Developing Cocaine: Environmental Epistemologies of Peru’s Huallaga Valley and the Cocaine Crisis 1963-1985

Courtesy of the Archivo General de la NaciónCourtesy of the Archivo General de la Nación

Abstract: This paper interrogates the function of violence as a catalyst in the construction, proliferation, and transfer of developmentalist environmental imaginaries between state and non-state actors in Peru’s Huallaga Valley during the latter half of the twentieth century. Specifically, I ask how the 1960s project of road colonization helped to codify a set of masculinist and capitalist spatializations (Ojeda Ojeda 2011, Sundberg 2003, Merchant 1989) that were repeated, mimicked and reformulated through coerced confessions in cases of criminal drug trafficking through the 1970s and 1980s.

Work on the spatial dynamics of state formation pits dominant state fixations (Craib 2004) against localized discourses of resistance. By blending work that examines nature through a modernity / coloniality and decolonial thinking (MCD) lens (Blaser 2010, Escobar 2008) with Michael Taussig’s  (1986) concept of the space of death, I examine the land narratives generated through legal encounters. I contend that, in the court, subaltern actors hardly resisted the Peruvian state’s discourse of jungle colonialism. Instead, they often lent exceptional detail and nuance to the state’s broad understanding of the Huallaga Valley as a developable space. Torture and other forms of coercion figured significantly in such encounters and were a catalyst for the invention of the Huallaga’s cocaine imaginary.

This paper’s contribution is two-fold. First, it introduces new archival sources that significantly complicate and sometimes contradict the burgeoning historiography of Huallaga cocaine. Second, it situates the growth of Peru’s illicit cocaine industry along a broader trajectory of state-orchestrated experiments in jungle colonization.


Today's Boiling Peru

In a letter to the famed ethno-historian John Murra, José María Arguedas penned an emblematic and now unforgettable image of the Peruvian reality he observed. Rife with social inequality, demographic explosion and political turmoil, the 1960s Peru that Arguedas lamented was “Today’s boiling Peru”.[1] In the years between then-president, Fernando Belaúnde Terry’s first presidential bid and his electoral win (1956-1963), 413 different peasant movements surfaced in the sierra, more than half of which identified land redistribution as their principal objective.[2] At the same time the population climbed from 6.7 million in 1941 to more than 10 million in 1961, while the number of Peruvians self-identifying as migrants more than doubled, from 10.9 percent in 1940 to 23 percent in 1961.[3] Arguedas’ imagery captured it all exquisitely: the surges of serrano migrants concentrating on urban coastal centers like Lima, Chimbote and Trujillo were growing like blistering air pockets, inching toward an inevitable explosion. For Arguedas this marked an erasure of millennial highland cultural practices. Yet for Belaúnde, steeped in the values of modernization theory, the assimilation of highlanders was critical to forge Peru into a productive, modern nation. The pillars of his tripartite political platform—credit reform, high-density urban housing and colonization of the Amazon—were all geared toward accelerating and accommodating the processes of mass migration and population growth that the country was experiencing.[4] Sitting at the helm of the new Political Action party (Acción Popular, AP), a party comprised of a burgeoning limeño professional class that grew out of the urban population boom, Belaúnde made integration the watchword of his politics. And like the modernizing Civilistas of sixty years earlier, he turned the national gaze toward integration of the Amazon by use of gendered imagery and the promise of socio-economic progress. While Arguedas’ image of a country on slow boil confronted the national polity with the realities of social inequality, land concentration and ethnocide, Belaúnde’s triumphalist rhetoric exalted builders, planners and designers as national heroes ready to conquer nature while drawing people’s attention away from the coastal barriadas—or slums—to the mystified lands east of the Andes.

 Here I want to juxtapose and discuss two historical vignettes from this shift in the national imaginary to include the Amazon. First, I gloss the story of how Belaúndean jungle colonization was implemented by looking specifically at the Tingo María-Tocache-Campanilla Colonization in the Huallaga Valley. Launched in 1966, the Tingo María-Tocache was a key part of Belaúnde’s greater project of road colonization typified by construction of the Carretera Marginal de la Selva. Dubbed La Marginal, this vast road network was supposed to spur colonization along the eastern Andean flank and integrate the economies of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. The area where the bulk of construction took place in the 1960s however was largely limited to the Huallaga. The coupling of road construction and agricultural settlement—called road colonization—was something planners hoped would assuage socio-demographic pressures on the coast without upsetting the landed gentry, but it had a radical impact on the entirety of Amazonian social ecology. First and foremost, I am concerned with the question of how the narratives of road colonization can be seen as having been inscribed directly into the land, generating new anthropomorphic landscapes that reflect the values of those people involved in the colonial project. Next, I look at a story related to the Huallaga’s most famous commodity: cocaine. Specifically, I look at cases of narcotics trafficking and discuss one dense, convoluted and contradictory case in detail. If road colonization engendered its own origin myths and value sets, and then fashioned new eco-assemblages based on them, then I ask how and to what extent the imagined geography of cocaine reflected them.  Ultimately, by juxtaposing these two discrete processes, I hope to contribute to the effort to decolonize development.

In the Peruvian Amazon, modernity was performed through recourse to an ontological separation of nature and culture embedded in the dual currents of modernist design and Cold War modernization theory. This involved what Walter Mignolo calls the subalternization of knowledge, by which local “knowledges and languages [are] placed in a subaltern position in the exercise of the coloniality of power”.[5] Whereas recent treatments of the colonial encounter have been framed in terms of Mary Louise Pratt’s idea of the contact zone,[6] a site of creolization and/or hybridity, Mignolo conceptualizes that encounter as a meeting of opposed local knowledges, where one is given priority over the other as part of the ordering of power relationships inherent in the modern colonial world system.[7] This approach takes seriously the caution advanced by geographers that there is nothing inherent in scale by treating the local not as a space of indigeneity or peasant resistance, but as a meeting point instead.[8] It also dovetails with efforts to expand the concept of local knowledge beyond its still somewhat restricted use within anthropology.[9] For my purposes, local knowledge has to do with people’s encounters with and understandings of environment and the local spaces where I find that encounter are the institutions that exported development to the Huallaga.[10]      

As much as the planner’s office and the Presidential Palace, the courtroom and the jailhouse figured into the production of an imagined Huallaga. And the encounter one finds there recalls Michael Taussig’s idea of the space of death. Taussig describes the space of death as a broad, liminal space that can be seen as a threshold between oppositions: it is where hope fades to death, where victimiser needs victim, where myth is made into truth, and where an inability to comprehend becomes understanding. Ultimately, it is that space where the culture of the conqueror is bound to that of the conquered.[11] Yet, as the space of death is a space of cultural encounter, Taussig places urgency on creating a subversive cultural politics, which he sees as something achieved through a poetics of counterdiscourse. Here he draws from Michel Foucault's injunction to see “historically how effects of truth are produced within discourses which are in themselves neither true nor false” and subordinates it to Walter Benjamin's idea of the dialectical intertwinement of the mysterious and the mundane. Warning about the danger of aestheticizing horror in the search for a powerful and effective counterdiscourse, he emphasizes the need for a poetics that engages violence dialectically, without trivializing it. My hope in juxtaposing two seemingly distant epochs of Huallaga development is to both forge such a dialectic and honour Benjamin’s call to write in messianic time.

Following Mignolo, Arturo Escobar and Mario Blaser have maintained that colonial tropes that were used to subjugate colonized peoples remain enshrined in modern notions of development and restrict the exercise of rights and duties to the narrow parameters of market dogma. In what Blaser calls the rupturist story of globalization what is stressed is how that universalizing thrust of the metanarrative of modernity is contested in a search for “alternatives to modernity”[12] that recognize difference but without ordering it in a way that renders it subaltern. But instead of elevating silenced cosmovisions, here I explore the articulation of a reigning colonial cosmovision that conditioned the Age of Development in Peru. Development engendered its own historical subjectivities and temporal-spatial permutations, and it ordered them according to a specific logic. In short the conscripts of modernity engaged in Peru’s mid-century road colonization had their own histories to write, complete with origin myths (in this case predicated on emptiness), heroic triumphs (conquest of unruly nature) and future premonitions (social progress comes with patriarchal environmental transformation). While roadbuilding erased alternative histories, it was also its own form of what anthropologists call topographical writing.[13] Indeed, I argue that road colonization entailed the figurative and literal inscription of development’s environmental narratives into the landscape, resulting in radical socio-ecological transformations for the Huallaga Valley.       

The Written Huallaga

Envisioning development along the Upper Huallaga (especially at its northern extreme, around Tocache) was spatialized along two distinct causeways: the Huallaga proper and the picturesque Biabo River Valley, a small tributary to the east. In their preliminary survey of La Marginal, New York-based engineering giant Tippetts-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton conducted a brief assessment of each possible route for road colonization and advised building through the Biabo, based on lower cost and the fact that the best soils in the area were concentrated in small pockets at each end of this route. Despite most of the route consisting of heavily forested, thin soils on bedrock, they projected that La Marginal’s incursion through this portion of the Huallaga could accommodate some 60,000 colonists.[14] Despite the cheaper option of building through the Biabo, however, the more difficult route along the Huallaga drew more attention in part because that area had been the focus of prior studies.

