Colombia is a regionally, environmentally and ethnically diverse country with a population of about 48 million people. It is ranked 79 out of 189 countries on the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s Human Development Index (HDI) and is classified by the World Bank as belonging to the ‘upper middle income’ group. However, Colombia is also one of the most unequal countries in the world. Ostentatious wealth in some of the country’s main cities contrasts sharply, for example, with the living conditions of many rural families who lack access to electricity, sanitation and running water.

Colombia has endured numerous periods of armed conflict. The most recent is often said to have begun in the 1960s, when various armed insurgent groups were formed. These include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL). Nevertheless, the origins of these groups can be traced back even further to an era of civil war during the 1940s and 1950 roughly (it is debated when exactly it started and ended) known as La Violencia and the state-led ‘anti-communist’ military offensive that ensued.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Colombian intermediaries started to build an illicit drug economy centred on cocaine exports. Around the same time, anti-subversive paramilitaries were proliferating across the country. Multiple factors led prominent narco-traffickers to join the war against the guerrillas, while many paramilitary groups, formed independently of the established ‘narcos’, also got involved in the drug trade.

Coca cultivation expanded across Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, especially (but not only) in southern ‘colonisation zones’, where people had settled after being pushed out of other areas by violence and/or land concentration. Coca cultivation offered settlers a source of income in areas where there was little infrastructure or state support for farmers, and transport costs to markets were prohibitively high.

At the same time, it also helped sustain the armed conflict in which civilians, especially in coca-growing regions, have been the primary victims. In addition to financing illegal armed groups, the coca economy provoked and provided a pretext for repressive militarised responses, including aerial fumigations, with devastating consequences for local inhabitants.

The 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC was the beginning of a new chapter in the country’s history. What this will entail remains uncertain. The picture is complex: hundreds of social leaders and community activists have been killed since the signing of the agreement; the illicit crop substitution programme is faltering, and the ELN, paramilitary successor groups and criminal gangs involved in the illicit drugs trade have imposed themselves in many territories vacated by the FARC.

Meanwhile, FARC dissidents (those not participating in the peace process) are undergoing a reorganisation. Whatever the uncertainties, the illicit drug economy and the policies aimed at addressing it, will be key in shaping this new phase.

Our Drugs & (dis)order team is working in various borderlands in Colombia, affected by the armed conflict and illicit drug economies. Nevertheless, for this year’s Voices from the borderlands 2020 publication, we focus on three municipalities: Puerto Asís, Santa Marta and Tumaco, where we concentrated our efforts during the first phases of our research.

Puerto Asís, Putumayo

Puerto Asís is a municipality in Colombia’s southern frontier department (akin to a province or state) of Putumayo. It borders with six of Putumayo’s 12 other municipalities, and with Ecuador in the south. The latter border is partially defined by the Putumayo River – a tributary of the Amazon and the fluvial highway of the region. This and other rivers are central to daily life in rural areas of Puerto Asís, which are comprised of thousands of family farms interspersed with tropical rainforest, many of them inaccessible by road.

Puerto Asís is home to an estimated 63,067 people, circa 56% of whom live in the municipal capital of the same name. Nearly 12% of the population self-identify as indigenous, and another 7% as Afro-Colombian, black or mulatto. There are at least six resguardos in the municipality, as well as a Peasant Reserve Zone. The former are indigenous territories, governed by indigenous cabildos under special jurisdiction, protected by collective and inalienable property titles. The latter are specially designated areas that include private land titles but are subject to specific rules and regulations, intended to promote and support the peasant economy.

The mestizo population of the lower Putumayo sub-region, in which Puerto Asís is situated, was only negligible until the mid-20th century. A number of factors stimulated accelerated settlement during this period. This included rural property concentration in nearby departments which forced many families to migrate in search of land. The displacement of masses of people during the aforementioned period of civil war known as La Violencia; and the wage-labour and commercial opportunities associated with region’s first oil boom were other factors.

The oil sector accounts for 63% of Putumayo’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Given that Puerto Asís is one of the main oil-producing municipalities in the department of Putumayo, oil is likely to account for a significant proportion of the municipal GDP also.

