colombian Amazonia (the departments of Putumayo, Caquetá, and Guaviare) received the majority of Amazonia's population influx (see map 1). In the 1990s, western Amazonia was highly populated, with 86.3 percent of the Colombian Amazon's total population at a density of 2.5 inhabitants per square kilometer. Colonos were culturally dominant. Eastern Amazonia (the departments of Amazonas, Vaupés, and Guainía), by contrast, was characterized by a predominantly indigenous population, significant urbanization and a much lower population density of 0.1 inhabitants per square kilometer. Guerrilla activity and coca farming were found mostly in western Amazonia.

Marginalization and the Construction of a "Place Outside the Law"

The historically marginal Amazon region can be characterized as an "out-of-the-way place" (Tsing 1994), where the center can solve its problems without having to make structural economic, social, or political changes. In Putumayo, the government added the ascription of a "place outside the law," when coca cultivation—the main agricultural and economic activity of local campesinos—was declared illegal. As increased coca cultivation attracted the presence of the guerrillas, Putumayo came to be represented as a region inhabited by criminals, thus furthering its marginalization.

During a Peace Forum in Puerto Asís, some had stated that "We have gone from being a violent state to being a barbarous state, in some cases with the indifference of the citizenry." Soon afterward, the Mocoa-based Human Rights Ombudsman for Putumayo wrote to then-President Samper saying, "We are attempting to put an end to 'the law of the jungle' where anyone can violate another's right to life and physical integrity because he can be sure that nothing will happen to him."

The views of these government officials evoked historical images of the region that served to "explain" the ongoing violence. The region's barbarity was reified; the area operated under "the law of the jungle"; lack of civility was the norm. Yet the local officials' analysis of the increasing violence was contradictory. While they spoke of the struggle against impunity, their conception of the region as barbarous legitimated the reign of violence. Their very "explanation" justified the Colombian center's view of the region as marginal, either empty or inhabited only by barbarians in their "natural state"—an open invitation to the "civilizing" influence of re-colonization missions.

The departmental government plan for Putumayo 1998–2000, named the Territorial Pilot Plan for Social Peace (Plan Piloto Territorial de Convivencia), described the department as dominated by the coca economy, "an extractive and inequitable development model" (12) within a weak and delegitimized state, racked by the resulting struggle over territory and generalized violence. This diagnosis deemed the violence "not a conjunctural scenario but an evolving process" (13). The Plan explained that the violence resulted from historical "barbarism" in the Amazon, a longstanding element of the region's historiography, and one which meant, according to departmental officials, "an unviable society without human rights, without respect for rights, and without tolerance," where "democracy isn't feasible" (14–15). The coca economy was analyzed as "a focused strategy" (16) founded on a lawless frontier, implying that certain places in Putumayo were barbarous (Lower Putumayo) while others were not (Upper Putumayo), a representation that will be discussed in the next chapter (Government of Putumayo 1998, 12–16).

Thus, the Amazon region was defined by the central government as a space to be wrenched from the hands of lawless barbarians, conquered, and cured of its criminality and illegality. State repression (aerial spraying, militarization, and dirty war tactics) was legitimized through the construction of "stereotypic and dangerous impressions" (Herbst 1994, 18) of the inhabitants of Putumayo as criminals and guerrilla collaborators.

The stigmatization of this "marginal and peripheral" region and population by the Colombian heartland brought about resistance in the form of protest movements. Here it is worth considering Slater's (1998, 387) assessment that "regional social movements have challenged the existing territoriality of the state and in this struggle new forms of spatial subjectivity and identity have emerged." The cocalero social movement of 1996 challenged the state in this way, as will be discussed further.

Periods of Migration and Regional Origins of Colonos in Putumayo

This section provides a history of colonization in Putumayo and the Baja Bota of Cauca. As will be discussed, coca farming stimulates migration (for example by harvest workers who follow the crops), but is by no means the only cause of colonization in the region.

There have been five distinct waves of migration into Putumayo. Roman Catholic missionaries were the first to attempt to colonize the Colombian Amazon region in a first wave from 1850 to 1946. However, indigenous resistance prevented any permanent colonies until 1887 when a concordat between the Vatican and the Colombian government authorized permanent missions on the Amazon frontier. Missionaries constructed the first roads to the region from central Colombia. They founded towns such as Puerto Asís in 1912, to defend Colombian sovereignty near its southern border and sponsored white settlers in order to "civilize" the territory and provide the indigenous "savages" with a way of life to emulate. Two main expeditions brought colonizers to the Amazon from the Colombian center during this period. The first, in 1890, was intended to extract quinine and the second, from 1903 to 1930, was to gather rubber. The constructed horror of the jungle, of savagery and cannibalism, and its related imagery led the colonizers during the rubber boom of the early twentieth century to ascribe these characteristics to Putumayo and to create a space of death, terror, and cruelty. Extra-legal rights and rules allowing for violence were agreed upon in this context. Today's Putumayans refer to the period of the rubber boom when they attempt to explain the "barbarism" that some state representatives ascribe to the region, as discussed above.

In 1930, a border conflict between Colombia and Peru stimulated further colonization, as the Colombian government established an ongoing military presence to reinforce its sovereignty over the area. Military forces completed roads that had been begun by missionaries years earlier. These included roads from Pasto (in the highlands of Nariño) to Mocoa, Neiva (in the highlands of Huila) to Florencia, and La Tagua to Puerto Leguízamo (see map 3).