 The Inter-American Service for Cooperation in Development (Servicio Cooperativo Inter-Americano de Fomento, SCIF) had already laid groundwork for the planned colonization of the Upper Huallaga in 1962. The SCIF’s study looked at nearly 290,000 hectares of wet tropical and very wet subtropical forests along the river between Tingo María and Tocache, and proposed bringing 97,097 of them into production through the importation of 11,260 families over twenty years. Spurring migration with the promise of generous credit and favourable interest rates, SCIF projected new colonists could exploit three general revenue streams. The study suggested almost two billion board feet of commercial lumber would be extracted while clearing acreage over the twenty-year course of the program. After timber extraction, SCIF advised dedicating cleared lands to a combination of commercial agriculture and cattle ranching, with just over thirty percent of lands given to the latter. The major cash crops recommended included rubber, industrial fibres, fruit trees, maize, rice and legumes. At 10,000 hectares, the greatest single cash crop recommended was banana, known for some time in the region and tied to the failure of earlier settlement when sigatoka and Panama disease tore through the area in the early 1950s. Notably, SCIF skewered another crop long tied to the region’s economic and political clout, coca, for the “harmful effects caused to those who consume it”.[15] Under Belaúnde, the National Office of Agrarian Reform (Oficina Nacional de Reforma Agraria, ONRA—pronounced “honra”) would undertake implementation of many SCIF recommendations and expand the colonization project’s reach north to Campanilla.   

It is important to consider how planned colonization contemplated the Huallaga as a microcosm of Rostovian take off, positing its amenable ecology as the precondition for socio-economic advance. The development guru, Walt Rostow, had published his The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, not two years earlier and was a key figure in the United States’ aid negotiations with countries such as Peru. The text, which is generally touted as defining the canon of development-age literature, glossed global economic history in five main chapters, or stages, of progression in which human societies pass from traditional societies, through development to reach the ultimate stage, coined by Rostow as the age of high mass-consumption. Along this trajectory, societies were said to reach a point of so-called “take-off” characterized by “the achievement of rapid growth in a limited group of sectors, where modern industrial techniques are applied”. For Rostow, the preconditions for take-off were rooted in the example of Europe since the Middle Ages, where the emergence of modern science converged with colonialism and market expansion to introduce complexity and accelerate economies. This structuralist—and Eurocentric—rewriting of global history proffered a simple story of progress that SCIF and the ONRA (as well as the SCIF’s sister program, the Servicio Cooperativo Interamericano de Producción Agrícola, SCIPA, responsible for the first study to contemplate the Tingo María-Tocache area’s colonization potential) hoped to adapt to a place now generally conceived as being without history, thanks in large part to the enticing rhetoric of Belaúnde and his band of jungle boosters. To read the SCIF study’s conclusion—in which cash-crop-producing families were the impetus for expanding related sectors and triggering what was to be a more than ten-fold increase in the zone’s economic productivity over the course of the program—the Huallaga was a veritable blank slate for scripting economic take-off.[16] The decontextualizing nature of aerial surveys that laid the groundwork for all of the studies discussed here was a first step in such an erasure. Aerial survey proved an important tool in the planning process and much of the reconnaissance that fed feasibility studies was done from the air. Yet the perspective proffered by a camera in the air left much of the reality on the ground to the imagination. By mimicking copies of copies of copies, (longitudinal profiles, based on contour maps, based on aerial photographs) errors, miscalculations or omissions were amplified through the entire process of aerial survey, further distancing the representations from their respective reality. Of course, the planned colonization spurred by the SCIF’s study started by rendering the land a blank slate in more than just a cartographic way: through tenurial shifts and active forestry the colonization was also predicated on emptiness.

On May 2 1964, two weeks before the Congress passed his agrarian reform law, Fernando Belaúnde issued a supreme decree halting all title applications and land transfers in the area of the eventual Tingo María-Tocache-Campanilla Colonization. This move set the stage for a wave of expropriations that affected much of the roughly 10,000 hectares already settled. Through 1964 and 1965, the ONRA seized properties considered under-exploited and combined them with 120,000 hectares of forestlands to form the project area. By 1966, the ONRA, with a fifteen-million-dollar International Development Bank loan in its pocket, began parcelling new plots and relocating some 4,250 families to the area.[17] Because the reigning anxiety of this Malthusian moment rested on the land’s perceived productivity, the ONRA saw no trouble in shifting property rights to benefit those seen as properly embodying the modern land ethic by which progress came through environmental transformation. Misunderstanding the most common reasons for land disputes in the area, SCIF presented planned colonization as one solution to the problem of so-called “invasions”, or squatting.[18] Indeed, the primary objective of the Tingo María-Tocache-Campanilla Colonization was to incorporate land into regional markets both by legalizing title—thus presumably eliminating the confused conditions that encouraged squatters—and by making forests economically productive. Here, an important rhetorical shift changed the agents of colonization from individuals to families. While the first explorer to contemplate modern colonization in the valley, Cándido Bolívar, estimated the whole of the Huallaga could support a “population of between a million and a million and a half”[19] and TAMS projected 60,000 “persons” could successfully settle the Biabo, plans for the Tingo María-Tocache-Campanilla Colonization counted colonists as “families”.[20] The message embodied by such a colonial project, which expropriated “inadequately exploited” lands and gave them to properly constituted families, was clear: Peru’s future depended on instituting a patriarchal system of resident capitalist producers in the jungle. The ecological meaning of this “domestication” was also straightforward: untapped fertility necessitated clearing forests to impose agricultural and livestock monocultures. 

The long decade beginning with the Bolívar expedition (1949) marked the scientific invention of the Huallaga with an underlying current that stressed its untapped potential. Alternately referred to as “unoccupied”, “empty”, “virgin” or “untouched”, development science made the Huallaga a place in waiting. In the first years following World War II, when the global scientific community was still unsure of how to reconfigure itself in the face of great convulsion, the Huallaga was imagined as a space of unending exploration and discovery, an apt domain for introducing civilization, but ultimately too grand merely to colonize. As the concentrated objectives tied to the Cold War hegemony of U.S. technoscience took hold through the 1950’s, however, the ultimate ecological destiny reserved for the Huallaga was “domestication”: the wild jungle reordered in the service of a family unit forging its future by extracting soil nutrients in the form of cash crops. As the goals of science changed so too did the general colonial discourse on the Amazon. And though the Huallaga was partitioned by recourse to the nuances of the time’s reigning social and ecological methodologies, its discursive production as a colonial periphery rested on broad tropes of emptiness, sexual conquest and extraction that characterized development’s envisioning of the Amazon writ large.

Developing Cocaine

The tale of disputed land in the colonial Huallaga cannot be told without acknowledgement of the most radical socio-economic transformation to unfold there since en masse settlement took off in the 1940s. The conversion of the Upper Huallaga into the global epicentre of illicit cocaine production and trafficking remains one of those incalculably illegible phenomena that permeated every sphere of life in the Huallaga by the late 1970s, and it has to be understood when attempting to understand the role played by courts, peasants, criminals and planners in fabricating the valley’s environmental imaginary.[21] I choose the word “fabricate” with caution and intent. I don’t mean to flippantly imply that Huallaga development rested on lies and inventions—though in some cases (like those of Morrison Knudsen and Brown & Root building the highway connecting the Huallaga with the coast through the Mayo River Valley) it certainly did. Instead I want to suggest that development fabricated a new socio-ecological reality much in the same way that a blacksmith forges a fine tool—by folding layer upon layer of dense and seemingly impenetrable raw fragments into something useful. Each of development’s raw fragments engendered its own reality and development agencies, early climate scientists, builders, planners, peasants and other actors implicated in Huallaga development all painted multifaceted landscapes that took on their own bio-geomorphic shape. In the Age of Development these were used to fabricate a patchwork of new developable spaces. In the case of Peru’s ceja de selva, modern exploration, photographic rituals, schematic sciences, political machinations and criminal proceedings were the ingots of history that development welded into a mutant assemblage where, by the early 1980s, men with zoomorphic handles denoting lunacy (like Mosca Loca) bastardized the lofty objectives of a bygone era. Of the myriad socio-ecological matrices grown out of Huallaga development was the uneasy connection between the Belaúndean colonial project and expansion of the region’s most lucrative monoculture. In its language, spirit and practice—though completely unwittingly and by no means uniquely—road colonization developed cocaine. 