But the coca/cocaine industry is equally important. For example, some 4,506 families from the municipality signed up to participate in the National Illicit Crop Substitution Programme (PNIS), born of the recent peace accords. For decades, coca cultivation has offered peasant farmers a way into the market (in some areas, it is the only viable commercial crop).

It has generated comparatively well-paid rural employment and, as a result of the incomes it has created, stimulated demand for goods and services, thus bolstering local commerce. Nevertheless, these benefits have come at a huge cost.

The expansion of coca cultivations across lower Putumayo in the 1980s was associated with the first wave of narco-paramilitary violence in the region. The Medellín Cartel, under the leadership of Rodríguez Gacha, began to collaborate with state forces to combat insurgent groups and assassinate civilians accused of supporting them.

Civilian action and battles with the guerrillas eventually led to the expulsion of these early narco-paramilitary groups. This, combined with the demobilisation of the EPL in 1991, allowed the FARC to consolidate power in lower Putumayo, including over the coca economy. However, successor groups quickly emerged to take its place.

Military/paramilitary offensives in the late-1990s and early- to mid-2000s destabilised the FARC’s ‘hegemony’ in the region. The Putumayo South Block of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) officially demobilised in March 2006. The AUC was an umbrella organisation formed in 1997 that united disparate paramilitary groups.

Meanwhile, until the recent disarmament of the FARC-EP, state forces continued to battle with the FARC. The configuration of the armed conflict and coca economy in Puerto Asís has thus been changing since the 2016 peace accords (as has already been noted for the whole country); and the nature of this new scenario also remains unclear.

Tumaco, Nariño

Tumaco is located in the department of Nariño, to the southwest of Colombia. The municipality, and its capital of the same name, is home to Colombia’s second most important port on the Pacific coast. It borders with Ecuador to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west/northwest, and other municipalities of Nariño to the north and east.

As of 2019, an estimated 217,079 people resided in the municipality, just over half (est. 57%) in urban areas. The majority of Tumaco’s population is afro-descendent (80% of residents self-identify as black, mulatto or Afro-Colombian) and 55% of the municipal land area belongs to various ‘black community collective territories’.

These territories are governed by Community Councils (there are 16 in Tumaco), protected by special collective property titles, and subject to distinct rules and regulations under Colombian law. Another 4.6% of the population self-identify as indigenous and there are also 15 resguardos (defined above)in the municipality.

Jesuit missionaries established in the area now known as Tumaco in the early to mid-1600s, with the aim of evangelising and controlling the local indigenous population. During the colonial era, Tumaco’s coastline served as a key point of exit for the gold extracted from the mines of neighbouring Barbacoas, and a key point of arrival for many of the enslaved people brought from Africa to work these mines. The small colonial port town grew significantly between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, becoming one of the main cities on Colombia’s Pacific coast.

Migration to the area was driven by a number of factors. These included the abolition of slavery in 1851 (many freed families relocated to the coastal zone); the emergence of two key export-oriented economies in the mid- to late-1800s (these were namely latex rubber extraction, tapped from both the regions’ natural forests and emerging plantations, and the gathering of wild tagua nuts for the production of ‘vegetable ivory’ buttons and other products); the construction of a railway line connecting Tumaco to Pasto in the late 1920s; and finally, the arrival of numerous multinational timber export businesses and the associated logging boom between the 1940s and 1970s.

Diverse armed actors (ELN, FARC, groups linked to the Cali Cartel) had moved in and out of Tumaco since the 1970s and 1980s. But it was not until the late-1990s that the municipality became a focal point of armed conflict.

Around this time, the FARC established itself more permanently in the area, apparently with the intention of expanding the coca economy under its control. AUC paramilitary groups, specifically the newly created ‘Liberators of the South’ Front, also took a hold in the area at the end of the 1990s, with the aim of combatting guerrillas and their alleged supporters, as well as controlling transit zones and the transport rung of the cocaine trade, in particular.

