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.


Santos-Granero, Fernando, and Frederica Barclay. Ordenes y desórdenes en la Selva Central: historia y economía de un espacio regional. Instituto de Estudios Andinos, 1995.

Federica Barclay and Fernando Santos Granero treat the Selva Central provinces of Chanchamayo, Satipo and Oxapampa as constituting a “regional space” subject to the constant ordering and disordering of its ebb and flow from the influence of coastal and highland markets. Using cadastral data on tenurial regimes and land use, Barclay and Santos argued that production of export-oriented crops—namely coffee and fruits—operated as a model for increasing waves of migrants despite the fact it was often done on unsuitable land slated for other extractive pursuits like logging. For Barclay and Santos, deforestation in the Selva Central was the product of the region’s unruly status as hinterland, where extraction and demographic pressure met with ecologically sensitive lands with disastrous consequences. As but one example of the devastating effects of road colonization, Barclay and Santos analyzed SAN photographs from the Kivanaki region of the Perené Valley. They concluded that between the years 1977 and 1983—while La Marginal was in construction through the area—annual deforestation rates rose to more than twelve percent of the land surface. (229-247)

“The government convenes the greatest highway bidding in the country’s history.”[1] That announcement in Lima newspapers in March 1964 presented the Tarapoto-Río Nieva road to the public in a fashion typical of development boosterism—brash, bold, and only partially true. Tarapoto, nestled as it was in the remotest corner of the Huancabamba Depression, was only reachable by air on its western approach, and the new highway promised at last to connect coastal markets with the vast arable lands of the Huallaga Valley. The Huallaga, a diverse and dynamic area of the Western Amazon, was the site of rich, transnational imaginings for a host of actors ranging from national planners and global construction giants, to early climate scientists, campesinos and cocaine cartels. The highway was the lynchpin in President Fernando Belaúnde Terry’s pet project, the Carretera Marginal de la Selva,[2] which enlisted Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia in a quixotic enterprise aimed at colonizing the eastern Andean flank through one vast road network. Billed as a response to worries of demographic explosion and concentrated land ownership, politicians and international boosters resorted to racial and gender imaginaries to tout La Marginal as a crucial motor of economic growth and regional interdependence that hinged specifically on exploitation of the subtropical dry forests that dotted valleys like the Huallaga. La Marginal represented the reigning development doctrine’s imposition on the Huallaga landscape and a critical component of its construction was a scientific appropriation of the region’s socio-ecological realities. One phenomenon that fed this boom in Huallaga development was the early introduction and utilization of aviation as a means of transport and study.    

Veber, Hanne, ed. Historias para nuestro futuro: yotantsi ashi otsipaniki : narraciones autobiográficas de líderes Asháninkas y Ashéninkas. Copenhague: Grupo Internacional de Trabajo sobre Asuntos Indígenas, 2009.

Veber has put together a fascinating collection of oral histories that cover the lives and struggles of seven Asháninka organizers from the Selva Central. Inspired by Wolf’s dictum, this volume seeks to enrich the growing body of literature about Selva Central history by introducing indigenous personal histories in juxtaposition against the documentary evidence marshaled by the usual suspects in asháninka historiography: Barclay, Santos Granero, Fernández, Hvalkof, Varese, etc.

The seven informants whose accounts comprise this volume were or are all leaders of regional indigenous organizations. Miguel Camaiteri, from Oventeni in the Gran Pajonal, served as secretary of defense for his community in their struggle to gain recognition as a Comunidad Nativa. He later worked with the Central de Comunidades Nativas de la Selva Central and became a crucial agent on the defense of bilingual rights and language education in the Gran Pajonal. He was also one of the leaders responsible for organizing the rondas campesinas that fought Sendero Luminoso and the MRTA through the late 1980s and early 1990s. (10) When Miguel was elected regidor of the town of Atalaya, his brother, Pascual, a leader in his own right, took over the chairmanship of the Organización de los Ashéninkas del Gran Pajonal (OAGP).(12) As the regional president of CECONCEC in Chanchamayo and Perené, Miqueas Mishari was a crucial ally of the Camaiteris and was himself responsible for expanding the organization through the Selva Central. (12) Bernardo Silva Loayza, another activist working in Atalaya, served as a militant in (OIRA) and now works as president of the Empresa Comunal Indígena de Atalaya La Minga”, while Vicente Ñaco, Adolfo Gutiérrez and Agusto Capurro were all members of other regional organizations.