Though court records only tell a fraction of the tale, the number of cocaine-related criminal proceedings indicates cocaine’s spread through the valley over the course of the 1970s. At the decade’s launch, hardly any cases of cocaine trafficking entered the courts. By 1986, however, cocaine was wrecking socio-ecological havoc on the Huallaga. In addition to autochthonous cartels aligned with Shining Path militants who inflicted a culture of terror on the valley, Colombia’s infamous Medellín Cartel exercised transient power throughout. The environmental consequences were dire, too. More than 120,000 hectares of cleared forest went to coca production and it was estimated that annual discharge from clandestine labs amounted to some 57 million litres of kerosene, 32 million litres of sulphuric acid, 16 metric tons of unslaked lime, 3,200 metric tons of carbides, 16,000 metric tons of toilet tissue, 6,400 litres of acetone and almost as much toluene, all spilling unchecked into the Huallaga’s hydrological web.[22]

The first time that cocaine entered the court was in 1973, when two small traffickers from Monzón, roughly forty kilometers up the tributary of the same name from Tingo María, were caught selling six kilos of basic cocaine paste (pasta básica de cocaína, or PBC)—the product resulting from the first of three phases of converting coca leaves to cocaine. [23] Monzón was growing a reputation for exporting crude PBC to refiners on the coast or other traffickers moving it to the burgeoning processing labs that littered pre-Pinochet Chile.[24] The men had been processing coca into PBC in small quantities of around one kilo out of a fundo outside Monzón for nearly six months. Their operation consisted of a rudimentary chemical process that used sulphuric acid and kerosene to extract the cocaine alkaloid (one of twelve present in the coca plant, Erythroxylum coca) from coca leaves utilizing clandestine plastic-laden “pozas”, or pits, hidden amongst typical subsistence and small commercial crops.[25] In the following years these pozas littered the valleys of the Huallaga and its tributaries as cocaine production seeped north from its traditional origins farther up river, marking not only its spatial spread over the next two decades but its increased sophistication.    

The early geography of cocaine paste mapped exceptionally well to the varicose expansion of the regional road network. The drug’s heartland adhered with astonishing precision to the confines of the Tingo María-Tocache-Campanilla Colonization, and tracked northward from the nearly exhausted traditional coca lands between Huánuco and Tingo María[26] to settle its capital on the quiet hamlet of Uchiza, perched some ten kilometers up the small Chontayacu River, tributary of the Huallaga near Tocache. This northern progression is clearly charted through court cases, as the earliest cases from 1973-1975 were all concentrated around Tingo María and its—especially southern—surroundings, often involving stops at the Las Palmas customs checkpoint outside the city.

The road network not only sketched the boundaries of the early geography of cocaine capitalism, it also facilitated growth of the illicit sector. Pozas were regularly discovered near road access, sometimes within meters of La Marginal.[27]And in some cases roadbuilding was the activity that brought future narcotraffickers together.[28] Knowledge and experience of the roads and their intra-regional connections was a common trait among those involved in the early years of illicit Huallaga cocaine. As a reflection of the trade’s reliance on regional infrastructure, all of the cases before 1976 (except the very first one mentioned above) involved distance colectivo drivers and most dealt with highway trafficking from Tingo María to the departmental capital, Huánuco. From there, product presumably continued to Lima along the Carretera Central. Small crews running PCB out to the coast on roads marked these early years. Julio Constantino Marín Reyes headed one of the bigger organizations that ran the up-river trade through the 1970s. Based near Chinchao, the Marín Reyes group relied exclusively on a fleet of borrowed trucks and vans to transport supplies and product.[29]

Nineteen seventy-six was a watershed in the history of Huallaga cocaine. It marked the first year that the courts registered activity farther down river in San Martín and that activity pointed to new trafficking routes. The year also seemed to mark a large jump in the quantity of cocaine in play and it opened a new chapter in Huallaga imagining. Until then, drug trafficking in San Martín was unheard of, at least in the courts. Early in the year the court saw its first trafficking cases when a string or busts cracked down on pot growers in the Mayo Valley. Three cases in March all dealt with small-scale growing and selling along the Morrison Kundsen-built stretch of La Marginal between Tarapoto and Moyobamba.[30] But it was in September when the PIP broke a case unlike any seen thus far.

The case against Carlos Isidro Gavira, César Augusto Durán Romero[31] and others exposed the extent of cocaine’s permeation into the Central Huallaga, and gave a glimpse into the methods deployed to move PCB from its source in Uchiza down river to Juanjuí, then along La Marginal to Tarapoto and finally on to Iquitos, from which point it would surely be destined for the trans-border port of Leticia. The case also offers insight into the myriad of interlocking networks implicated in trafficking even at this early date. For in addition to the family and friendship ties that bound those involved, the case suggested the complicity of regional transport companies and raised issues about the position of local and national law enforcement in the new political geography of cocaine. Yet to be sure, the way this case pointed to such truly tectonic shifts in the story of Huallaga cocaine was indirect. Indeed, if anything, the events surrounding the case point to an emerging Huallaga imaginary, one in which coca was the primary cash crop and illicit markets replaced those envisioned by a generation of planners.

On a personal note, this case is without doubt the most frustrating source that I have slogged through in all my study of Huallaga Valley development. Delving into it I found that my understanding of events waxed and waned in line with that of the presiding judge, Luis Calderón Bedoya, who early on wrote to the President of San Martín’s Superior Court that: “It seems to deal with a well-organized gang of drug traffickers, and that the Specialized Investigative Police [PIP] that have come from Lima has undertaken the preliminary investigation”.[32] Calderón’s communications with the court president read as confident and clear-cut; this case shouldn’t take long, since the PIP’s special narcotics branch was on it. And indeed from the police report things did seem obvious.  

The PIP’s report summarized a rash of unsettling activities that centered on the transport of some 134.75 kilos through the valley dating back to 1974. In compliance with orders from PIP headquarters in Lima aimed at “the total eradication of narcotics traffic in the country”, PIP agents arrested four local businessmen and issued a warrant for a trader in Iquitos.[33]

Understanding the context surrounding this mandate is crucial. Pressure from the United States to curb coca production had been mounting over recent years, including efforts to tie narcotics eradication to foreign aid; train Peruvian Civil Guard officers in enforcement; and shame Peru under an increasingly public and multilateral denunciation of its increasing cocaine exports. Such pressure could not have been lost on the higher echelons of the PIP and certainly filtered down to local offices. [34]    

 As the PIP investigated its biggest case to date, they also revealed the active participation of four Civil Guard officers involved in orchestrating drops, running the implicated transport company, and extorting their co-accused. However, the case was rife with inconsistencies that raise serious questions about even the most fundamental facts of who transported what and when. Preliminary hearings were at variance with interrogation transcripts in the police report and sometimes defendants contradicted themselves, even within the same sentence. Alarmingly, no drugs were actually confiscated, despite thorough searches of the detainees and their homes. Unlike in similar police reports that inventoried amounts of drugs seized, or incriminating substances (ranging from excessive stores of kerosene, sulphuric acid or sodium carbonate to cinder blocks or plastic lining used to make pozas), the only evidence confiscated in this case was a scale allegedly used to weigh one seven-kilogram shipment. Indeed, the bulk of the PIP’s case rested on the word of one man already in custody for a seemingly unrelated crime.

Judging from court records, one would assume Carlos Isidro Gavira was a cancer who affected anyone with the sour luck to slip into his orbit. When the PIP grabbed him in early September for robbery, he was wanted in Trujillo, Juanjuí and Tingo María for charges mostly tied to petty thefts. While in custody in Tarapoto, he revealed his participation in a much more serious drug trafficking ring and implicated a number of other acquaintances. The way his name was liberally peppered through the case documents it becomes immediately clear that—despite the innocence or guilt of his co-accused—he was the author of the actions on trial. And “author” is the appropriate word, for as you read through the case you can practically see him spinning yarn after contradictory yarn. For me, reading Isidro’s varied testimonies was like watching a trapped ant scurry from one doomed escape to the next. Simply by dint of his varied versions, it was clear Isidro was crafting a story more than relating remembered events. The story he crafted, however, was a valuable one. His was the only testimony that tied all the accused together into what was a wildly expansive web of misdeed that reached from Tocache to Iquitos, but rested on a few choice happenings in Tarapoto during July 1976.