In the years that followed, coca cultivation increased across the municipality. Military (counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics) operations in the early- and mid-2000s contributed to the expansion of coca cultivation (and FARC presence) in the region. This affected the nearby departments of Putumayo, Meta and Caquetá. Coca crops, cultivators/pickers, and associated armed activity are said to have been ‘displaced’ from other parts of the country to Tumaco and Nariño, more broadly.

By 2016, Tumaco had more hectares of coca than any other municipality in the country. Some 16,658 families from the municipality signed up to participate in the aforementioned PNIS in the context of the ongoing peace process. However, as in Puerto Asís, the future of Tumaco – particularly in terms of the coca economy and dynamics of armed conflict in the region – is still uncertain.

Santa Marta, Magdalena

The city of Santa Marta is located on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, in northern Colombia. It is the oldest city in the country (founded in 1525) and the capital of the department of Magdalena. The broader municipality, of which the city is a part, is defined by the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, a pyramidal mountain system. This covers most of the municipal territory and extends into the neighboring departments of La Guajira and Cesar.

As of 2019, the municipality of Santa Marta had an estimated 515,717 inhabitants, of whom 7.47% self-identify as Afro-colombian, black or mulatto, and 0.98% self-identify as indigenous. The vast majority of Santa Marta’s population is urban; only 3.2% reside in rural zones, but the latter still account for more than 90% of the municipal land area.

Santa Marta has important natural resources and a vast cultural, archaeological and historical heritage; one of the area’s tourist slogans boasts ‘the magic of having everything’. Indeed, tourism is central to the municipality’s economy, alongside commerce and other activities surrounding the city’s port and, to a lesser extent, fishing and agriculture. The municipality as a whole is wealthier and has a more robust economy than Puerto Asís and Tumaco; nevertheless, there is a large disparity between the urban and rural areas.

Our research mostly focuses on the rural areas of the Sierra Nevada, where multiple jurisdictions overlap. These include various municipalities of the three departments with territory in this mountain range, three regional environmental agencies, two natural parks, a forest reserve and nine indigenous resguardos (defined above).

A significant number of peasants settled in the Sierra Nevada at the end of the 19th century. This was in the context of a coffee boom centred in the region of Santa Marta and driven mostly by foreign businessmen who established large estates. In the mid-20th century, migration to the Sierra Nevada intensified. Many fled to the region to escape the aforementioned civil war (La Violencia) that devastated the Andean interior of the country. Further waves of migrants arrived following the opening in 1971 of the Troncal del Caribe – the most important road of the Caribbean region.

Around this time, in the mid-1970s, the Sierra became an epicentre for marijuana production. The marijuana boom or bonanza marimbera had significant impacts on the agrarian, economic and political structures in the region. The boom fizzled out in the following decade, amidst repressive state-led counter-narcotics campaigns and extremely aggressive aerial fumigation. Nonetheless, by then the northern and coastal slopes of the Sierra (where Santa Marta is located) had been consolidated both as a place of drug trafficking and coca production.

Although paramilitary groups and diverse guerrillas had been competing in the 1980s, in the 1990s, local paramilitary groups consolidated and expanded their territorial control. The armed conflict intensified in the early-2000s with the arrival of the aforementioned AUC – the national paramilitary federation. After defeating and absorbing the local paramilitaries, the AUC gained significant influence over political and economic activities (both legal and illegal) in the Sierra Nevada and surrounding areas.

When we asked interviewees about the impacts of the recent peace process, they consistently said that armed conflict ended in the region more than ten years ago. The paramilitaries that operated in Santa Marta, and the Sierra more broadly, demobilised alongside other AUC forces in 2006.

By this time, the government had begun implementing its Alternative Development (AD) policy in the area. This included the Familias Guardabosques or Forest Ranger Families Program, initiated in 2004, which reached circa 1,600 families in Santa Marta.

Henceforth, both coca cultivation and levels of violence in the region declined. However, different forms of organised violence – and in particular, paramilitary legacies – persist, and the region remains one of the country’s major drug trafficking routes.