Cant, Anna. “‘Land for Those Who Work It’: A Visual Analysis of Agrarian Reform Posters in Velasco’s Peru.” Journal of Latin American Studies 44, no. 01 (2012): 1–37.

Anna Cant’s treatment of propaganda posters put out in support of the 1969 agrarian reform emphasizes the ideological function of graphics while at the same time situating those graphics on a trajectory of dependency theory inspired radicalization of the Revolutionary Government’s platform and program. Generally speaking, and rooting her analysis in the critiques posed by Mayer, Seligmann and Caballero, Cant sees the Revolutionary Government’s program as contradictory, a fact especially evident in the effort to instill the values of capital-intensive production in the minds and administration of workers collectives, or in the delicate position of retaining peasant support for what was a centrally administered program. For Cant, the poster is the ideal medium for teasing out such contradictions precisely because of “its ability to suggest several things at once”. (3) However, though she adds a new and important source to the large body of primary material involving the Velasco years, I don’t know that her central contention (i.e. that posters reflected major tensions in Peruvian politics and society) says much more than someone like Mayer (Cuentos feos de la reforma agraria) or Mallon (“Chronicle of a Path Foretold”) already has. After all, the ambivalent position of a government speaking in defense of the peasantry and trying to mobilize grassroots momentum in opposition to oligarchy, while still vying for centralized, top-down administrative control, seems to me to be well established at this point. That is to say that the superficial interpretations of the Velasco regime as a crazed dictatorship, such as those advanced by Chirinos and Chirinos (1977), have been largely reduced to what they are: one-dimensional, as Cant points out. (11-12)

Stokes, Charles

Stokes, Charles. "The Economic Impact of the Carretera Marginal de la Selva." Traffic Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4 (April 1966): pp. 203-226.

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Horna, Hernan

Horna, Hernan “South America’s Marginal Highway.” Journal of Developing Areas, Vol. 10 No. 4 (1976): pp. 409-424.

This piece comes across as an apologist ode to Belaúnde, peppered with statistics—the same ones Denevan uses, drawn from Stokes—and resting on a toothpick foundation forged from press accounts—Peruvian Times, Time, The New York Times and Semana en el Perú. There are, however, some redeeming qualities. For instance, Horna, while absolving Belaúnde of any guilt in his administration’s 1968 lackluster performance, focuses not just on the APRA-UNO opposition, but also in the American backlash to Belaúnde’s modest protectionism. Also, Horna gives a cursory account of the ways in which the Velasco administration carried the Marginal mantle into the context of the 1970s Amazonian oil boom. Interestingly, here Horna seems to continue embracing the view that road colonization will assuage the social strife caused by demographic pressure placed on land, while at the same time recognizing that roads were mostly built because of their value on the international stage: securing boundaries and resources, integrating markets (Andean Pact 1971, LAFTA), etc. This unique local-transnational symbiosis seems to result in part from the exorbitant costs of jungle road construction—$200,000 / mile in 1967 (416)—and the dependence that generates on international lenders.

Two other valuable aspects of this piece are the brief mention of Colombian, Ecuadorian and Bolivian participation in the continental dimensions of La Marginal’s construction. Also, this article is littered with anecdotal delicacies: like Belaúnde’s 1963 birthday gift of 25,000 tools (415); The pomp and circumstance where the Bolivian and Peruvian sections of the road were joined (414); Velasco’s effort to connect La Marginal to the Trans-Amazonian (418); and the quixotic hope of continental completion by 1995 (420).

Davis, Mike

Davis, Mike. Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. London: Verso, 2007.

Buda’s Wagon is a good read. It’s clearly oriented toward a more popular readership and thus is lacking the detail and evidence one might hope for, but the approach is exciting. Davis follows the history of the car bomb, marking significant developments—from the early “wagon bombing” of Wall street in 1920, to the Stern Gang’s deployment of the car bomb as a go-to weapon of choice against the British, to the introduction of ammonium nitrate-fuel oil bombs in Madison, 1970, to the siege of cities like Beirut, Lima and Belfast—in the car bomb's trajectory as part of the “poor man’s air force.” This book is chronological, spanning the entire twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and global in scale. What ties the narrative together is the constant development of evermore-destructive innovations in the car bomb’s implementation.