According to the police report, Isidro was a go-between carrying pasta básica from Tocache to Juanjuí between 1974 and 1976. His connection in Tocache was Civil Guard Sub-Lieutenant Tomás Dante Bustamente Figueroa, for whom he allegedly moved a total of nearly ninety-five kilos in shipments of five to ten kilos at a time. The biggest shipment carried was thirty-two kilos squeezed into a briefcase. As happened in other cases, his job as a transient motorist lent itself to the task; he picked up work on the many ships plying the waters of the Central Huallaga and it paid well until he and Bustamante had a falling out. Isidro confessed that in late 1975 he stole seven kilos from Bustamante and fled to Tarapoto, where over the next six or seven months he crossed paths with each of his co-accused and entangled them in his surreal underworld drama. The problem with this version of events was that none of the evidence or testimonies corroborated Isidro’s story until he reached Tarapoto. The first to make his acquaintance there was the unlucky young César Durán, who in early 1976 was working as a colectivo driver along La Marginal. By chance one day, Durán picked up Isidro in Lamas and by the time their short trip to Tarapoto had concluded, the two were enmeshed in one of Isidro’s plots. In July, Isidro conspired with one of his connections in the Civil Guard to entrap a local businessman with the lure of a cocaine sale, and use the threat of arrest to extort money from him. Doctoring a bag of baking soda with kerosene and dirt to make it appear like PCB, Isidro and officer Eliodoro Isla Méndez caught two men with their scam, one of whom was brought to their attention by Durán, indeed it was the cousin of Durán’s wife.[35] When Isidro later robbed the transport company TransSelva, he doled out the cash amongst his acquaintances to garner favour, neglecting to mention it was stolen, and ingratiated himself to Durán with a gift of 50,000 soles to help with his business selling veterinary supplies.[36] But when the Investigative Police brought Isidro in on suspicion of robbery, they pressed him for other crimes in which he was involved and he detailed a gross embellishment of the extortion scheme that implicated himself, Durán, Isla and the men they scammed in much more than the supposed trafficking of fake cocaine. Instead, Isidro confessed that the scam involved real drugs, the same drugs he had stolen from Dante Bustamante in Juanjuí.[37] The declarations of this one confessed hoodlum made a big yet flimsy case for the PIP. It was the first of its kind in San Martín and the largest one the Huallaga Valley had seen. But it was beginning to split at the seams.

On November 8, about a week and a half after Judge Calderón wrote the Court President of his confidence in the case’s swift closure, the prosecuting attorney, Anselmo Morgan Zavaleta, issued a judgement in favour of one of the main defendant’s release: “… Isidro Gavira’s declaration raised doubts not just because he is a delinquent but because of its inconsistencies”, he wrote. Moreover, “until now there is only Isidro Gavira’s word about the actual existence of basic cocaine paste and even that has yet to be confiscated (which casts doubt on the implication of Civil Guard Officer Dante Bustamante’s role as principal trafficker)”.[38] The testimony of one man just couldn’t hold the weight of all his accusations, Morgan reasoned. This, and another creeping threat to his case’s integrity, were going to have to be taken seriously before the accused could be convicted.

Throughout the first weeks of October, César Durán’s lawyer, an irreverent and fastidious man whose tenacity on Durán’s behalf earned him a court sanction,[39] was diligently introducing evidence that pointed to physical abuse in custody. First he petitioned for a medical exam, which was granted on September 30, but the military doctor assigned to examine Durán’s injuries refused to look at his face. Then he dug up an exam from Durán’s first days in custody that proved he was in perfect health when detained. Finally, he managed not one, but two more medical exams be conducted by civilian doctors, which confirmed that around the time of his statement to the PIP (September 23) and his initial public hearing (September 29), Durán sustained injuries that left him with bruised ribs and other bruises on his torso, along with cuts, bruises and swelling on his face and feet.[40] Later, on November 9, a vague yet ominous passing reference to two other defendants mentioned they were hospitalized at the time.[41] That the PIP used torture to elicit confessions was then addressed openly when Durán petitioned for unconditional release on November 15, claiming that any of the statements he gave while held by the PIP were obtained through violence.[42] Such grunt work on the part of Durán’s lawyer, and Durán’s eventual accusation of harm, were crucial for the way they primed the judge and prosecutor to receive the otherwise unbelievable, nearly magical realist, account they were about to hear.

Tomás Dante Bustamante was finally brought before the court on November 19, when he promptly and categorically rejected all the claims against him. He explained that, while he knew Carlos Isidro and had occasionally paid him to transport cargo, he severed that relation once he learned of Isidro’s chequered legal past. He also added that during that time, Bustamante worked for the Juanjuí Civil Guard; he was not posted in Tocache like Isidro said. As Line Chief in Juanjuí, Bustamante did on occasion go to Tocache, but it was usually tied to his role in the Intelligence Service’s Operación Selva, a Civil Guard initiative to combat drug trafficking in which Bustamante personally apprehended a number of traffickers. Indeed, Bustamante even speculated that the false accusations he faced might have been drummed up as a kind of reprisal for the work he did bringing in narcotraffickers.[43] Three days later, Bustamante faced his accuser in court and Carlos Isidro Gavira retracted every one of his earlier incriminations. Pressed on why he crafted such a bizarrely daedal tale, Isidro relayed a saga more reminiscent of Miguel Ángel Asturias’ chillingly tragic novel, El señor presidente, than of a courtroom testimony. Isidro, interrupted only by tears, proceeded to detail a harrowing ordeal in which, over twenty-seven hellish days, PIP agents dragged him all over the Huallaga Valley to do their bidding. They took him to Pucallpa, Progreso and Tocache in search of pozas where they forced him to fabricate charges against Bustamante. He went on to explain how, returning to Tarapoto, he was moved between the Gran Hotel and PIP headquarters and made to sleep blindfolded and tied spread-eagle to the floor. Then, prior to his court appearance, five PIP agents drove him to Juan Guerra—site of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Experimental Station outside Tarapoto—and hung him from a tree with a wet rag tied at the elbows. In Juan Guerra Isidro was beaten with a stick and left hanging for hours.[44]

In early December, the Civil Guard shared their own investigation with the court and Judge Calderón saw new statements from each of the accused, this time revealing a much clearer picture of the events at hand. Isidro had come clean and in doing so he gave weight to the claims of torture and coercion that César Durán had already made. With the floodgates now open, nearly every one of the accused spoke of intimidation and torture in PIP custody. While Isidro was violently coached over weeks to forge an elaborate fable, the others were forced to sign statements that they weren’t permitted to read. Some were tortured, others threatened with torture.[45]

One of the accused admitted the consternation brought on by the charges against him, for he had never even met Isidro until the two crossed paths in police custody. The first time they shared a cell the accused man avoided Isidro the best he could, noting that Isidro entered in a silent stupor, clearly distressed. The next time they met, after Isidro had been held incommunicado for five days, the man sympathetically warmed to Isidro and offered him a cigarette. He then asked why Isidro would invent such lies about him and the other accused. In hushed tones and choking back tears, Isidro begged his forgiveness and promised that he would come clean once he got to see a judge, but that he couldn’t retract his accusations while in PIP custody.[46]

If the Civil Guard’s report is to be believed—and indeed all indications are that Judge Calderón and Prosecutor Morgan eventually subscribed to the Civil Guard’s version—there was a crime committed, but it was nothing like a regional trafficking ring responsible for moving more than one-hundred and thirty kilos through the Huallaga over two years. That story, and every part of it that involved Tomás Bustamante, his alleged accomplices, and any alleged cocaine-related crime in Tocache, Juanjuí or Iquitos, was the brainchild of PIP sub-comissioner Chávez Carhuamanca, whom Bustamante had detained for drunkenness and disorderly conduct when he shot up a Juanjuí bar in mid-1975.[47] And he had his instrument in the terribly cursed petty thief, Carlos Isidro. Most likely, the real crime was the extortion that Isidro and Civil Guard Officer Isla exacted against two unwitting Tarapoto businessmen with César Durán’s tacit help.

Given the whirlwind of competing underlying agendas and nefarious manipulations that produced the case against Carlos Isidro, César Durán and others, it hardly offers a direct portal to what was really happening in the Huallaga Valley of the mid-1970s. Instead, it underlines the precarious fidelity of any court documents, especially those from cases originating with a PIP investigation. Indeed, allegations of PIP torture and proof of PIP violence featured regularly in court proceedings and significantly compromised their reliability for historicity’s sake. Behind Carlos Isidro’s coerced inventions, what was supposed to be the biggest case of Huallaga smuggling ever seen boiled down to a deceiving concoction of baking soda, kerosene and dirt. Yet in the frustrating ambiguity of statements, testimonies and confrontations rest vestiges of what were often antagonistic positionalities rooted in everything from personal animosity to institutional competition for scant resources, bureaucratic mismanagement, and pressure from the capital and abroad. In this way, among others, cases of cocaine trafficking and land usurpation share a commonality: what they manifest is land narratives more than land deeds, and they expose the rootedness of land narratives in specific agendas. They conjured a Huallaga from the flotsam and jetsam of so many eroded development myths and they did so through recourse to the state’s vernacular. Though factually false, Isidro’s lies were but one of many examples in which fragments of a Huallaga reality could be recovered, though only as constituent parts of a new geo-ecological assemblage fashioned this time by the PIP, the civil guard, and—increasingly—the courts.