The second wave of colonization was a result of La Violencia. Partisan violence broke out as Liberals began to persecute Conservatives during the 1930–46 period of Liberal party hegemony. Conservative Mariano Ospina Pérez won the presidential election of 1946, and during the next four years Conservatives began to persecute Liberals. Social movements initiated during the Liberal regime were repressed and violence intensified. Between 1946 and 1958 political violence was rampant, mostly in Tolima, Huila, Valle del Cauca, Cundinamarca, Boyacá, Antioquia, Viejo Caldas, Santander, Norte de Santander, and the eastern plains (Llanos Orientales) of Arauca, Casanare, Meta, and Vichada (see map 4). The violence provoked a mass exodus from these regions and dramatically increased the population in the Amazon lowlands.

The third wave of colonization in Putumayo took place from 1963 to 1977. In 1963, the Texas Petroleum Company (Texaco) began to explore for oil in the municipalities of Orito, Acae, San Miguel, and Valle del Guamués. State development programs including a project for the colonization of Putumayo were begun in 1964. In 1965, approximately 200 kilometers of roads were built and people settled along them (Alomía et. al. 1997, 17). In the late 1960s, highly productive oil reserves were discovered. During a 3-year period, Texaco drilled fifteen oil wells and built a 310-kilometer pipeline to the town of Tumaco on the Pacific Coast. Petroleum-related activities created high expectations for employment, but only 1,000 local workers were hired (Corsetti, Tommasoli, and Viezzoli 1987, 145). Production was export-oriented. Colonization began in Valle del Guamués and continued in Puerto Asís. Colonos founded today's town centers of coca production in Putumayo, such as La Dorada, San Miguel, El Placer, El Tigre, and Siberia.

A fourth wave of migration took place between 1977 and 1987. Coca cultivation had begun and a coca boom quickly developed. This economic bonanza brought new colonos into the Amazon region and triggered a decline in non-coca subsistence agriculture by established colonos. From this point on, local economic activities were increasingly dominated by the cocaine-driven demand for coca.

Between 1987 and 1996, coca production increased and then stabilized. A fifth wave of migration from the departments of Huila, Cauca, Valle, Nariño, Caldas, and from Ecuador continued to enter the area until 1994. After that, smaller numbers of migrants continued to enter the department, attracted by opportunities for coca production and by increasing activity in the oil industry.

The data in tables 1 and 2, from a 1991 survey of the geographic origins of Putumayan campesinos, highlight two phenomena. First, the predominance of migrants from Nariño is striking. The Nariño migrants, who had been small-holders in the highlands and had lost their lands, sought to acquire small pieces of land in Putumayo to call their own. The Nariño traditions they brought with them shaped their perception of the state and, subsequently, the course of the political organizing movements. Second, while the greatest number of migrants entered the region during the coca boom (37.6 percent between 1978 and 1986), large numbers also arrived during the 1947–67 period of La Violencia and during the petroleum exploration that followed. Taken together, these two periods account for 42.2 percent of the sample.

Periods of Migration and Regional Origins of Colonos in the Baja Bota of Cauca

Like Putumayo, the Baja Bota of the department of Cauca was administered by Capuchin missionaries based in Sibundoy through the Apostolic Prefecture of Caquetá established in 1905. As in Putumayo, the missionaries began to develop a road system. The road from Belén de los Andaquíes in Caquetá to Puerto Limón in Putumayo is particularly relevant (see map 3). This road, completed in 1919, cut across the Baja Bota, effectively shortening the distance between Florencia, the capital of Caquetá, and Mocoa, the capital of Putumayo (see map 3). The settlement of Nápoles was established on this road in 1933 by seven families from Huila (R. Ramírez 1991, 35-36). Other families traveled from Huila on the Caquetá River and established themselves near the Tambor and Congor Rivers (see map 5). In time, the discovery of alluvial gold in the Puerto Limón region became the basis for an extractive economy. In 1940 colonos from Nariño, Upper Cauca and Putumayo settled on the Nabueno and Tambor Rivers in search of gold (see map 3). Another wave of colonization began in the early 1950s, motivated by La Violencia and other factors. Both earlier colonos and new arrivals began to move into the interior of the Bota. Others who had initially settled in Putumayo also began to move into the area. The settlements of La Vega, Piamonte, Miraflor, and Campoalegre were founded by migrants from Nariño, Huila, and other parts of Cauca. The vereda of Samaritana was founded in late 1958 by colonos from Putumayo and Nariño (R. Ramírez 1991, 44). The northern portion of the Baja Bota was also settled by arrivals from Nariño, Huila, and Putumayo (see map 5). Puerto Limón was the commercial hub of the area until Puerto Guzmán was founded in 1975 and took over that role.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Abbreviations xiii

Introduction 1

1. History of Colonization, Marginalization, and the State: Guerrillas, Drug Trafficking, and Paramilitarism in the Colombian Amazon 21

2. Coca and the War on Drugs in Putumayo: Illegality, Armed Conflict, and the Politics of Time and Space 54

3. Turning Civic Movements into a Social Movement: Antecedents of the Cocalero Social Movement 86

4. The Cocalero Social Movement: Stigmatization and the Politics of Recognition and Identity 110

5. Negotiations with the Central Government: Clashing Visions over the "Right to Have Rights" 134

6. Competing States or Competing Governments? An Analysis of Local State Formation in a Conflict-Ridden Zone 167

7. From Social to Political Leadership: Gaining Visibility as Civil Society in the Midst of Increased Armed Conflict 183

8. Plan Colombia and the Depoliticization of Citizenship in Putumayo 214

Epilogue 233

Appendixes 239

Notes 254

References 283

Index 297

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