Marisol de la Cadena

Marisol de la Cadena. Indigenous Mestizos: The Politics of Race and Culture in Cuzco, Peru, 1919-1991. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Marisol de la Cadena’s Indigenous Mestizos tracks the roots and practices of what she calls “de-indianization,” or the process by which the racism that differentiates between categories of “Indian” and “mestizo” is reproduced and contested by working-class Cuzco residents. Balancing intellectual history and ethnography, the book charts elite ideas of race throughout the twentieth century and then examines the ambivalent reprocessing of those ideas by indigenous organizations, other intellectuals, as well as in daily practice in markets, and public and religious rituals.

She argues that Cuzco elites first developed a discourse of indigenismo as a way of distinguishing themselves from the modernist discourses of mestizaje that were associated with Lima. Meanwhile indigenous groups like the Comité Pro-Derecho Indígena Tawuantinsuyu perpetuated a vision of Indian-ness steeped in modern rhetoric of progress through education. By the 1930s and 1940s indigenista elites found competition in the form of “neo-indianist” ideas that, rather than exalting an idealized Inca past, promoted a discourse of mestizaje. Finally there were the Marxists, who, in the form of the Federación de Trabajadores del Cuzco in the 1950s and in the form of the government by the time Velasco famously turned Indians into peasants, represented the closest allies of indigenous cuzqueños. In the waning days of indigenismo, after the defeat of the Tawantinsuyu’s racialized pro-indigenous project, the alignment of indigenous issues with unions meant a confluence of race and class. While de la Cadena argues biology had never served the basis for twentieth-century racial categories, the general trajectory that she describes is one in which Indian-ness goes from being defined by culture, to being defined by class.

Orlove, Benjamin

Orlove, Benjamin S. “Down to Earth: Race and Substance in the Andes.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 17, no. 2 (1998): 207-222.
I wrote far too much on the last Orlove piece I posted on, so I’ll try and keep this one succinct. This piece deals with the intersections of people’s relation to the earth and racialized identities. Specifically it looks at the way everyday objects of two categories—earthen and earth-touching—participate in the way mestizo (read urban) and Indian (read rural) identities are construed.

Regarding Earthen objects, Orlove looks at adobe bricks, dirt roads and clay pots. As case studies he addresses: one community member’s attempt not to pisar tierra by purchasing his share of bricks to contribute to a community school; the butting territorialities of government ministries and villagers as played out on roads connecting the highway and the shore of Lake Titicaca; and “earthy taste” of food prepared in clay pots.

Shoes and floors are the two earth-touching types of objects that interest Orlove. Kinds, uses, and the shininess of shoes supposedly differentiate race, while it is the kind and cleaning of floors that marks one mestizo or Indian.

Orlove, Benjamin

Orlove, Benjamin S. “Putting Race in Its Place: Order in Colonial and Postcolonial Peruvian Geography.” Social Research 60, no. 2 (Summer93 1993): 301-336.

Orlove discusses the shift in notions of ordered space that occurred between the colonial and republican periods in Peru. Dividing his study temporally between the production of colonial and republican geographies, he looks at settlements, mountains and Indians as objects of geographic study and asks how their ordering was conditioned by disciplinary, administrative and hegemonic impulses.  

To form what he calls the colonial geography produced between 1574 and 1790, Orlove looks at the relaciones geográficas, the descripciones and the itinerarios produced by colonial officials. He highlights the prominence of the Greek variables of hot/cold and wet/dry as they were used to designate parts of the viceroyalty and shows how this facilitated a correlation between geography and medicine. (305) Through this correlation we see that space was marked more by climate than topography—although it was a factor—and that climate was read as determining health (think “Buenos Aires”). 