Imagined Geographies

To make my point it is best to recur to the historiography of an earlier regional resource boom. Aside from scattered nods to Belaúnde’s quixotic escapades, the last period in the annals of Western Amazonian history to attract the attention of global audiences was the rubber boom of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And though it has shed its early penchant for Articulation Theory, the historiography of the period—indeed its very definition as a period—rests in large part on economic readings and obsessions with global power dynamics. Yet, in addition to being a period of jaw-dropping price fluctuations and transitioning labour regimes, the age of rubber was also beset by uncanny colonial violence that was rooted in extremely localized contexts. And contrary to the predominant trend in Amazon rubber boom studies, Michael Taussig has contended that the atrocities associated with rubber extraction in the upper Amazon cannot be reduced to economics.[48] For Taussig, violence was more than the product of non- or pre-capitalist modes of production; it was a constituitive act that rested at the flimsy boundary between being a human and being a debt in the Putumayo Region of what is today Colombia. That the savagery was seized upon and fetishized through the muckraking prose of a Walter Hardenberg or a Benjamín Saldaña Rocca, Taussig reads as evidence of a collective imaginary that envisaged the jungle as a place of subhuman bondage. Meanwhile, Michael Stanfield stresses the problem of facticity raised by those same accounts. Indeed, for Stanfield the writings of Saldaña in particular stood out more for their second-person sourcing and Stanfield treats them a little more than proof of Saldaña’s anti-capitalist leanings: just blunt critiques that lack corroboration. Both scholars proffer ways of interpreting sources spawned in a surreally chaotic milieu, but while Stanfield is content to read over them, Taussig reads into them. Rather than cursorily discarding them as factical infidelities, he gets to their value as evidence by examining their poetics. They may not credibly relate actual atrocities, but they reproduced and now represent a culture of terror that reigned in the Putumayo at the turn of the twentieth century.

Factical infidelities are the troublesome pockmarks of history typical of what one finds in court documents involving torture and other forms of coercion used to elicit false or misleading testimony from a defendant like Carlos Isidro. His lies pose grave hang-ups to the historian’s pursuit of the truth, but they can nonetheless be mined as the rich troves of communal imagining that they were. Reading judicial archives alone, there was no cocaine in San Martín’s Huallaga provinces in 1976, just kerosene and baking soda. But there was a geographical imaginary of cocaine that identified the area around Tocache and Uchiza as the new heartland of illicit production. Officers Dante Bustamante and Eliodoro Isla both acknowledged having worked as part of Operación Selva and boasted catching hundreds of narcos around Tocache in just a few months. Bustamante put the number at two hundred, while Isla said they rounded up more than four hundred in the mere six months that he was assigned there. Once caught, he said, traffickers would tempt them with fat bill roles that courted corruption.[49] However, that burgeoning drug bonanza was emerging around Tocache was more than an invention of police tales; it was a broadly accepted mythology. Prosecutor Anselmo Morgan noted that merely working in Tocache meant you were well acquainted with PBC: “We have to note that Civil Guard Officer Isla acknowledges having worked in Tocache, which makes us suppose he knew the characteristics of pasta básica”.[50] And the cocaine imaginary influenced how Carlos Isidro invented a bond between himself and César Durán, as well. In the fiction he drafted for the PIP, it wasn’t but a few minutes in the fated car ride that brought them together before Durán was asking Isidro about whether he had cocaine and how much he could get his hands on. Under pressure to craft a believable story, Isidro said that it was the mere mention of being from Tocache that spurred Durán to inquire about cocaine.[51] While earlier court cases from the Huallaga provinces of Huánuco centered the emergence of the illicit trade on Tingo María and Monzón, Bustamante, Isla, Morgan and Isidro all tapped into a common knowledge bank that recognized Tocache-Uchiza as the new sourcing grounds for PCB. Tocache was imagined as a vast, green narcotics factory, and Carlos Isidro’s fabrications, real or not, evinced a new geographical imaginary of cocaine, one sketched through the diligent confabulations of road builders and colonization planners as much as Civil Guard officers and Investigative Police agents. For the tracking of cocaine down river mimicked the spread of colonization over the previous ten years.

Moreover, the extractive vision embodied in colonial planning was reflected not only in Isidro’s invented flow from Tocache downstream, but also in the actual scheming between him, Isla and the Tarapoto businessmen they ensnared. Whether fabricating a story to avoid more beatings, or fabricating a scheme to extort money, Isidro directed cocaine ever further down river—from Tocache through Juanjuí, Tarapoto and on to Iquitos—in a spatialization of the cocaine imaginary that could just as well have been charted by Brown & Root, TAMS of Fernando Belaúnde. And the economics of their scheming proved the conversion of Huallaga forestlands into export-oriented monocultures could be lucrative, at least for the middlemen. Factoring in inflation, the PCB that the appeared in Monzón in 1973 would have gone for 15,360 soles if sold in the same place in 1976.[52] Isidro and Isla wanted 40,000 soles per kilo downriver in Tarapoto and their buyer, Durán’s cousin, had a connection in Iquitos willing to pay 50,000 soles, plus 10,000 for transport. Thus pulling real cocaine through the valley could promise almost a quadrupling of value.

In the face of such alluring profit margins, it wasn’t long before San Martín’s criminal court saw more drug-related crime than Huánuco’s, and this time involving actual narcotics. By the end of the 1970s, an illicit economy characterized by small crews running small shipments along the branch roads and highways of the area had morphed into new beast. The generally agreed upon periodization of illicit cocaine states that during this period (1973 to 1990) an international division of labour reigned in which capitalist smallholders generated the PCB and an emerging class of Colombian kingpins—famous for a mythological Antioquian business acumen—collected this near primary commodity at its sources in the Upper Huallaga and the Bolivian Chapare and transported it to centralized jungle laboratories like the infamous Tranquilandia for it to be refined into the cocaine hydrochloride. It was supposed to be the Colombian cartels that infused the global cocaine trade with a blend of family-based, capitalist structure.[53] But the Huallaga also developed autochtonous cartels. One was run by the Tupiño García family in the Boquerón del Padre Abad, along the Tingo María-Pucallpa highway east of Aucayacu. In February 1978, PIP agents surprised the Tupiño Garcías at their fundo with seventy-one kilos of cocaine, a Helio Super Courier utility aircraft and three bulldozers they had commissioned in the construction of a clandestine runway. Three of the brothers were taken into custody while the eldest; René—who boasted a history of near convictions for other drug-related crimes—was killed in the raid.[54] Another cartel gained fame in 1980 when its frontman, Guillermo Soto Cárdenas Dávila, a.k.a. Mosca Loca, almost evaded justice. Hailing from the small hamlet of Bellavista, the same village that mobilized scores of pick- and shovel-wielding volunteers from the community development program Cooperación Popular to work on La Marginal in 1964, Mosca Loca, his kinsfolk and his hometown would come to be synonymous with Huallaga cocaine during the 1980s. While on trial, Mosca Loca enjoyed a favourable, though brow-raising, move to dismiss his case with five Supreme Court judges citing a lack of evidence. On pressure from the Public Ministry, however, they reversed their decision and hit him with a twenty-year sentence, condemning him to Lima’s notoriously over-crowded El Sexto prison. It was rumoured that Mosca Loca’s wealth and power were such that he approached President Belaúnde—starting a second presidential term twelve years after the coup that exiled him—with an offer to pay the national debt if he were allowed to conduct his business in peace.[55] While Mosca Loca was murdered in the infamous El Sexto riots of 1984, his Huallaga legacy endured in the operations of family members. Most notably, Fidel Tello Pérez and his nephew, Abraham Cárdenas Tello plagued the Huánuco and San Martín courts for more than a decade. Tello, who was arrested in Bellavista with 5.4 kilos of pasta básica in August of 1978, was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and granted parole in 1981. Then, in 1986, he was implicated—though not convicted—in a case against his nephew.[56]

As part of the ominously named Operation Condor III, the Civil Guard raided a rural fundo outside Uchiza in December 1985. Flown in by helicopter, they started at the site of a clandestine airfield, which they debilitated by blowing craters into the cleared ground. From there, the police report detailed how they proceeded along a narrow trail through steep terrain, passing various pozas and drying sites along the way. After more than a kilometer trek, they came upon a vast complex that included a 15-kilowatt diesel generator that powered a radio communications station and a PCB processing lab where the dried PCB was refined. Moving on toward a camp that enclosed an 18-bed dormitory and fully equipped kitchen, they were ambushed by automatic-pistol and rifle fire. In the resulting shoot-out, the Civil Guard detained two of the fleeing gunmen and shot Tello’s nephew, Abraham Cárdenas, in the mouth.

This encounter and the resulting court case marked a new norm for the Huallaga of the 1980s. First of all, the courts had caught on to the familial bonds that tended to organize trafficking crews and police and prosecutors began using kinship as an incriminating factor. In perhaps the most extreme perversion of the development drama’s myth of domestication, family—or at least kinship networks—formed one of the primary organizing principles of the Upper Huallaga cocaine trade.[57] This was masked behind the vernacular monikers so common to cocaine culture, in which handles like Mosca Loca, El Viejo, Mosquito, Pájaro Loco, etc. proffered restricted access to the familial component of cartel hierarchies. While observers like Paul Gootenberg have remarked on the importance of family structures in ordering the cocaine economy, its thorough analysis as a category for constituting the agency of criminal bands remains a project for future endeavours. For one, such a project would bind the illicit cocaine trade to the utopian projections that ordered the Belaúndean Amazon. This important aspect of illicit drug making might have been missed thus far because others rely on U.S. documentary troves and local newspaper accounts, which in turn parrot the police actions that routinely cast broad nets, sweeping up unrelated bystanders that—after having their arrest publicized in news reports—were quietly absolved of any wrongdoing as cases moved through the courts. But while newspaper accounts and State Department cables indicated the scope and reach of the growing cocaine industry, tracing judicial papers uncovers the culprits who remained after the PIP and Civil Guard sweeps were cleaned up. And family ties regularly bound those who remained. In the case against Abraham Cárdenas, the court used kinship to further trap him and to try and involve his uncle Fidel, who was released on parole. At his sentencing, the judge remarked that the facts, “duly accredited [Cárdenas’] responsibility, and even more so when we consider that the accused has family relations with declared and known narcotraffickers such as his uncle Fidel Tello Pérez … and that he is related to the sadly famous narcotrafficker, Guillermo Porto Cárdenas Dávila (Mosca Loca), as the accused himself has accepted”.[58] From the earliest Huallaga court record in 1973, kinship conditioned cocaine commerce, and now the institution recognized it as incriminating.

