María-Clara Torres


María-Clara Torres holds a PhD in history from Stony Brook University, New York. Her ethnographical and historical research on coca peasants in Colombia has been funded by the Social Science Research Council, the Inter-American Foundation, the Tinker Foundation, and CLACSO. She is the author of the chapter “The Making of a Coca Frontier” published in the book The Origins of Cocaine: Colonization and Failed Development Programs in the Amazon Andes (Routledge 2018). She is also the author of the book Coca y Estado en la frontera colombiana (Cinep 2011). Prior to her PhD, she worked for a decade in several coca-growing regions.


The Twilight and Revival of Coca: Northern Cauca, Colombia, 1950s-1980s

My article traces the distinct historical trajectory to coca-cocaine in Northern Cauca between the twilight of native coca consumption in the 1950s and the spread of illicit coca in the 1980s. I contend that these turbulent decades gave rise to strong indigenous resistance. Struggles for the protection of communal lands and the reassertion of ethnic identity clashed with official models of agrarian reform, government repression, and entrenched racism. From the early 1980s on, the already shrinking use of indigenous coca took on different uses as its relevance became increasingly linked to its capacity to produce cocaine and to provide cash for indigenous families. Yet, indigenous Nasa people contained the most disruptive effects of the drug boom. They held on to their communal lands and invested the illegal revenues to consolidate their autonomy, political organization, and collective entrepreneurial ventures. In sharp contrast to Colombia’s agrarian frontier where illicit coca bred intense violence and fragmented the social fabric, Northern Cauca exemplifies an attempt to bring into play a market-oriented local economy, community solidarity, and ethnic identity. In sum, my article challenges drug-war ideologies by showing that the cohesive Nasa community could self-regulate coca-cocaine production and use the proceeds to strengthen their larger ethno-development project. It also provides a grounded historical microcosm for Colombia’s regionally varied transformation into a major coca-cocaine country.

Affiliation: Stony Brook University