Chambers, Sarah C

Chambers, Sarah C.. From Subjects to Citizens: Honor, Gender, and Politics in Arequipa, Peru, 1780-1854. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Chambers uses a study of honor in political culture to deconstruct the process by which Arequipa acquired the myth of the White City, the idea that it has always been a bastion of liberal democratic ideals and ethnic homogeneity. Instead, She argues that what seemed the idea that Arequipa has been a constant source of unified opposition to Lima, was in fact the result of a continual hegemonic process, which to be fully understood requires looking at the role of plebeians, or artisans, traders and tavern workers. She takes her cue from Mallon and gives us a story of politics from below, although this one deals with the urban popular classes of a Spanish American provincial city.

Drawing mostly on court documents, Chambers shows how plebeian actors vigorously contested notions of honor, and ultimately fueled the process by which honor changed from a colonial code rooted in status to a republican signifier of virtue.

Mallon, Florencia

Mallon, Florencia E. Peasant and Nation the Making of Postcolonial Mexico and Peru. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

In Peasant and Nation, Mallon’s treatment of the central highlands takes a turn toward what she deems political history from below. By examining the way in which ethnicity- and gender-based hierarchies influenced the way rural communities generated nationalist discourses (she calls this communal hegemony), Mallon foregrounds the agency of rural actors in the process by which a state becomes hegemonic. This time comparing the case of Junin with cases from Puebla and Morelos, Mexico, and Cajamarca, Peru, she concludes that the Peruvian state would not become hegemonic until the Velasco regime based on the way hegemonic national discourses played out at the local, regional and national level. In the case of the central highlands of Junin, the separatist tendencies of the Comas Federation and the inherent rejection of Lima articulated at the regional level made the achievement of regional consent for state policy impossible until well into the middle of the twentieth century, even despite the flourishing communal political culture that arose in the fight against Chile. What I want to highlight about this case is that in her treatment of this three-tiered conflation of hegemonic processes, Mallon is still reliant on the articulation approach.

For text online click HERE (login to UBC Library required)

Mallon, Florencia

Mallon, Florencia E.. The Defense of Community in Peru's Central Highland: Peasant Struggle and Capitalist Transition, 1860-1940. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1983.

In The Defense of Community in Peru’s Central Highlands Mallon concentrates on the transition of modes of production in the Yanamarca and Mantaro valleys over the long nineteenth century. She challenges the notion that the highlands saw a uniform shift to capitalism under the modernization efforts of Nicolás de Piérola Villena in the lead up to and following the War of the Pacific. Indeed, by examining the interwoven nature of the region’s three major economic sectors—mining, agriculture and commerce—and demonstrating the interdependence of those sectors and the different factors constituting local household economies, she shows that the penetration of commercial capital into the region began with land speculation and cultivation was late to have an effect on mining operations.

Her argument treats flexibility and assimilation as defense. That is, she suggests that communities were able to maintain their social structures due to the flexibility of the peasant household economy and its ability to absorb the penetration of capitalist modes of production without substantial social alterations. In effect she describes the contentious and uneven process by which commercial capital became hegemonic in the Central Highlands, examining its impact on three distinct yet interrelated economic sectors.

Thurner, Mark.

Thurner, Mark. From Two Republics to One Divided: Contradictions of Postcolonial Nationmaking in Andean Peru. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

From Two Republics to One Divided marshals subaltern theory to address the rocky relationship between the Peruvian state and peasantry during the long nineteenth century. By foregrounding the agency of highland alcaldes and varayoc (a power holding subaltern class, much like the K’iché elite that Grandin looks at), Thurner positions his narrative in between those who saw no forms of peasant nationalism emerge surrounding the War of the Pacific (Spalding, Bonilla) or saw indigenous insurgency as representative of little more than ethnic tribalism (Bonilla, on p. 97) on the one hand, and those who argue peasant communities were a crucial locus of national mobilization (Manrique and Mallon) on the other.

Ostensibly the story of the post-War of the Pacific Huaraz uprising lead by Pedro Pablo Atusparia (an alcalde originario), I would argue this book is more broadly a story of taxation, the contradictory institution by which the state-peasantry relationship was primarily mediated. Thurner spans the period from the Tupac Amaru II uprising to indigenismo, and looks at the way the residual colonial tribute system clashed and converged with postcolonial Liberal reforms in a way that positioned local alcaldes as the linchpin of republican order (127).