The case against Cárdenas also indicated the exponential growth of the industry.[59] The self-contained mega-processing complex where Cárdenas et al were encamped hardly resembled the artisanal pozas that dotted the road network in the 1970s. The fact that the Civil Guard confiscated hydrochloric acid and acetone indicated that the Huallaga was no longer merely a source of pedestrian PBC. This was a laboratory capable of refining higher-grade “washed” PBC and cocaine hydrochloride.[60] But beyond an enhanced processing capability, the encampment featured its own integrated transport network in the form of an airfield. While traffickers relied on the Roads Department in the 1970s, an economy of scale pushed narco-families away from roads and into remote forest locales. If investigations focused on automobiles, and colectivo drivers through the 1970s, then the clearing and maintenance of clandestine airfields, those storied and tell-tale pockmarks in the jungle that so flourished in the era of Colombian trafficking were the activities that investigators homed in on the early 1980s. The area where Abraham Cárdenas was apprehended in late 1985 had already represented a thorn in the side of authorities for more than a year. In mid 1984 there was a spate of tit-for-tat demolitions/reconstructions of airfields that pitted the Civil Guard’s Mobile Unit for Rural Patrol (UMAPOR), the PIP, the Air force and Sinchis against Colombian and Peruvian traffickers and the legions of peasants they conscripted to work on clearing and maintaining landing strips.[61] In one operation in May, authorities demobilized twenty-three airfields in the area of Uchiza alone. The blown landing strips were quickly rehabilitated, so authorities returned a few weeks later to blast them again: work done in vain as an air patrol at the end of June revealed that six of the airfields were already rebuilt. Indeed, the crescendo of blasting and rebuilding led authorities to devise increasingly daring and confrontational interventions, like the one that injured Cárdenas. This was epitomized in December 1987, when nineteen Civil Guard officers surprised a group of traffickers at an airfield near Bellavista. The nine men were loading a plane—of Colombian provenance and presumably destined to return—with cash and cocaine when the authorities sent them scattering under a hail of gunfire. (The police report even boasted they lobbed a grenade, “with the objective of frightening the individuals present”.) In the hours that followed, all but the unidentified man killed on the runway were apprehended one by one from their hastily chosen hideouts in the surrounding forest.[62]

By this time the Huallaga was in disarray. The dreams of inventing a modern agro-industrial river valley that began with the Bolívar expedition and were executed through the project of road colonization represented by La Marginal were a far cry from the valley’s coca-laden realities. The segment of La Marginal that connected Juanjuí and Tocache—the one sketched in blue pen over snapshots in the Juanjuí Roads Department offices—was completely derelict, as neglect slowly fed it back to the jungle. In a 1988 interview, the mayor of Juanjuí lamented that the town was growing quickly with migrants fleeing the Tocache-Uchiza region; it was a costly place, flooded with coca dollars; and yet it remained utterly isolated. The 160-km journey to Tocache on what was left of La Marginal could take upwards of eighteen hours and air travel was as frequent as it had been when Cándido Bolívar visited in 1948.


Thinking of anthropomorphic landscapes as products of inscription ultimately forces the question of land’s meaning. As the story of the Huallaga demonstrates, land’s individuation eventually hurt communities. As a host of transnational actors converted the valley’s land base into standardized eco-assemblages, they bypassed two fundamentals of ecology. The laws of ecology tell us that, in a context of finite resources, communities build resilience through diversity and interdependence. By fomenting a select few capitalist monocultures road colonization undermined the law of diversity and by relegating them to discrete parcels, planners defied the law of interdependence. The vast eco-assemblage brought into existence through road colonization was the product of power dynamics that favoured a cosmovision imbued with capitalism, patriarchy and colonial discourse’s penchant for emptiness. This was one specific meaning attributed to Amazonian nature that won out over alternative knowledges. Indeed, in the Huallaga development was articulated as a narrative of progress whereby the nuclear family was meant to bend an empty nature to its will for the purposes of extracting fertility in the form of cash crops. This narrative left an indelible mark on the valley’s future social ecology. 

In the process of adjudicating land under the Tingo María-Tocache-Campanilla Colonization Project competing power dynamics at play in people’s land use and the meanings they endowed it with were erased and replaced by a set of masculinist, capitalist values. In many ways colonization inscribed this value set into the land, remaking it as an anthropomorphic landscape in the process.

A decade later, torture and state violence figured in the creation of a new environmental vision for the Huallaga forged from cocaine capitalism and the colonial project’s discursive detritus. I am reluctant to draw too straight a line between, for instance, the blind spots in SCIF technoscience and the birth of the global illicit cocaine trade. But road colonization did foster the growth of cocaine capitalism in hard and soft ways. By the early 1970s, the road network was the primary means by which basic cocaine paste left the valley. And much of the logic of patriarchal capitalism that fuelled colonization—the fragmentation of a feminized nature, to be put to the service of monocultural, male-dominated smallholder economies—characterized the valley’s later illicit cocaine economy. Recent work in the history of development has uncovered similar continuities between river valley development and the emergence of illicit drug economies, but the subject demands further exploration.[63]


[1] “... del Perú hirviente de estos días”. The phrase appears in a letter written to John Murra focused on Arguedas’ observations of cultural assimilation and change in Chimbote, Feb. 1, 1967. Published in José María Arguedas, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, ed. Eve-Marie Fell, Edición Crítica (San José: Editorial Universidad de Costa Rica, 1996), 380.

[2] Pedro Gibaja, “Los movimientos campesinos en el Perú o la frustración de una revolución agraria (1945-1964)” (Tesis de Maestría en Sociología, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 1982); quoted in Alberto Flores Galindo, Buscando un inca: identidad y utopía en los Andes, vol. 3.1, Obras Completas (Lima: Sur, Casa de Estudios del Socialismo, 2008), 325.

[3] Oficina Nacional de Estadística y Censos, “La población del Perú” (Comité Internacional de las Investigaciones Nacionales en Demografía, 1974), 17, 109.

[4] Fernando Belaúnde Terry, “El mestizaje de la economia,” Journal of Inter-American Studies 5, no. 4 (1963): 545–49; Fernando Belaúnde Terry, Pensamiento político de Fernando Belaúnde Terry (El Populista, 1979).

[5] Walter Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1999), 306.

[6] Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992); Ricardo Donato Salvatore, Catherine LeGrand, and Gilbert Joseph, eds., Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.-Latin American Relations (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1998); For the idea of the contact zone used in Latin American environmental history see Stuart McCook, States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940, 1st ed (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).

[7] Walter Mignolo, “Coloniality of Power and Subalternity,” in The Latin American Subaltern Studies Reader, ed. Ileana Rodríguez (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 427.

[8] Christopher  J. Brown and Mark Purcell, “There’s Nothing Inherent about Scale: Political Ecology, the Local Trap, and the Politics of Development in the Brazilian Amazon,” Geoforum 36, no. 5 (2005): 607–24, doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2004.09.001.

[9] Starting with the place-centric interpretations of cultural ecology and expressed more broadly in the preoccupation with culture as process that characterized anthropology’s “decolonizing period” in the 1980s and 1990s, the local has more recently been tied to tradition, and especially indigeneity, in a way that preserves and foregrounds difference. Less essentializing of non-modern cultures than early cultural ecology, this trend is best exemplified in the search for “other knowledges and knowledges otherwise” undertaken as a central pursuit of the emerging interdisciplinary current called Modernity/Coloniality and Decolonial Thinking (MCD). For some examples of how cultural ecology tied place to tradition, see: Julian Haynes Steward, Handbook of South American Indians (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1963); Roy A Rappaport, Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984). This was complicated in works such as: Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983); James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988). For relevant examples from the MCD camp, see: Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs; Walter Mignolo, “Preamble: The Historical Foundation of Modernity/ Coloniality and the Emergence of Decolonial Thinking,” in A Companion to Latin American Literature and Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 12–32; Arturo Escobar, Territories of Difference Place, Movements, Life, Redes (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Arturo Escobar, Una minga para el postdesarrollo: lugar, medio ambiente y movimientos sociales en las transformaciones globales (Lima, Perú: Fondo Editorial de la Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, UNMSM, 2010); Mario Blaser, Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

[10] Tina Loo and Meg Stanley broaden the concept of local knowledge by exploring the kinds of knowledge developed by engineers and planners working on dam construction in the Canadian province of British Columbia. For them, the encounter these—mainly—men had with the rivers they worked to dam produced a unique, place-centred knowledge set. Tina Loo and Meg Stanley, “An Environmental History of Progress: Damming the Peace and Columbia Rivers,” The Canadian Historical Review 92, no. 3 (2011): 399–427; Stuart McCook offers an excellent example of the institution as site of encounter. McCook, States of Nature.

[11] Michael Taussig, “Culture of Terror--Space of Death. Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26, no. 3 (1984): 468–69.

[12] Blaser, Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond, 10–13; Escobar, Territories of Difference Place, Movements, Life, Redes, 196–97.

[13] See Fernando Santos-Granero, “Writing History into the Landscape: Yanesha Notions of Space and Territoriality,” in The Land Within: Indigenous Territory and the Perception of the Environment, ed. Alexandre Surrallés and Pedro García Hierro (Copenhagen: IWGIA, 2005), 170–98.

[14] Tippetts-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton, La carretera marginal de la selva: estudio preliminar (Lima: Comisión Conjunta de Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador y Perú, 1965), 202–4.

[15] SCIF suggested segregating cleared lands as follows: rice: 5,000 ha; beans: 5,000 ha; peanut: 1,000 ha; maize: 6,000 ha; tabacco: 1,000 ha; banana: 10,000 ha; other fruits: 6,000 ha; industrial fibres: 5,000 ha; rubber: 7,000 ha; cacao: 4,000 ha; coffee: 2,500 ha Servicio Cooperativo Interamericano de Fomento, Evaluación e integración del potencial económico y social de la zona “Tingo María-Tocache,” Río Huallaga. (Lima: Ministerio de Fomento y Obras Públicas, 1962), VII, 100-105; On the banana blights of the late 1940s and early 1950s, see Magdaleno C. Chira, Monografía de la Provincia de Leoncio Prado. (Lima: Compañía de Impresiones y Publicidad, 1959), 191, cited in Michael Nelson, The Development of Tropical Lands: Policy Issues in Latin America (New York: Routledge, 2013), 102; On the coca industry in the Department of Huánuco, see Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[16] Walt W. Rostow, “The Stages of Economic Growth,” The Economic History Review 12, no. 1 (1959): 4–7; Servicio Cooperativo Interamericano de Fomento, Evaluación e integración del potencial económico y social de la zona “Tingo María-Tocache,” Río Huallaga., 142a.

[17] Expropriations and the supreme decree of May, 1964 are listed in Francisco Ballón Aguirre, La Amazonía En La Norma Oficial Peruana, 1821-1990 (Lima  Perú: CIPA, 1991), 639, 697–98, 725–26, 730; Jorge Namuche Adrianzén, Historia de Tingo María (Lima, Perú: Alameda Perú, 1995), 102; Nelson, The Development of Tropical Lands, 102–5.

[18] SCIF perceived the problem of land invasions as one of economic speculation, though as I discuss in the next chapter, it was more tied to ideas about “proper” land use that they and their partner entities advocated. Servicio Cooperativo Interamericano de Fomento, Evaluación e integración del potencial económico y social de la zona “Tingo María-Tocache,” Río Huallaga., V.

[19] Cándido Bolívar, “Report on the Exploration of the River Huallaga Valley, Peru” (International Institute of the Hylean Amazon, January 14, 1949), 4,

[20] Both SCIPA and SCIF conceived of the familial unit as consisting of five people. SCIPA best articulated the planner’s predilection for families when identifying the Lamas Indians as well suited as colonists because of their “elevated concept of the familial nucleus”. Programa de Conservación de Suelos y Desarrollo de Tierras del SCIPA, “Evaluación de recursos de la selva: Departamento de San Martín” (Lima: Ministerio de Agricultura, 1960), 37–38, 42; Servicio Cooperativo Interamericano de Fomento, Evaluación e integración del potencial económico y social de la zona “Tingo María-Tocache,” Río Huallaga., IV; Using fieldwork from the Tingo-María-Campanilla Colonization, Carlos Aramburú demonstrated that, in contrast to urban migration that tended to begin with individuals seeking job opportunities, colonial migrations tended to involve entire families. Sixty-six percent of colonists surveyed in 1973 said they migrated with their whole family because this helped them meet the labour requirements of establishing a homestead. Carlos Aramburú, “Las migraciones a las zonas de colonización en la selva peruana: perspectivas y avances,” Debates en Sociología, no. 4 (1979): 86.

[21] Few historical analyses of Huallaga cocaine exist, the most comprehensive being Paul Gootenberg’s work, which reads the history of cocaine through the lens of global commodity chains. Though Gootenberg gives a nod to importance of cocaine’s culturally constructed nature, his is fundamentally a work of economic history. Indeed, with a few recent exceptions, most of the work on Huallaga cocaine done in other disciplines also concentrates on the economic aspects of the Huallaga cocaine trade, and none have explored the rich documentary trove of regional court cases in any detail. Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine; Paul Gootenberg, “Cocaine’s Long March North, 1900–2010,” Latin American Politics and Society 54, no. 1 (2012): 159–180, doi:10.1111/j.1548-2456.2012.00146.x; For more on the socio-economic aspects of Huallaga cocaine, see: Francisco E Thoumi, Illegal Drugs, Economy and Society in the Andes (Washington, D.C.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Patrick Clawson and Rensselaer W Lee, The Andean Cocaine Industry (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996); Felipe E Mac Gregor, Coca and Cocaine: An Andean Perspective (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993); Recent work in anthropology explores Huallaga cocaine through the prism of new social movements, but it concentrates on the period since coca growers organized against the eradication programs of the mid-1990s. For examples see: Mirella van Dun, “Exploring Narco-Sovereignty/Violence Analyzing Illegal Networks, Crime, Violence, and Legitimation in a Peruvian Cocaine Enclave (2003–2007),” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 43, no. 4 (August 2014): 395–418, doi:10.1177/0891241613520452; Mirella van Dun, “‘We Are Constructing’ Peace: Local Conflict Legacies and Postconflict Reconstruction in a Peruvian Cocaine Enclave, 2003–2007,” Peace & Change 39, no. 3 (July 2014): 313–38, doi:10.1111/pech.12076; Bartholomew Dean, “Cocaine Capitalisms & Social Trauma in Peruvian Amazonia,” Panoramas, 2013,

[22]Paul Gootenberg, “Peruvian Cocaine and the Boomerang of History,” NACLA Report on the Americas 47, no. 2 (2014): 48; Mac Gregor, Coca and Cocaine, 118.

[23] Atestado Policial dated May 2, 1973; Dictamen dated September 7, 1973; and Sentencia dated July 15, 1974 “Expedientes 930 y 932,” 1973, 1-3-122-206, Juzgado de Instrucción, Leoncio Prado, CSJH.

[24] In his canonical study of the global commodity chains that fuelled Upper Huallaga cocaine production and trafficking, Paul Gootenberg situates the September 11, 1973, coup that ousted Chilean President Allende as a watershed in cocaine history. Until that time, most illicit processing of PBC was done in Chile and the U.S.-friendly Pinochet crackdown on chemists and smugglers opened the way for the now-infamous Colombian cartels to take over. Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine, 297, 301–6; The prominence of Chile as a cocaine-export hub through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s is also discussed in Eduardo Sáenz Rovner, The Cuban Connection, trans. Russ Davidson (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 99–100; and Gootenberg, “Cocaine’s Long March North, 1900–2010,” 165.

[25] The organic source of cocaine, the coca plant, is recognized as one of the oldest cultivated plants in South America, dating its cultural and economic significance far passed Abert Neimann’s 1860 invention of cocaine hydrochloride and its subsequent creolization by Alfredo Bignon. The work done by Timothy Plowman in the 1970s and 1980s (the boom years of the cocaine trade) to underline this plant’s millennial past has become the stuff of legend thanks in no small part to Wade Davis’ memorializing. For a sample of Plowman’s work on Erythroxylaceae see Timothy Plowman, “Botanical Perspectives on Coca,” Journal of Psychedelic Drugs 11, no. 1–2 (1979): 103–17; For the impact of Plowman’s work, see Wade Davis, One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996); On Alfredo Bignon, see Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine.

[26] Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine, 294–95.

[27] “Expediente 114,” 1976, 153, Juzgado de Instrucción, Leoncio Prado, CSJH.

[28] “Expediente 76,” 1975, Juzgado de Instrucción, Leoncio Prado, CSJH.

[29] Sentencia dated September 15, 1977 “Expediente 501, cited in Expediente 114-1976,” 1973, 171–80, Juzgado de Instrucción, Leoncio Prado, CSJH.

[30] “Expediente 2,” 1976, Juzgado de Instrucción de Moyobamba, CSJSM; “Expediente 3,” 1976, Juzgado de Instrucción de Moyobamba, CSJSM; “Expediente 5,” 1976, Juzgado de Instrucción de Moyobamba, CSJSM.

[31] These are pseudonyms. Unless someone held an official position or has been named in published sources, I changed their name, opting either for initials or pseudonyms depending on which improves readability. 

[32] “Parece que se trata de una banda bien organizada de traficantes de drogas, i [sic] que la policía de investigaciones especializada que ha venido desde Lima ha hecho las primeras investigaciones”. Oficio dated October 27, 1979 “Expediente 119a,” 1976, 43, Juzgado de Instrucción de Tarapoto, CSJSM.

[33] “... la total erradicación del Tráfico Ilícito de Estupefacientes en el país”. Atestado dated September 28, 1976 “Expediente 119,” 1976, 2, Juzgado de Instrucción de Tarapoto, CSJSM.

[34] “White Paper on Drug Abuse,” Wikileaks Public Library of US Diplomacy (Canada Ottawa, January 29, 1976),; “UNFDAC Assistance to Bolivia and Peru,” December 24, 1975, 1975GENEVA09481_b,

[35] Informe No. 33-IGGC-DI dated December 13, 1976 “Expediente 119,” 688–94.

[36] Denuncia dated August 26, 1976, and Atestado dated September 20, 1976 “Expediente 119d,” 1976, 45–49, Juzgado de Instrucción de Tarapoto, CSJSM.

[37] Manifestación dated September 22, 1976 “Expediente 119,” 13.

[38] “… la declaración [de] Isidro Gavira se presta a dudas no solo por ser un delincuente sino por que sus declaraciones no son uniformes … . Hasta ahora solo existe el dicho del inclupado Isidro Gavira sovre (sic) la existencia real de la pasta básica de cocaína más no se ha llegado a incautar la misma (habiéndose llegado a hechar [sic] sombras contra el Alférez GC. Dante Bustamante al implicarlo como el principal traficante)”. Dictamen No. 301 dated November 8, 1976 “Expediente 119a,” 46.

[39] “Expediente 119h,” 1976, Juzgado de Instrucción de Tarapoto, CSJSM.

[40] Certificado médico dated September 24, 1976 and Certificado médico dated October 1, 1976 “Expediente 119d,” 51–52.

[41] Resolución dated November 9, 1976 “Expediente 119,” 335.

[42] Oficio dated November 15, 1976 “Expediente 119d,” 51.

[43] Instructiva dated November 19, 1976 “Expediente 119g,” 1976, 21–22, Juzgado de Instrucción de Tarapoto, CSJSM.

[44] Digilencia de confrontación dated November 22, 1976 ibid., 22; and Manifestación dated November 16, 1976 “Expediente 119,” 699.

[45] Informe No. 33-IGGC-DI dated December 13, 1976 “Expediente 119,” 688–94.

[46] Manifestación dated November 16, 1976 ibid., 710.

[47] Manifestación dated December 1, 1976 and Manifestación dated November 16, 1976 ibid., 696, 699.

[48] Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 27; For a sample of the literature on the rubber boom see: Seth Garfield, In Search of the Amazon: Brazil, the United States, and the Nature of a Region, American Encounters/Global Interactions (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013); Charles Zerner, ed., People, Plants, and Justice: The Politics of Nature Conservation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Michael Edward Stanfield, Red Rubber, Bleeding Trees: Violence, Slavery, and Empire in Northwest Amazonia, 1850-1933, 1st ed (Albuquerque, N.M: University of New Mexico Press, 1998); Warren Dean, Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study in Environmental History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Barbara Weinstein, The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850-1920 (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1983).

[49] Instructiva dated October 4, 1976 and Instructiva dated November 19, 1976 “Expediente 119g,” 12, 21.

[50] “Es necesario hacer notar que el G.C. Isla reconoce haber trabajado en Tocache, lo que hace suponer que conocía las características de la pasta”. Dictamen No. 303 dated November 8, 1976 “Expediente 119b,” 1976, 45, Juzgado de Instrucción de Tarapoto, CSJSM.

[51] Manifestación dated September 22, 1976 “Expediente 119,” 14; Similar beliefs about the Central Huallaga being a haven for cocaine producers can be found stated in other cases. For example, see the Sentencia dated June 9, 1980 “Expediente 156,” 1979, 595, Juzgado Mixto de Mariscal Caceres, CSJSM.

[52] Based on Scheetz’s calculation of 28 percent inflation between 1973 and 1976. In the 1973 case from Monzón, one kilo was going for 12,000 soles. Thomas Scheetz, Peru and the International Monetary Fund (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986), 172–73.

[53] Gootenberg, “Peruvian Cocaine and the Boomerang of History,” 48; Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine, 302; Mac Gregor, Coca and Cocaine, 113; Gootenberg remarks on the family-based nature of cartels in Gootenberg, “Cocaine’s Long March North, 1900–2010,” 165; Also see Bill Redeker, “The Cocaine Cartel,” News Documentary, ABC News Close-Up (ABC, August 20, 1983),

[54] Miguel Gutiérrez, “La Familia Que Nadie Quiere Recordar,” Revista Ideele: Revista Del Instituto de Defensa Legal, diciembre 2011,

[55] Alfonso W. Quiroz, Corrupt Circles: A History of Unbound Graft in Peru (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press with Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 338; Sin autor, “El cruel fin del abogado de los narcotraficantes más ranqueados del país,” El Comercio, June 14, 2009, sec. Lima, Gutiérrez, “La Familia Que Nadie Quiere Recordar”; Óscar Chumpitaz, “Sicario asesina a balazos a nieto de desaparecido narco ‘Mosca Loca,’” La República, December 2, 2010, sec. Lima, Sin autor, “Su abuelo ofreció pagar deuda externa,” El Diario OJO, December 2, 2010,

[56] “Expediente 36,” 1981, Juzgado de Instrucción, Huallaga-Saposoa, CSJSM.

[57] Major trafficking families of the 1970s and 1980s Huallaga included the Cárdenas-Tellos of Bellavista; the Tupiño García clan of Boquerón del Padre Abad; and the Cachique Riveras of the Palcazú (south of the Huallaga, but operating along La Marginal). Romina Mella, “El ‘Uchiza del siglo XXI,’” IDL Reporteros, de agosto 2012,; Gutiérrez, “La Familia Que Nadie Quiere Recordar”; Quiroz, Corrupt Circles, 415.

[58] “… está debidamente acreditada su responsabilidad, y más aún si tenemos en cuenta que dicho acusado tiene vinculación familiares con narcotraficantes declarados y conocidos como son su tío Fidel Tello Pérez … al igual que es pariente del tristemente famoso narcotraficante Guillermo Porto Cárdenas Dávila (Mosca Loca) tal como el propio acusado lo acepta”. Sentencia dated December 30, 1986. Cárdenas was also interrogated about these family ties in an earlier hearing: Audiencia dated December 17, 1986 “Expediente 151,” 1986, 242, 255, Juzgado de Instrucción, Leoncio Prado, CSJH.

[59] Recall that the 120,000 hectares of land dedicated to coca farming in 1986 equalled the entirety of what planners expected to open with the Tingo María-Tocache-Campanilla Colonization.

[60] The process of converting Erythroxylum coca leaves into commercial cocaine hydrochloride consists of three basic steps. First, the leaves are soaked in a tincture of kerosene and later mixed with sulphuric acid and calcium carbonate to produce basic cocaine paste (PBC), the primary Huallaga commodity. PCB is then “washed” in a second step using potassium permanganate, and more sulphuric acid and calcium carbonate. The product of this concoction is commonly called pasta básica lavada, or washed basic paste (PBL). In a final step, which requires the kind of lab discovered in the Cárdenas case, the PBL is diluted in acetone and steeped in hydrochloric acid. Court records betray a frequent slippage between PBC and PBL, which reinforces the notion that the Huallaga was the source of pasta básica alone. But the confiscation of acetone and hydrochloric acid, along with the discovery of electric drying facilities, are clear indications that the Huallaga was not the source of artisanal PBC alone. For details on this process see: Romina Mella, “El dilema de los insumos,” IDL Reporteros, February 15, 2012,; and Edmundo Morales, Cocaine: White Gold Rush in Peru (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989), 75–79.

[61] Morales, Cocaine, 122; Leonidas Canchanya Joaquín, “Mafia esclaviza a 1,500 niños,” La República, October 4, 1984, sec. Policial.

[62] “… intervinieron en forma decida, efectuando disparos con las armas que portaba el personal y haciendo explosionar una granada de guerra con la finalidad de amedrentar a los individuos presentes, haciendo lomismo [sic] el personal de apoyo del Ejército”. Resolución sin número dated January 6, 1988 “Expediente 2,” 1988, 3–4, Juzgado de Instrucción, Huallaga-Saposoa, CSJSM.

[63] See Nick Cullather’s work on Morrison Knudsen’s damming of Afghanistan’s Helmund River and the rise of heroin production. Nick Cullather, The Hungry World America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010).